Surviving the Dying Career of Technical Writing

By Samiksha Chaudhuri and Punam Saxena

Published: March 21, 2016

“With many programmers, quality-assurance testers, analysts, and consultants taking on technical writing, it will eventually become impossible to sustain a career solely as a technical writer….”

The profession of technical writing is on the verge of obsolescence! If you are a technical writer, you need to open your eyes to this reality. The current industry trend shows that hiring managers are looking for people who can fill more than one critical role. With many programmers, quality-assurance testers, analysts, and consultants taking on technical writing, it will eventually become impossible to sustain a career solely as a technical writer without any hands-on technical or analytical experience.

To survive in the ever-changing IT industry, it is essential that technical writers keep honing their skills to avoid becoming dispensable. As the saying goes, it is never too late to learn something new. In this article, we’ll describe some of the proficiencies you should consider acquiring in addition to your technical writing skills.

Programmer and Technical Writer

“If you have an interest in programming languages and writing code, learn about coding and start writing API documentation.”

With the emphasis on the customer-centric approach that is now prevalent, more companies have begun to expose their software code through APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) to enable the customization of their products. In some cases, customers pay additional charges to purchase and customize a product’s code. For customers to be able to tweak an application’s code to suit their organization’s needs, they require reference materials that enable them to understand the code. Thus, the companies providing APIs for their code must create references describing the code to which their customers can refer. If you have an interest in programming languages and writing code, learn about coding and start writing API documentation.

Having programming skills can enable you to write sample applications that demonstrate specific technologies or show how an API works, without your having to depend on developers. While your job might not require you to develop applications, you may occasionally need to write sample code to show how a particular piece of code works, research and understand the features or functions of an application or solution, and translate that knowledge into written documentation.

As a technical writer who has programming skills, you can develop API documentation to which your customers’ developers refer when customizing your product. You’ll be engaged in writing technical references, API guides, and documenting programming techniques, as well as writing sample code. While technical writers do not require programming skills to excel in their work, gaining such skills always gives you an edge over other writers.

Analyst and Technical Writer

“As a technical writer, you already function as an analyst about 90% of the time. You gather requirements, then analyze and prioritize them.”

If you are less than enthusiastic about learning programming, you can instead sharpen your analyst skills. As a technical writer, you already function as an analyst about 90% of the time. You gather requirements, then analyze and prioritize them. Sometimes, when you get the opportunity to use a product, you also point out necessary improvements and errors. As a technical writer who is also an analyst, you document or define business processes. You may also perform functional testing to ensure that the software satisfies all requirements. You should also be aware of ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library) practices.

As an analyst, you must develop thorough knowledge about a product, be able to analyze current processes, propose changes that would improve usability and functionality, and review processes to ensure the correctness of their implementation in code. You may also be responsible for developing requirements documentation and coordinating requirements walkthroughs and signoffs, verifying with stakeholders that the information captured in the requirements accurately portrays their business needs. By enhancing your analytical skills, you can function as both a technical writer and an analyst.

Blogger and Technical Writer

“As a blogger, you’ll not only be responsible for writing the content, but must also have skills that enable you to manage blogging communities and requests for guest posts….”

The times are changing. The traditional ways of providing product information are taking a back seat to social media and blogging. Because social media influence customers’ buying patterns, more and more organizations are turning toward blogging. Blogging on social media or your company’s Web site has become a more effective way of advertising products and providing product information. Moreover, blogs are more interactive than traditional methods of marketing.

As a blogger, you’ll not only be responsible for writing the content, but must also have skills that enable you to manage blogging communities and requests for guest posts, as well as analyze Web-analytics data to gauge the content’s performance. Plus, you must become adept at search engine optimization, writing content in a way that it gets more pageviews. If you have a creative streak, this may be the perfect combination for you.

Instructional Designer and Technical Writer

“As an instructional designer, you’ll create tutorials, training, and other documentation for a product. You might also create exercises and quizzes….”

Customers’ modes of learning are changing. Smartphones have completely changed the way in which people look up and consume information. Video training has become a more impactful means of communicating any kind of information. With the prevalence of mobile devices, it has become easier to view videos online. Videos save customers’ time, preventing their having to go through lengthy documentation.

As an instructional designer, you’ll create tutorials, training, and other documentation for a product. You might also create exercises and quizzes. To successfully develop training content, you must gain expertise in multimedia and learn to work with graphics. To create videos and graphics, you need to become proficient with video and graphic design tools such as Captivate and Photoshop. Then get ready to don multiple hats!

Summary

With … greater pressures on organizations to cut costs, the roles of developers, analysts, and technical writers are merging.

A recent study shows that salaries for technical writers have stabilized—and upward growth seems unlikely for some years to come. If you’ve worked on projects that involved outsourcing work or have worked as a contractor, you are well aware of the costs involved and how stable the market has become. Companies are looking for ways in which they can minimize documentation costs and reduce overhead.

However, documentation is often a legal requirement, so companies cannot do away with it. Nevertheless, they are looking at alternative methods of creating documentation. Initially, startups and smaller companies began engaging developers to create product documentation. Now, larger companies are adopting the same approach. In the past, when IT was booming, it made sense to hire separate writers and developers. Now, with IT stagnating and greater pressures on organizations to cut costs, the roles of developers, analysts, and technical writers are merging.

The software industry is broadening its training for technical writers and hiring people who have multiple skillsets. It is time now for you to move beyond your comfort zone and develop new skills to make yourself a much sought-after technical writer.

Reference

Langlois, Francis. “Should I Become a Programmer Writer?” Microsoft, January 25, 2010. Retrieved March 13, 2016.

14 Comments

Always learning is a good theme.

Any newbie technical writer reading this article needs to understand that you cannot be a one-trick pony. I have worked as a technical writer since early 1995. I have worked at multiple companies. It is always important to identify what needs your employer has and how your specific strengths and skills align with their needs.

For example, I worked at a company where a coworker was responsible for UI design of a Windows interface that laid on top of a text screen. I learned how to do that, as his backup. then, when he left the company, I took ownership of it. That’s just one small example of adapting to the needs of my employer.

All of that said, I begin a new job on 3/28 in a department that has never had a technical writer. My first task is to write a Disaster Recovery Manual. It is an exciting and new opportunity to expand my knowledge.

I noticed both the writers are from India. Anytime corporations hire a writer who does not speak English as a first language, the technical writing is vague, too technical, or does not have the audience in mind. Often, the technical writing needs to be rewritten by an English speaker. I bet I could find empirical and not just anecdotal evidence for this.

Most companies who finally hire technical writers spent years cutting corners with ineffective developer-written content. The company realized the customer anger and backlash, and they hired a professional writer. Please show me one programmer who has more empathy for the end user than me?

Some of the architecture behind the new formats does need an increase in technical skills. Web-based formats or anything with DITA-XML need authors to ramp up on technology. Tech writers must be quick to learn new technologies and implement them. Perhaps this is what the article’s authors meant to say? The vagueness in the provocative title only proves my point; Native English writers express themselves more clearly than ESL speakers or developers.

I was fascinated to read this article. I’m a bit concerned, however, about the strong opening claim that seems to be unsupported by evidence. Do you have warrants to support your assertion that technical writing is “the verge of obsolescence”? Do you have warrants to support the claim?

In your third-to-final paragraph, you state that “salaries for technical writers have stabilized,” but don’t cite the source of the data. Are you using the STC Salary Database? Because as I read those data, salaries seem to vary significantly in their growth from region to region. Is it possible you’re both extrapolating from your own experiences—potentially viable but still anecdotal data?

I’m quite supportive of the notion that technical writers need a wide range of technical skills to support their work. But I remain a bit concerned that this study seems to make overly broad assertions without supporting evidence. Can you reassure me?

This article has sparked a lot of discussion on Techwhrl and in my Facebook feed. The general feeling was that the article is inaccurate because:

  • The US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 10% increase in technical-writing jobs.
  • The authors took a very narrow definition of technical writing.
  • The authors assume that the ability to string some words together on a page by a developer equals good technical writing.
  • That the training to understand communication, cognition, learning, instructional design, and so on are inherent in analysts, developers, and other non-writing jobs.
  • That the average blogger understands the principles and techniques of technical writing.
  • That there isn’t the recognition that technical writers come from a variety of backgrounds—including development, and so on—but that double-jobs are relatively rare. (Again, this may be regional.)

Because the authors are both located in India, they may be reflecting the local market there and should have indicated as much during the opening declarative statement. (With the superfluous exclamation point, as one programmer-singer/songwriter-technical writer pointed out in his comment on my Facebook feed.)

My reframing of this article would be: Because hiring managers don’t understand what it takes to be a professional technical writer, there is a trend toward asking for two separate skills sets in a single resource such as technical writer and business analyst. These hiring managers don’t seem to understand that they will get substandard deliverables by doing so.

This search for combined skill sets is leading to a sharp decline in technical writing as a dedicated profession in India.

I agree with Rahel and others who question the accuracy of the article. Great comments, Rahel.

I have been a technical writer / editor / documentation specialist for more than 25 years, with a lot of experience in medical-device organizations.

Developer-written documentation should definitely be discouraged. Many developers are not good writers and don’t have the time or interest to deal with documentation. Developers are often too close to the product to be objective and put themselves in the position of a novice user.

Thanks…

Thanks, Paul, for sharing your experience. I would like to quote Charles Bukowski here:

“Invent yourself and then reinvent yourself. Don’t swim in the same slough. Invent yourself and then reinvent yourself, and Stay out of the clutches of mediocrity.

And what better way than to keep on learning new things and stay at the top.

Thanks, Monique, for taking the time to read the article and share your views. I believe you missed the beat of the article. The article is about honing one’s skill to leverage the technical-writing skills you’ve already acquired. Talking about native and non-native English speakers is actually digressing from the main agenda.

To tell you the facts, I am a programmer turned writer, and I have all the empathy with the user that any other writer would have. In fact, there have been times when the development team has implemented my suggested UI changes to enhance the user experience.

As for native English speakers, I think it is a sweeping generalization. If you care to check it out, India is country that has the second largest population of English speakers. I am sure companies would not invest in a place where they’d need to shell out more money for rework.

As far DITA-XML is concerned, I do not think authoring with it requires any technical skills, though implementing DITA might. There is so much hue and cry about DITA in the technical-writing community, but DITA-XML is nothing but one of several means of simplifying the technical-writing task. Any experienced technical writer can tell you that there is much more to technical writing than just DITA.

Thanks, Geoffrey. I am thrilled to know that you were fascinated. Yes, I stand guilty of writing that strong opener. Perhaps titling the article “The Evolving Field of Technical Writing” would have been more appropriate. But if something is evolving that also implies something old is being replaced, which is as good as saying it is dying. The claim that warrants this statement is that user experience is changing with the proliferation of mobile devices. Videos are the in thing, and they address a need in this age and time. Plus, companies are monetizing APIs by selling them to customers. As you rightly said, technical writers do need to hone their skills and, with the base skill of technical writing already in hand, it is not such a difficult task.

As for the issue of salary, you can check out salaries for technical writers on Indeed.com, which shows the graph is flat toward recent times. Also, if you look at inflation and current, global economic conditions, salaries have stabilized.

Thanks for your comments, Rahel. You are right in saying that the article is written from the Indian point of view of because it is. It is also written from the viewpoint that big changes are underway in technical writing because of the way technology is evolving. Video is gaining ground because of the proliferation of mobile devices. Monetizing APIs is going to be a big business, and that’s one of the places where the money in technical writing is going to be.

India being one of the hubs for startups, these new organizations look for people with multiple skills because they want to save costs wherever possible. To survive in such a scenario, it is always good to advance your skills to ensure you can land a decent job in the industry.

This discussion is happening in India today, but it also happened in the US 5 to 8 years ago when US technical writers realized they were overpaid for just documenting software user interfaces, so made the effort to learn API developer documentation. You can check out one of Tom Johnson’s videos on the same topic.

As for the assumptions, our article nowhere discusses who makes a better technical writer. It is too much of a generalization to say that bloggers do not make good technical writers or good technical writers make better bloggers. The point of the whole article was supposed to be that we, as technical writers, need to be mindful of the changes happening due to ever-changing technology and its impact on the field of technical writing.

Written nicely, this article shakes us technical writers out of our complacency.

Though not very evident right now, it is sure to become a trend in the eyes of prospective hiring managers. Some comments the state, because both writers are from India, this must be a country-specific view are shortsighted. I know both of the writers. They have worked in several Fortune-500 companies that are headquartered in the USA. Besides my own experience tells me that, rather than hire technical writers from the USA, most companies have moved hundreds of tech-writing jobs offshore. It goes without saying that this strategic movement may be a result of cost cutting, because it might not be financially viable to hire tech writers in the USA. It may also means that these companies have found good or better talent at a lower price offshore. This article in fact highlights the need for US-based writers to develop multiple skills—failing which, they might find their jobs have moved to Bangalore.

That is one alarming title! :) For all the technical writers out there!

Well, I liked the way you clubbed different domains with technical writing. It shows how the domains are getting permeable and the boundaries are dissolving. To stand out and sustain, learn new! Keep adding new.

And the point you made here is to hone your skills as a technical writer is very valid. Almost for every one of us out there. You must acquire new skills and add them to your bag almost on a regular basis. And it’s not difficult to get trained on new skills with so much online learning and so many certifications available. Thumbs up to this approach. To keep the wheel rolling.

At the same time, I feel cross-domain learning within organizations will help a lot in avoiding the situations you have pointed out, rightly.

I think you have nicely summed up the current scenario and tried to put your point across to the world.

(There’s nothing “Indian” about this context. I mean, policies change with region, but most of the other things often remain the same.)

I fully agree with this article, which describes the real scenario for technical writers. If you do not update yourself and learn new skills, you are lost. This is a fact in the current IT industry. Organizations, nowadays, have become very selective in terms of hiring candidates. The focus has shifted from quality to cost reduction. The situation is worse for experienced technical writers who do not add to their skills. This is true not only for technical writers, but for all other stakeholders who are part of an IT organization. And for technical writers, the situation is worse because of the nature of this job and its associated importance. Traditional technical writing is fine for the initial few years, but as you become more experienced, it is almost impossible to grow only by documenting functionality. And with the increased adoption of UX by most organizations, the need of that type of documentation is expected to decrease. So, the only way to sustain is: update, update, and update.

Nice to be a part of this discussion. I have a different question altogether. I am new to the field of Technical Writing. I have taken my training, but am having a problem starting writing a document. What should I learn especially to be a good technical writer. Please help me in this regard. Thanks.

Well written and quite thought provoking. While I do agree to the viewpoint to some extent, the fact that technical writing is a dying profession is somewhat an over statement. Any profession, per se, needs to evolve to get a competitive edge, and so it is with technical writing. With advanced assistive technology coming up everyday, new avenues are opening up for technical writers. We have evolved from the days of user guides to cloud authoring. As the article rightly points out, one needs to hone new skills to stay afloat in the market. With regard to developers or programmers eating away the tech-writing jobs, it seems to be a distant possibility. The very essence of tech writing stems from the fact that companies require experts to document technical processes, and writers possess that skill. Technical writing complements whatever the technical team does by documenting it precisely. We need words to give shape to our ideas and creations, and tech writing does just that.

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