Technical writing is a challenging field because technology is constantly reshaping how we deliver information. By keeping up with these changes, you can increase your reputation as an expert and add value to your organization.
Let's take a look at some of the skills that you can develop to increase your value now.
Many technical writers are seeing an growing demand for content management skills. Organizations are dealing with ever-increasing amounts of technical information and are scrambling to find ways to efficiently manage it. Much of this information ends up in databases or content management systems, where it can be effeciently re-used for documents produced by multiple departments.
Technical writers are finding themsleves in the middle of this process. Why? Because our skills are often the closest fit for the job. We have the ability to make difficult content decisions and also to handle the technical details. Writers who continue to focus on content management technology will find themselves increasingly valued.
Paper instruction manuals have become relics of the past. End users are finding their information via search engines and social media. Also, they now expect to find more of that content in forms other than writing. Youtube and podcasting have trained them to look for video or audio explanations of how to complete tasks, and our authoring tools have adapted to allow for delivery of technical content in such formats.
Demo tools such as Camtasia and Captivate are becoming increasingly popular in the user assistance world. Often these tools are used to create full-blown tutorials with voice-overs. Technical writers will not only need to learn how to record demos effectively, but also how to integrate them into help and other delivery platforms.
Most help content now includes at least a few video tutorials or demos to show how tasks are completed. Technical writers should be learning how to create effective screencasts, and record high-quality audio voice overs. Chances are you'll be assigned to such projects in the future if you haven't already.
You can learn a lot about the needs of your end-users by monitoring their behavior. Usability studies can be very insightful. By watching how people interact with your documentation, you can find ways to improve it.
Technology can help. Some help authoring tools now offer the ability to track topic visitation, search data, and other behavioral data when documentation is stored on a server. By moving your content to a server and using server logs and other tools to analyze how it is being used, you can gather a great deal of information for improving your documents. Technical writers who are skilled at analyzing this data and knowing how to apply it for improving content will find themselves in greater demand.
XML and XSLT
Many of us are using DITA or DocBook already to create multiple deliverables from XML source content. However, authoring tools are adapting to these standards and WYSIWYG editors are available for XML content. The true benefit of learning XML and XSLT will be the ability to work "under the hood" on XML-based content. Also, now that many of our tools use XML as a native document format (such as Word documents, RoboHelp project files, etc.), writers who can work under the hood will be able to troubleshoot corruption issues, create custom translations for automatically generating documents in these formats, and more.
There is a gaping semantic void between how users think and how writers write. Even the most robust help system will be of little use if users cannot find the content they are looking for. The effectiveness of help can be drastically improved by researching what language users enter into the search field, and by mapping the help content to the existing understanding of users.
Help content is slowly migrating to the Internet. This allows help authors to implement functionality that isn't available for locally installed help. Scripting languages such as ASP, JSP, and AJAX will allow future help authors to take advantage of the server and create help that integrates more heavily with stored user data, web tools from other vendors, and more.
User generated content
As user forums and wikis become more robust, help authors will need to learn how to effectively integrate content from those sources into the help. Also, technical writers will need to clarify their role in working with user-generated content. Should writers participate in these discussions? How can user content be leveraged for filling in gaps in the help? Technical writers will need to help answer these questions to provide a more thorough and seamless experience for users.
These are just a few skills you can develop to improve your value and further your technical writer career.