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The Past, Present, and Future of Technical Writing and STC
2010, Q1 (May 08, 2010)
By Steven Jong, STC Senior Member, former president of the Boston Chapter, and an STC Director at Large

Steven Jong
Steven Jong
In The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin described his theory of evolution by means of natural selection. He discussed how species adapt to the twin pressures of changing environments and competition. Well, we've all seen changing environments and competition in our field! I'd like to offer some thoughts on what effect this is having on us and what, if anything, STC can do to shape these forces and help us adapt to them.

The Past: Technical Writing

To begin, there are some constant pressures. It has always been important for technical writers to understand their subject matter; I think this is a common, core competency of our profession. Likewise, the rules of grammar (for English and other languages) hasn't changed recently. What has changed is the range and mix of technical subjects we cover, the tools we use to do our work, and the media we work in.

My father was a technical writer. He ended his career at Raytheon in the early 1970s, writing proposals for missile defense systems. One of his most important tools was a good pencil sharpener. If he could visit me today, he would be astonished as much at the tools I to use as the subject matter I document.

How did this change? As with other white-collar workers, technical writers acquired skills spurred by the computer revolution (which begot the desktop revolution). Some of the tools we had to learn are as complex as anything a software engineer uses; I would argue that in becoming proficient with HTML and CSS, FrameScript scripts and Word macros, we acquired considerable programming skills ourselves. We don't get enough credit for our technical skills, and we should be proud of them!

Technical writers acquired skills spurred by the computer revolution (which begot the desktop revolution).
But additionally, we had to take on additional job-related tasks. If I may use my own history as an example, I broke into the field as a junior writer, in a workgroup that included editors, production specialists, illustrators, and layout experts. Over time, these jobs fell away one by one, but the need to do the tasks involved did not. So I, like many others, had to learn to do them myself. We have all adapted, which is not a trivial matter; today some job titles are effectively extinct.

STC has helped members in the past by exposing us to new job skills. One of the most valuable aspects of the Summit is to go to sessions on skills you don't have today. The sessions are an easy introduction in a safe environment to things you may have to know in the near future, if not today.

The Present: Technical Communication

Before we pat ourselves on the back, remember that other white-collar workers have added skills to their portfolios almost as fast, and the relative advantage has not been as great as we'd like. We've adapted to changing environments, but how are we dealing with competition?

Not so well, I think. Today we can see a differentiation in the marketplace as well as in the kind of work we're hired to do. At the low end is what I consider traditional technical writing: formulaic procedural writing, often using a single tool. Documenting graphical user interfaces, or Web-based interfaces, is passé and doesn't require unique or uncommon skills. Thus, increasingly, the work is given to the lowest bidder.

At the high end of the scale are people who can not only write the procedures but design entire information product offerings, as well as people who not only describe what a product does, but explain how to use it effectively: not just how to get to the screen or page, but what to do once you're there and why.
At the high end of the scale are people who not only write the procedures, but design entire information product offerings.
And the means of getting this information to the user isn't just the written word, but words, images, animation, or onscreen prompts. (The preferences panel for the Apple Macintosh Magic Mouse includes a brief video demonstrating the finger gestures it recognizes--not as an optional help item, but as part of the window.) This requires more skills and deeper subject-matter understanding. Obviously, fewer people have these skills, and thus the people who possess them are more valuable. Because the work involves more than writing, I consider it technical communication, and this broader job is where I think our profession is evolving. I wouldn't be surprised to see low-end technical writing become effectively extinct.

STC can help by calling out this change, helping us make the transition, compiling a body of knowledge, and educating and training other members.

The Future: ?

What does the future hold for us? Well, change and competition are constants, so clearly we will have to adapt to ever-more sophisticated tools and media. Where today we have to concern ourselves with certain nuts and bolts, soon we won't in the way that hardware engineers no longer handle soldering irons or individual components. Today touch screens and mobile-device interfaces are new, but they will become passé soon enough. Also, we will have to adapt to understanding new subject areas. (Don't ask me what they'll be. As my stock portfolio demonstrates, I have no idea.)

Information is a strategic asset and potential competitive advantage.
Today few companies realize it, but Information is a strategic asset and potential competitive advantage. In the near future many more companies will realize it, and I think it will cause them to hold these assets more closely and not outsource their development. Also, this will open the way for technical communicators to be information managers.

Increasingly, I think our role will be subsumed into the general work of product development. The more information is seen as a component of the product, the more we will be seen as part of the development team. I think that will be a positive development.

Today there are European Union (EU) regulations concerning the presence and structure of information for consumer products; the FDA has strict requirements for the documentation of medical products. Few writers know that there are International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards for software documentation and the process of creating it. These regulatory and standardization pressures will only increase. In the future, we will likely be required to know and implement them in our work.

Finally, just as there are increasing pressures on companies to demonstrate their conformance to standards, we will increasingly need to provide assurances before we're hired that we are competent. We can meet this challenge through specific education or, in my opinion, some form of certification.

To continue serving its members, STC will need to lead the way in publicizing the strategic value of information and how we can maximize it; provide education and training on new regulations and standards (and help shape them!); and determine how best to assess practitioners.


The profession of technical writing has changed greatly and doubtless will continue to change. The changes aren't random, but an evolution in response to environmental changes and competition. One can predict that our jobs will require different and additional skills and knowledge and will become more valuable (that is, more highly compensated). What are those new skills and knowledge areas, and how many of these jobs will there be? Your guess is as good as mine.

Steven Jong can be reached at stevefjong at comcast dot net. Steven, a candidate for STC secretary, is employed as a documentation manager at Camiant. To learn more about Steven, check out http://www.stevenjong.net/STC/CandidateInfoSheet.htm. End of article.

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