Michael Harvey offers a good starting point for talking about marketable skills and business value in our profession. His latest article Timeless Skills for Technical Writers suggests that writing (or communicating) is our crucial skill. He starts with some good questions “What skills should technical communicators cultivate to ensure their market value? Is there a single set of skills that would weather whatever market and technological turbulence occurs?” But there is more to explore here and this is worth fleshing out a bit. So many people misunderstand what technical communication is, because they limit it to a subset of activities, and Michael Harvey’s article does not go far enough to clear this up. The truth is a bit deeper and more challenging and more fun. If you would like my advice, read on.
Everyone must write (or at least communicate)
The current business environment that expects all professionals at a given level to communicate should not be characterized as aiming for the lowest common denominator with the attitude that “Anyone can write.” Instead, business is aiming for the bottom line and a more accurate characterization would be that in the information age, “All must write.” It does not make sense for software companies or pharmaceutical manufacturers or any number of innovative start ups in the Research Triangle Park area to have only a limited number of staff who can communicate. Where we as full-time communicators can make a difference is by helping everyone in the organization communicate better. We can help with any number of these:
- helping them write more clearly
- directing them as to what document types can best contain the content
- showing how to maximize content flow with process issues (including process documentation)
- automating content development, presentation, delivery and maintenance
While I agree with Michael’s statement that “The ability to communicate clearly, correctly, conversationally, and concisely will never lose market value.”, I don’t think that thinking about a technical writer acting as an individual is the most helpful. That ability is valuable because everyone in the organization must be doing it effectively. And we must be doing it together. A better way to say this is that our skill set will not lose market value because “The job of a technical communicator (in partnership with all stakeholders in the conversation) is never done.”
Writing is not our only skill
Writing is not our only skill – it is only half of our job title and less than half of our skill set. Technical writing is not just writing. It is technical AND it is writing. We do not, like writers, have months to compose a manuscript. We do not have that kind of time to research a product or service and produce a user guide, or to implement a content management system, or to figure out social media for engaging with our customers. We do not have the luxury of sitting in our own room and writing, all alone and undisturbed. We must interact with all the stakeholders and make the subject matter expert’s “subject” real. We have milestones and deadlines. If we are ambitious, we find the bottlenecks and fix them; we write the topics that help the most; we talk to technical support to get the user’s perspective as well as talking to the subject matter expert. We develop style guidelines where they make sense to make everyone’s job easier. We do a range of tasks that help companies make money and engage customers. As Michael knows, many of us are not writing for the general public but a specific audience that requires content at a certain level of business context and technical knowledge. We work with a range of personnel and the task of communication is getting more social and more online.
Time(less) is money(less)
I disagree that our only timeless skill is writing. How we write and what we write will change over time. The business environment is changing and so should we. The only timeless skill in our profession is adapting or learning (and learning to change). There are no skills, like writing, that will keep you employed. Every company and every market has variations and you have to go with the flow. Within a company, I would recommend that you find out what that company prizes most highly and start writing about it. If it is product, then write about the product; if it is service to customer, write about how to improve that. When you write about stuff inside a company, you will find an audience, because people in a company need information, and if you are generating it, you are valuable.
In the larger marketplace, you can become more valuable by learning the tools and techniques and best practices that are used by most technical writers. In its day, Interleaf was great for book authoring and publishing. But times have changed and we must help with other aspects of content development, delivery, and maintenance. So what are the tools most often used in our industry?
- online help
- doc repository
- content management
- social media
- basic business communication tools (frequently MS Office tools)
Are you fluent in the best of those? I do not agree that writing alone is what will keep us employed. Technical writing means knowing the technology about which we are writing and knowing the technology used to develop that content. It is not one or the other. It is both. That is what defines us and what makes us valuable.
Michael’s advice about writing every day is a good start. But don’t stop with that. Try these:
- help someone find information every day
- write in as many places and media as possible – not everything belongs in a doc.
(If there is a wiki or intranet or internal blog, put it there. if a video would work better than a procedural doc, consider making a short video.)
- find a way to make it easier to find information
- teach someone how to help information flow
- learn some aspect of the technology every day
- learn the new rhetoric – keywords and online page ranking
- learn how to create filters – pare down content to the essential information and help others do the same
And I know Michael would agree with this piece of advice that applies when talking about how to be valuable and leverage your skill set as a technical writer: Find a mentor. This is a great way to find out if you are well rounded with a good portfolio and a proven skill set. A mentor can help you gauge how marketable your skill set is and where you can improve. Michael Harvey is one such mentor and I challenge him to write more about our profession. He knows I will be there to make sure his communication is concise and complete.