Where Did Technical Writing Go?

Jared Spool

May 16th, 2007

It is at the 54th Annual Conference of the Society of Technical Communicators, this week in Minneapolis, where I’m getting a glimpse into what I believe to be the demise of technical writing.

Technical writing was born of the post-war fifties, amidst a heavy push in technological industrialization. Factories were mass producing goods at a tremendous rate, for consumer, industrial, commercial, and military use. These goods were taking advantage of the new sciences, which brought forth new capabilities and features.

In these early days, human factors and ergonomics were not for consideration in the product development process. Making the product work at all was difficult enough. The product developers expected, having made the investment in the technology, the user would take time to learn to use the device properly, starting with reading the manual.

Thus, the profession of technical writing came into its own, as a way to shift the responsibility of usability from the development process to a post-development documentation effort. Any complexity was “written up in the manual” for all to read.

Translating complexity into a manual was a difficult skill, but one suited for english majors, playwrights, and poets. Since it was a difficult skill, salaries were higher than other jobs for liberal arts graduates, so it attracted some very talented folks.

In the sixties and seventies, we saw a huge explosion of technology, much of it exceptionally complex. This made documentation creation even more important. Tight development schedules and the need for clear documentation put demands on the profession in new ways. The skills for producing clear documentation quickly became highly valued.

In the eighties, we saw the advent of personal computers. Ironically, as the size of the technology decreased, the size of the documentation was growing. (The documentation Digital Equipment Corporation’s MicroVAX, for example, weighed three times the hardware it described and required an entire palette for delivery.)

The late eighties brought several trends to technical writing:

  • Minimalism suggested a task-oriented approach to describing only what the user absolutely needs, allowing the interface to be as self-descriptive as possible.
  • On-line help required braking narrative description into self-sustaining chunks, which the user could read in any order (or not at all).
  • User-centered design brought a new awareness to the design process, simplifying the knowledge necessary to operate the devices.

At this point, I began to see the writers really starting to struggle to find their place in the organization. As the development de-emphasized large manual, the talented writers quickly shifted their emphasis into usability and interaction design.

The web, which would seem a natural place for the writer with its heavy emphasis on good copy, wasn’t an easy transition for most technical writers. It quickly became a haven for copy writers, a different skill, focusing on more persuasive than descriptive writing.

Even worse news, today’s design environment emphasizes multi-discipline generalists, instead of especially-skilled specialists. Writing is no longer a separate function of the design team. Instead, it’s now integrated into the design process with other functions. Everyone on the skill needs good writing skills, along with the other skills necessary to produce quality designs.

The writers left in the field today are feeling pushed out of their jobs. Salaries have dropped considerably. Demand is significantly down. Young writers are not entering the profession at the rate they used to, leaving an aging technical communication community.

It’s no surprise that the two most popular topics at the annual conference are user experience and interaction design. Both are growing areas, while the art of writing manuals is going the way of blacksmiths and radio operators.

Technical writing won’t be gone until the last writer dies, but it will be curious to see what happens with the field as we move into a world where intuitive design implies a manual-less existence.

31 Responses to “Where Did Technical Writing Go?”

  1. Jim Grey Says:

    I was a technical writer for 13 years. I was no English major or poet — my degree was in mathematics and computer science from a respected engineering school. I caught the tail end of the days of voluminous “systems documentation,” and moved with the times into minimal writing and chunky Help systems. I live and work in a large Midwestern city that lacks the opportunities of the major software development and IT corridors. I, too, started to see tech writing opportunities start to dwindle, and writers start to move into so-called “user interface” groups. I even dabbled in that for a while. I eventually saw the handwriting on the wall and moved into QA, where I now happily lead an automated-testing team. I loved being a technical writer, but I needed to secure my future as best I could in the city where I have chosen to raise my children.

    While it’s true that writing duties have increasingly become distributed across the development organization, those who are doing the writing lack, in my experience, the writing skills to do the job. Everywhere I’ve worked, job descriptions call for “excellent written communication skills,” but that requirement is seldom met. At my last company, I was pressed into service to teach effective writing to our technical folks as a way of shoring up the skill shortfall.

    I claim that writing is a different skill from coding, testing, and designing. I spent years getting good at it! There is still a need for talented and experienced writers in our industry, although I have no great insight into how to place such writers in your average software development shop.

  2. Dave Sussman Says:

    Yes, technical writing does appear across the entire project/system and I agree with Jim, it’s sadly a lacking skill. Even in companies that have distinct writers (Microsoft have User Education people (aka writers) attached to each team), but sometimes even there the skill is lacking. The writing may be fine, but there is often a limited understanding of how users would want their documentation; plenty of code examples, suitable context and real-life examples, etc.

    The truth is that written communication is gradually being lost as a skill, being replaced but verbal and text speak. How many people write letters these days? Technical writing just isn’t fashionable. Companies would rather get their developers to write the documentation because they think it saves money, but it’s a false economy; support costs increase becuase no one can understand the documentation and developers are frustrated because they hate writing.

  3. Fred Sampson Says:

    I’m sure glad that I’m not a technical writer any more. Some days I’m an information developer, some days it’s information architect, some days it’s interaction designer, usability tester, UX evangelist, some days it’s instructor. This week I spent three days at an internal conference on agile development. Phew.

    This year I’m telling people that my goal is to get everything the user needs to know into the UI, and never write another help topic. To those who ask what I’ll do for work if I’m successful I say “Don’t worry, there’s plenty for me to do.” And those who grin and get it are my allies.

  4. Michael Hughes Says:

    What Jared and others describe as the “demise of technical writing,” I see as the maturing of technical communication. We had a chance to see at this year’s conference how diverse we have become. I think the new SOC definition that Susan Burton rolled out at the opening session said it all. Salaries for the old definition have certainly gone down and those jobs are diminishing. The new definition reflects who we have become. I’m with Fred Sampson all the way on his comment, except that I don’t think I left the reservation to get there. Technical writer is a quaint term that reflects where we got started, a lot like the term “engineer.” It shouldn’t be misinterpreted to constrain where we are or where we are going.

  5. Stacia Says:

    I was at the STC conference and was thrilled to see Jared there (thanks again for the drink!). I was surprised at how much UX-centered stuff was available at the conference. I assumed it would mostly be a bunch of stuffy old men and women talking about the value of bulleted lists. Fortunately, I was wrong.

    However, STC needs to embrace UX stuff even more and bring it front and center. Rebrand themselves, essetially.

    But like my fellow commenters, I too feel like we are witnessing “the maturing of technical communication” (nice one, Michael). The tech writers were the usability experts before user experience and information architects became all the rage a few years ago. We’ve been putting users first since the first time a tech writer was given the opportunity to design a manual themselves. And the more people listen to us, the more they will know that we’re part of UX and always will be.

  6. Margherite Says:

    I’ve worked as a technical writer for many years, although I quit STC some time back because the local chapter was turning into a meet market for “networking” job advancement. I bring a significant background in engineering disciplines and curriculum development (buth at undergraduate and graduate level) that I haven’t found useful in the current job market. As a matter of fact, I haven’t had a decent job in years, but the pay is still better than I can do elsewhere.

    Most companies I’ve worked for in the past 10 years want a rubber-stamp approval of what their engineers are writing … not a critical evaluation of content or usability, not an ordered sequence of procedural steps, not a validation of completeness and accuracy (much less precision!) of the information. I have been dismissed or had contracts unrenewed because of my professional abilities, not my lack of them.

    Two cultural circumstances seem to drive the gap between what companies say they want and the seemingly fraudulent hiring of yours truly to become a convenient scapegoat, should a negligence lawsuit materialize or an outsider chuckle over the ironies of 5 different names for the same valve.

    The first is the dumbing down of the industry to the level of management comprehension of the product. The focus is on sales, not repeat sales nor efficient use of the product. Everything is assumed to be a throwaway, never repaired or maintained, so why bother with anything but a bulleted list of features, prettily presented, of course.

    The second is more profound. The engineering disciplines themselves are being dumbed down to accommodate the H-1B visa or green card holder who (a) has an inflated degree from a diploma mill in India or Russia OR (b) has a valid degree but insufficient English to communicate what they’ve designed, implemented, or tested.

    Documentation becomes useless because there are so many lapses in communication. This phenomenon, of course, may be self-correcting as foreign engineers become more proficient in English. But by that time technical writers will have forgotten how to ask the right questions.

    A technical education was supposed to guarantee a lifetime of employment. This is no longer the case in the U.S., and the technical writer is an obvious bellweather.

  7. Dot Fowler Says:

    I have been a TW for 25+ years, primarily in software documentation. I have seen lots of new applications develop in technical writing. I see these as a good thing, not the demise of TWing. So far, I have not seen the decline of salaries, but have noticed a decline in the number of contractual writing jobs in the Birmingham area.

    Yes there is plenty of bad writing out there, but that is not new. And yes, I have seen software GUI and design improve significantly. So far, however, I haven’t worked for any companies whose software was so simple that no documentation was needed.

    I think there are still lots of opportunities for technical writers as long as the writers are flexible and willing to learn new skills as they grow in the field.

  8. Benjamin Ho Says:

    Doesn’t TW also cover intellectual property, patents, etc.? Aren’t there opportunities here as well especially with so many companies and products?

  9. STC Eastern Ontario Blog » Blog Archive » Demise of technical writing? Says:

    [...] On May 18, Jared Spool (of User Interface Engineering) wrote a post entitled “Where Did Technical Writing Go target=”_blank”” in his Brain Sparks blog. It’s an interesting look at past trends in technical writing and what the future holds for the profession. It’s most interesting for the counter points of view posted in the comments. [...]

  10. Mathew Cherian Says:

    I think Technical Writers and Technical Writing are here to stay. But the point is, the domain is manifesting itself into different areas like Software Usability and Interactive Design. Folks, its high time we sharpen our skills to equip to the challenges.

  11. Chris Collingridge Says:

    I think there are two parts to this discussion, only one of which is covered above: hardware and software.

    Hardware, particularly complex hardware (of which there is a lot), is likely to continue to need extensive “documentation”. This applies both to usage—where embedded interfaces have technically limited capabilities to be self-describing—and to troubleshooting and maintenance. In this arena, well-constructed, accurate writing is going to continue to be a key requirement, whatever the medium used to convey the information.

    In the world of software, the ideal is that no recourse to documentation is required. An exception to this is information for developers and integrators who need to learn how to interface with a system. Within the UI though, the focus of people with technical writing skills must evolve to support the user as they work. The keys here are in the areas of consistent labelling, high-value on-screen content at the point of need, meaningful messages, and so on.

    Technical writers who do not take their existing skills and apply them to user assistance—keeping the user productive, and enabling them to enhance their expertise—are likely to find themselves in a dwindling employment market.

  12. Meghashri Says:

    Where did TW go? Nowhere! It has only morphed into IA, UX, and a number of specialized / niche segments. At any rate, it has kept up with the fluidity of business changes.

    The skills have improved, the scope has increased, only the name “technical writing” no longer seems relevant.

  13. Jared Spool on tech writers’ demise « Don’t Call Me Tina Says:

    [...] Jared Spool on tech writers’ demise Jared Spool of User Interface Engineering was interviewed by Carolyn Snyder at one of the STC Summit conference sessions. Spool recently had some interesting things to say on his blog about technical writers including, “the art of writing manuals is going the way of blacksmiths and radio operators.” [...]

  14. one man writes » Archive » Skill Set Says:

    [...] Without meaning to I seem to have taken some inspiration from this post, whilst I’m not directly offering a counterpoint, it’s worth a read. [...]

  15. Not just a writer Says:

    If technical writers were only involved with software documentation and manual writing, then Jared Spool’s view of the technical writing profession might be more accurate.
    However, technical writers are employed in a variety of fields – not limited to software or hardware. And many of us have embraced the web and been successfully involved with design and content management. For 7 years, I worked as a technical writer without writing a single manual.
    There are dinosaurs in every profession. A successful technical writer must evolve just as older programmers have had to move to the pc and the web.
    As far as manuals go – there is still a demand for print documentation. As long as people use “Dummy” guides and other intructional books – they’re going to want to have some type of print documentation – no matter how intuitively a system may be designed. It’s a little along the lines of you can build it, they will buy it. but they’re still going to want to see it on paper. The demand has lessened, will continue to lessen, and in another generation – likely people will be happy to get all info online. And when that happens – technical writers will be able to help make that happen.

  16. Mike Murray Says:

    I would like to relay a real experience that is currently going on in my world of work that speaks directly to this discussion.

    For the past 28+ years, I have been employed by Lockheed Martin, the largest aerospace contractor in the world. For about 25 of those years, I have been a technical writer/communicator. Following are phases in the evolution of my job.

    1. As a technical writer, I began 25 years ago with (literally!) a pad of paper and a pencil. Some of the other 17 employees in my department (called Technical Information Services) had the responsibility of (1) keying what I wrote using the Script programming language, (2) creating [crude] graphics, (3) coordinating hard-copy output and tracking revisions, and (4) supervising the whole process.

    2. In 1985, the department was disbanded. Having earlier seen the writing on the wall, I was able to secure a technical writing position in the data center operations area. I recall that I had one of the first two Macintosh computers in the company. (Macs were introduced in 1984.) About 25% of the projects that were produced by my previous department of 17 were eliminated, while I was able to easily accommodate the remaining 75% in this brave new world of desktop publishing. Even as early as 1985, it was easy to see that I would have to be more than “just” a technical writer. I had to learn the new Microsoft Office suite, including page layout and design. I found myself doing less writing and more creative design work. More importantly, the new technology provided me the means of using my creativity to develop entirely new communications tools and processes. As I have been a member of STC since 1984, the Society publications told me that, indeed things were changing, exactly how they were changing, and that I was on the right track in evolving my job functions. I had the confidence to move on.

    3. In terms of “macro” trends, the next one that hit me the hardest became obvious just after the beginning of the new millenium. My business area (Enterprise Information Systems) supplies the information technology products, services, and support for all of Lockheed Martin Corporation. The Corporation’s business areas and business units are our customers. My department develops and delivers marketing collateral for all of these products and services. As the department grew and employees came on board with marketing experience, my manager ensured in advance that they would also have some solid writing experience. They do the majority of their own writing today. In addition, by the nature of their jobs, these marketers have direct contact with our customers. This contact means that they are free to use their creativity in best serving these customers, which has resulted in several new creative communications processes (e.g., seting up SharePoint sites that have the look and feel of a Web page). They have, in fact, BECOME technical communicators!

    So where does this leave me – the guy who was once THE department technical communicator? It simply means that I have to accept the situation and rethink and refocus my place in the department. In essence, I have to reinvent myself. While there is certainly some stress/emotional pain involved in having to rejustify my position, at the same time it is strangely exciting and invigorating. Just think of the possibilities! As cancer survivor and Olympic cyclist Lance Armstrong once said, “Cancer taught me a plan for more purposeful living, and that in turn taught me how to trainand win more purposefully. It taught me that pain has a reason, and that sometimes the experience of losing things – whether health or a car or an old sense of self – has it’s own value in the scheme of life. Pain and loss are great enhancers.”

    Technical writing has never gone away, it has simply become part of something bigger. It has evolved, and we must evolve with it.

    Mike Murray
    Director, 2006-2009

  17. Chris Borokowski Says:

    I agree that we must change with the times, not attempt to hold on to the past. The past was a time when information was scarce, and now the opposite is true, and the question is how to pare down that information to make it relevant. In the past, people knew more about general technologies and less about specifics. Now, there’s too much to know. So it’s a struggle, but one we’re looking forward to, I hope. My only suggestion is that we integrate UI design, user advocacy, visual design, and industrial design concepts into how we present information to users, and don’t limit ourselves to WTFM (writing the manual) alone.

  18. Technical Writer Says:

    I have to agree with Jared – it’s been an interesting metamorphosis from printed manuals to what is becoming an increasingly challenging profession. In the software industry it seems the engineers are more often being asked to carry the ball for documentation as employers try to get as much as they can for their payroll dollar. At the same time, it seems like technical writers are required to know more programming and markup languages. Technical writers also need to know more about Web technology as it takes on a growing role in how information is distributed and not just HTML, but XML, DITA, PHP, ASP and more. In all of this evolution, it seems that less emphasis is being placed on communication skills and more emphasis is placed on technical skills. Maybe eventually the engineers will morph into tech writers, but where will that leave the tech writers?

  19. Jessica, not Tina Says:

    It’s all one skill – understanding interaction and user need, and explaining the software when the UI can’t incorporate what’s needed.

    In my years of tech writing I’ve moved from writing manuals to accompany large task-oriented packages used by government agencies (and delivering the training classes that the manuals were supposed to substitute for) to writing API documentation.

    If there’s no need for technical writing, where are all those aftermarket computer books coming from? Who’s buying them? Are they just some form of techno-jewelry?

  20. Who else wants to be a technical communicator? « just write click Says:

    [...] 23rd, 2007 · No Comments I have been reading many essays and articles lately about “where has technical writing gone” (including a nice reaction countering the manual-less existence Jared Spool perceives) and [...]

  21. College Student Says:

    I’m a Junior in College and have already been offered a technical writing job. I don’t agree that technical writing is going away, just go on Craigslist and look up technical writing jobs in major cities. There are jobs out there, its just that the technical writing is changing as we are learning to use advanced software in the technical writing areas. I plan on pursuing this degree and will always have a job.

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  24. Michael Huggins Says:

    I am wondering if it is a trend for tech writers to be scattered to their separate corners in organizations–user documentation, web development, training, etc.–or if there are organizations in which, whether or not the tech writers are all in one department, the tech writing function is at least recognized and treated as a single entity and integrated into the company’s total communication activity. My impression is that writers are generally scattered and put to their very discrete, ad hoc tasks. Has anyone read an article or white paper in which the opposite was shown to be true, outside of the particular areas of enterprise-wide content management?

  25. Katheryn Hardying Says:

    Thanks for your article and for the comments. After being in the field of technical writing for 20 years, I find it is no fun anymore. As employers thrust the task of writing documentation into the hands of unwilling and unskilled technical personnel, tech writers become merely editors cleaning up copy for SOX compliance, policy writers, or administrative assistants. The days of the dot.com bubble brought me a lot of joy, as I developed design documents, test scripts, run books, and help systems for people who were willing to spend the money to hire someone who could actually communicate. Now I work as a document manager for a pharmaceutical whose name you all know, churning out edits of documentation from engineers who have a sophomoric grasp of grammar and who obviously have never been expected to produce a research paper. While I edit boring procedures, truly wretched writing is being published on the intranet by executives and staffers whose skills are so bad that they can’t even see they need help. Thankfully, I am nearing the end of my career, but that isn’t stopping me from trying to find another assignment where I can get back some of that old enthusiasm. All I can say now is that I would never recommend the field of technical writing to a young person. If there is an interest in technology, the young would be better advised to seek a technical job and embrace writing/communication as a supplemental skill or something that can bring satisfaction outside of work. As for me, I find more satisfaction outside of work than as a cog in a wheel of bureaucratic paper-pushing.

  26. Sita Says:

    I agree that technical writing might not be appear interesting in today’s 2.0-quickly-moving-to-3.0-experienced users. However, the art of converting technical/developer jargon to a user-friendly language remains valuable – whether you are called a technical writer, information manager/developer, whatever. I think technical writers would benefit from learning to apply their art to various related fields like web interfaces labels, usability and interactions.

  27. Archana Says:

    Hi,

    I have been a technical writer for more than three years, it is a decent paid job but our skills and job profiles are not clearly defined. we are expected to be masters of many areas. I hope we remain strong and essential even in the time of recession, as times are changing with market slow-down. One thing for sure, if developers are replaced as tech writers, fro sure end users will have difficulty in understanding the product usage. I feel technical writers are indispensable for a software industry. I hope rather

  28. ivan walsh Says:

    <it will be curious to see what happens with the field as we move into a world where intuitive design implies a manual-less existence

    Only a UI person could make this comment. It’s very naive.

    There will always be a need for documentation. Even the most popular products on the market today, like the ipod and blackberry, require user guides. these are v popular downloads as users like to explore the app by reading. people will always like to read.

    Ivan

  29. Craig Haiss Says:

    Even simple user interfaces, such as Google’s search UI, require documentation. Most users won’t bother to read it, but those who do will be much more effective.

    Sure, technical writers are branching out into other areas and producing fewer manuals. However, that’s only because our skills are becoming more valued, and technology is making paper documents obsolete. However, scripts for video tutorials, IT whitepapers, API documentation, help content, and button labels for intuitive interfaces all require clearly written communication.

    I’ve been doing this for about ten years now, and I’m seeing a definite increase in the amount of technical writing my job requires. The deliverables have changed, but clarifying technical concepts and putting them in writing is still the central focus.

    This is a natural progression. The idea that technical writing is only applicable to printed manuals is archaic, and I’m happy to see the boundaries falling so that technical writers can move into a more far-reaching role.

  30. milton brewster Says:

    1) Most writers are not poets or novelists.
    2) Most writers spend a very small portion of their workdays actually writing anything. We have many other duties to perform on most projects we contribute to.
    3) Maybe nine out of ten Engineers write at a tenth grade level.
    4) Documenting how a product works is not the same as documenting how to use a product, or designing a product to be easy to use (or repair, or modify) in the first place.

    I personally think the profession of technical writing is in trouble, because organizations like STC have not made the R.O.I case for us, that any well-run professional group should make for its membership. As a consequence, good writers have a business problem with MBAs; not a technology problem with Engineers.

    I thought Mr. Spoole’s article was shallow, misunderstands technical writing tasks, and pretty much ignores every major problem that working writers have today. It is not a helpful article. Has Mr. Spool ever had to write a Manual or Help System describing a high tech product from scratch?

    milt brewster

  31. Patrick McCarthy Says:

    Technical Writing (in terms of user manuals and doc sets) has been on the decline for years.

    Let’s look at Instructional Design:

    -Technical Writing skills transfer easily
    -Web-based training is huge
    -Online Synchronous training is a major trend these days
    -Learning Management Systems (Moodle/Blackboard) are huge
    -Training material development
    -e-learning is huge (Adobe Captivate/Camtasia)

    I think it is time for many Technical Communicators to reinvent themselves!

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