Where are the “strategic” technical writers?

This week I attended another very enjoyable and interesting session of the London Content Strategy Meetup, one of two regular content strategy groups that are active in London (the other one is the UK CSA). This week’s event was a series of “lightning talks” given by a variety of different practitioners on their own experiences of trying to implement a strategic approach to content development and management. (Here’s a write up of the second half of the evening by Martin Belam.) According to the organisers over 100 people came to this week’s meeting.

I think I was the only technical writer there.

Curiously, it was the leaders of two STC Chapters who organised the very first Content Strategy Forum in Paris in April 2010. But when I attended the 2011 CS Forum in London last September I struggled to meet another technical writer.

Why don’t technical writers come to events like these? Is it because they don’t know what to say to people who describe themselves as “information architects” or “user experience designers” or “SEO specialists” or “web designers”, or think they have nothing to learn from these people? Is it because they think that people who work in “digital agencies” couldn’t possibly be interested in what technical writers have to say?

I know from my own experience that none of this is true. Everyone who comes to these meetings is a professional involved in the development and dissemination of quality content that serves the needs of specific audiences. Isn’t that what technical writers  are doing every day, as well?

We need to part of any conversation about quality content, inside our organisations and in the wider professional community. Haven’t pioneers in our field have been talking about the strategic value of content for years? I know the STC Summit had a “Content Strategy and Design” stream that I am told was very popular, but, apart from some of the speakers, I don’t imagine there were many content strategists there for technical writers to speak to.

Developing and disseminating quality content is a cross-disciplinary and cross-departmental activity. We have an enormous amount of experience and expertise to offer, and we need to get out there and talk to our professional peers in other disciplines, and to our colleagues in other departments. It’s not an easy thing to do, and at times it may even be a bit embarrassing, but no-one else is going to do it for us. We can’t complain that “no-one appreciates the value of technical writing” if we are afraid to be advocates for it ourselves.

The alternative is to get left behind. Again.

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14 Responses to Where are the “strategic” technical writers?

  1. Marijana says:

    Hi David,

    The strategic writers are out there but at least for Germany I can share my experience while attending a content strategy event as tech writer. (There aren’t that many events around here so I attended only this one… )

    “Is it because they think that people who work in “digital agencies” couldn’t possibly be interested in what technical writers have to say?”

    Um, actually this was my experience on a German conference this year, which had the main topic “content strategy”. Sadly, people (all information architects/designers from digital agencies) were hardly interested in what I had to say from my view as a technical writer. I was stunned to see that no-one mentioned content strategy as an overall strategy, which means not only to look how I can sell my products with better content (pre sales) but also to look on how I can keep my customers happy (after sales). Most people said “Well, but the customers only want to sell more, they’re not interested in these things.” Some just didn’t see that this boring documentation thing could have something to do with shiny, trendy content strategy – they connected content strategy with sales websites only.

    As a tech writer it doesn’t make fun to hear things like this…

    I see that content strategy is currently driven by marketing a lot and that the tech comm side of it is completely forgotten – and you’re completely right: this is where we need to jump in and say “Hey, there is more to content strategy.” And I think this is what I’ll do at that conference next year ;-)

  2. Gordon says:

    Because there are too many talking shops and not enough people showing HOW to do these things?

    We all KNOW content strategy is important, but why should I listen to more people tell me the value, and the concepts, and the theories?

    Also, these things cost money. Many people struggle to make one event a year, and so will focus on things they know they will get value from.

    Don’t get me wrong, I completely agree, we should be there, talking to other people with a similar view on information, we can learn a lot and it is down to us. And therein lies the problem.

    I’ll go out on a limb here, I don’t think that many technical writers either care, or realise that they should care, about a lot of this stuff. A typical tech writer personality type (yes, I’m generalising) isn’t the type of person to get out and about, talk to people, explore potential avenues of solutions, IMO.

    That’s why our industry continues to get left behind, for the few people who shout, make noise, encourage, drum up enthusiasm, and generally try and do a bit of banner-waving, there are many many more who just aren’t built that way and will, largely, stick to what they know and what’s safe.

    I HOPE that’s changing, that the younger generation of technical writers, with their knowledge and expectations of how information is used on the internet, will bring new ideas and approaches and, importantly, new types of personality to the mix!!

    (Bit of a brain dump there but you touched a nerve, this is something I’ve been trying to articulate badly for ages!)

  3. David Farbey says:

    Marijanna, Gordon – thanks for your comments. I wanted to start a discussion and I’m glad you’ve joined in!

  4. Can I put in a plug for the book I’m working on? It is *exactly* focused on the issue of how to make technical content strategic. You can read the work-in-progress on the web site and the section about how tech comm can contribute to marketing seems relevant:

    http://www.contentstrategy101.com/content-strategy-101-transform-technical-content-into-a-business-asset/marketing-and-product-visibility/

  5. Paul Ballard says:

    They’re busy working David, (quite a few of them here at 3di ;-). I agree with Gordon, that as in any profession there will always be a very small percentage who see what they do in a strategic context, separate from the labels and language of their profession, and who also enjoy communicating about it face-to-face. I don’t think it particularly afflicts tech comms any more than any other ‘techy’ profession.

    Anyway, stop moaning about authors not getting out enough! It’s a great opportunity, interesting event etc. but you know how hard it is to encourage authors to attend events in their own profession, let alone one organised by these ‘content’ types ;-)

    Having read the summary, does sound like worth going to next time…I might even drag some of my 3di colleagues with me…kicking and screaming of course.

  6. Larry Kunz says:

    This is very timely and thought-provoking, David.

    Your article focuses on one problem: People who label themselves technical writers, and don’t want to come out of their silo.

    The comments raise a second problem: People who label themselves content strategists, and are too focused on pre-sales and not enough on post-sales.

    It sounds like both groups need a whack upside the head. Perhaps we do need to come out of our shells (which for many of us is counter to our personality type, as Gordon notes) and start making noise – first to our “technical writer” colleagues and then to the “content strategist” community.

    Except that we’re already doing that. There are sessions at the STC Summit. There’s Sarah’s book. There are lots of blog articles. Yet the divide hasn’t been breached. As to why that is, I’m as perplexed as you. But I think we should keep on making noise.

  7. David Farbey says:

    Thanks everyone for your comments. Larry, I have just added a comment to your blog today about the closure of #tcchat (http://www.sdicorp.com/Resources/Blog/tabid/77/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/192767/A-missed-opportunity.aspx#Comment973). Maybe you and I could brainstorm ideas for getting more tech writers to talk more about their work?
    Sarah, I’ll take a look at your work-in-progress, and I look forward to reading your book.
    There was one comment on Twitter which answered my question “where are the strategic tech writers” as follows: “They’re buried in the typical IT hierarchy. Devs, BAs, PMs are big investments. Writers relatively cheap.” (thanks @danielarcher). Do we think that’s true?

  8. Axel Regnet says:

    I am afraid more often than not the Strategic Techwriters are just kneedeep in the daily work and thus unable to clearly develop – and communicate – a clear and promising vision for the content strategy for their respective organisation. And to be honest – many techcom people aren´t nearly as good self-promoters as eg. many in marketing, sales etc. who are used to always pitch to (prospective) customers as well as to the management. We absolutely have to develop better skills in self-marketing – even if that would mean to sometimes walk away from our precise and well-thought ways of communicaton and walk the dirty roads of surreptitious advertising for our ideas ;-)

  9. Julia Pond says:

    What Axel said!! The trouble is that the person with the vision and the determination and the knowledge is often still doing the work.

    It’s hard to get yourself, much less a whole team, out of the reactive stance that has defined technical publications from the beginning–and particularly in cultures that treat it as the red-headed stepchild and necessary evil.

  10. I was going to just tweet back at David, but Axel’s comment grabbed me. This kind of self-promotion is exactly what I did a couple months back during a brief lull in release cycles. I blogged about that here:

    http://technicalwritingworld.com/profiles/blogs/technical-writing-capabilities-and-offerings-for-internal

    I report to the managing PM for the Service Desk. She was thrilled to have the document and was then asked to brief it to senior management. Since then we’ve had all kinds of high profile tasks thrown our way, including some biz dev work. We have a very strategic management team, and once we put ourselves forward as strategists rather than just tech writers, they’ve had an open and receptive ear.

    I would encourage anyone who is frustrated to just take the time to document it. Use your skills. Write cogently, with an awareness of your organization’s goals and strategies. Focus on ways you can add value. Make a nice shiny PDF – management tends to love those far more than end users. If you have a good leadership team, I think you’ll find them highly receptive.

  11. Larry Kunz says:

    Yes, David. I would like to brainstorm ideas with you. And I’ll bet that I’m not the only one. Tell me where and when, and I’ll be there. (P.S. Thanks for posting the link to my blog.)

  12. Kai says:

    Thanks, David, for a timely post – I’ll bite… :-)

    I like to think of myself as a strategic technical writer, in the sense that I work towards making our tech comm content an intelligent, findable, sharable corporate asset – in addition to actually creating that content and currently migrating it to a structured platform.

    So in every day I spend creating or moving content, I spend an hour moving minds – within the company I work for.

    I feel well-equipped to do so with what I’ve learned about content strategy at conferences and online. My calling at the moment is to carry information in the other direction and to make my colleagues in other departments (and other tech writers) aware of content strategy and what it means.

    I believe advocating the value of tech comm to this audience is equally valuable, even if doesn’t show in the public forums you’ve attended.

  13. Vinish Garg says:

    I second Lary’s thoughts that many technical writers tend to stay in their comfort zone. They continue to push the envelop for new tools and usability, and not really diversifying and contributing towards *strategy*.

    Content strategy offers a huge potential to technical writers to grow into diverse career opportunities and to contribute proactively throughout the product lifecycle right from conception to analysis to pre-sell to development to post-sell, and even to analysis.

  14. Richard Pineger says:

    I believe we are suffering from a misconception.

    Digital agencies provide a web presence that they attempt to integrate with every external business function of an organization. That may include technical information, but not necessarily.

    Technical writers can be part of that strategy and/or, they can have a strategy for their technical content. This technical content is just one of the business functions that would be considered by a digital agency.

    In my experience the attitude among digital agencies is that technical writers are expensive and content should be written by people inside an organization who have content generation as part of their job role. More specifically, if their client has technical writers then great, that content can be incorporated in their content strategy.

    Are you going to the right meetings?

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