A new breed of technical communicator

If Part I of Rachel Spilka’s 2009 anthology Digital Literacy for Technical Communication was intended to frighten the reader of portents of being outsourced (and presumably destitute as a result), then Part II was meant to assuage some of those fears. In fact, my concerns about managers playing the “everyone can write” card was almost directly addressed by William Hart-Davidson in chapter 5, “Content Management”:

But managers do need to recognize the following: that writing needs to assume a high status in corporate work, and be viewed as a critical means to just about every organizational end. The lingering idea that writing is somehow a “basic skill” rather than an area of strategic activity for a whole enterprise sometimes causes managers to make poor choices…. Many see these as a chance to automate or, worse, eliminate the work that writing specialists do. I hope this chapter helps to dispel that myth and prevent such decisions. (pp. 141-2)

In other words the “writer” should be so much more than a writer. Hart-Davidson’s chapter describes how a technical communicator can pivot into any number of essential job roles related to the managing of content.

Similarly, in chapter 4, “Information Design,” Michael J. Salvo and Paula Rosinski argue that to be truly digitally literate, technical communicators must understand information design and information architecture and by doing so, remain relevant and vital to their organizations. In fact, they state that technical communicators have always had a greater task than writing alone: “Effective technical communication has never been simply about writing clearly, but rather, about effectively organizing written communication for future reference and application” (p. 123).

Both chapters agree that although writing is still essential, the structure, high-level design, usability, findability, and reusability are all vital parts of content generation. Technical communicators are uniquely suited and situation ensuring all of these needs are met while anticipating potential future needs.

Salvo and Rosinski provide several reasons why technical communicators are ready to evolve from content production to information architecture and design. First, technical communicators have historically applied effective design principles regardless of context (p. 106). Second, technical communicators understand historical principles of user-centered, which can be built upon to innovate, yet still advocate for the user (p. 106).

Finally, technical communicators have ensured that good design remained a focus, even as the scope of documentation evolved from simple content writing to building full Web sites. One part of this was making sure that design was driven by context; that is, the designs developed were appropriate for the context in which they would be viewed (p. 108).

Taken together, these three points argue that technical communicators can either call upon past experience, genres, and conventions and apply them to new contexts or develop new practices and styles for these contexts, all while anticipating and meet the user’s needs. They are able to effectively straddle the documentation of the past and the information design and architecture of the future. However, Salvo and Rosinsky point out, this requires that technical communicators maintain an ever-increasing knowledge of publication contexts—in other words, they must be digitally literate and remain so.

Returning to chapter 5, Hart-Davidson tells us, “Today’s technical writer… is typically expected to… perform a host of other tasks that relate directly to the management of content and not necessarily to its creation” (p. 128). In addition to content-creation tasks like writing or designing templates, the technical communicator must also manage the documentation, how individual pieces of documentation are related, and the workflows and production models used to produce and publish content.

When considered together, Hart-Davidson and Salvo and Rosinsky’s advice offers two ways technical communicators can remain relevant in a world that—regrettably—no longer values traditional writing or editing skills. The first is to shift from creating content to developing new, modern ways of presenting information in never-before-seen contexts—or adapting preexisting genres and conventions to these contexts. Second is to manage the content in addition to creating it—and also manage all aspects of content creation.

Combined, these new modes of technical communication should lead to a new breed of technical communicators that become future proof by continually adding new value to their organizations.

Posted on October 2, 2016, in Literacy, Social Media, Workplace and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Accurate and frank response to these readings! What I think is most valuable is the point that even thought most job descriptions are evolving, there’s a benefit to knowing the past genres too. Your final point about less writing and more visual documentation is true, and I feel that can be frustrating. Sometimes words are necessary and this push to “only 4 steps” and “only 3 pieces in the box,” can leave users even more confused. Do you know what I mean?

  2. Thank you for distilling the chapters in such a succinct manner, It’s true that we have to do more as technical communicators in order to compete with an uninformed and uncaring workplace.

    Given that truth, we’ve also been giving a number of options: visual documentation and content management. It seems everything’s worked out for us who need to worry about being hired. How much of this is informed by our failure to properly justify ourselves?

    How much harder should we strive to push forth the critical need of technical communication without alienating those of us, like me, who didn’t come to the field with specific schooling or training?

  3. I appreciate your point about how new and emerging technical communications build on what has been done before. We’re not rejecting or breaking away from the past, but “standing on the shoulder of giants” and continuing to move forward based on what we’ve learned already.

    The same lessons about clear, accurate, and concise writing apply, just in a new context. As you note, tech comm needs to “straddle past and future” by combining high-quality content with new modes and designs of communication. If we’re in the beginning stages of it now, I’m excited to think where we will be in 20 years, after we’ve conquered the Internet and user-generated content and are moving into the next frontier.

  4. I enjoyed your optimistic view of the evolution of the field, and the emphasis on the importance of maintaining and implementing the “new” knowledge of technology and emerging ideas such as content management, etc. while also maintaining the “traditional” skills of content creation and design. I think that with the drastic changes in the field over the last few decades, it is still vital to remember our “roots” and to keep in mind the traditional writing and design aspects that have been important since before technology took over.

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