Technical writing | A dying field?

Over the last decade, the nature of my job has shifted considerably. I remember flipping through thousands of pages of proofs to make sure our user manuals were ready for the printer. Many hours went into these printed manuals, and piles of paper covered my desk on most days.

Anyone who stopped by could see immediately that I was a writer.

Ten years later, those manuals no longer exist in printed form. Also, the work entailed in preparing them has been automated. I still write, but for a much wider variety of outputs, and always in electronic format.

Now the majority of my time is spent managing projects, automating document processes, designing and coding enhancements for web-based content, assisting other departments with the technical details in their content, and managing the vast amount of electronic information that makes up our documentation.

I'm still a writer. However, writing seems to have become a much smaller part of my job. I say this not because the importance of writing has decreased; in fact, I'm now writing for a much wider array of documents, including screencasts, technical marketing documents, and web-based help. However, the task of writing seems to have dwindled only because all of my other roles have grown in importance.

In terms of the value I add to the production process, I think "Technical Writer" no longer accurately describes it. This is why so many discussions about job titles occur on Techwr-l and other online communities. Others are seeing the same shift in roles.

To better understand this shift, we can look at the field of computer programming. Many computer programmers have watched their jobs become commodities and companies have outsourced their work overseas. However, others have found solace by shifting the focus of their work toward software engineering. While they still write code, software engineers are deeply involved in the overall process of design and management of software. Such work adds more value, and is more difficult to outsource.

Over time, I think job descriptions such as "technical writer" and "technical editor" will fall out of use. The field will outgrow them. Too many of us will argue that such titles fail to describe the real value of our work. Those of us who do not may increasingly need to defend their value against the mistaken belief that "anyone can write," especially as end-user interfaces become more intuitive and as software engineers and other development professionals expand their roles to include related tasks like communication.

As R. Stanley Dicks states in "The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work," we'll need to stop promoting our roles as information middle men, translating jargon for end users. Instead, we should move toward demonstrating our expertise at efficiently manipulating information for a variety of uses. We can combine our knowledge of technology and efficiency to become masters of communication methodology.

You can read the full R. Stanley Dicks article, and others related to this discussion, in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication: 21st Century Theory & Practice.

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