Once upon a time, being a technical writer was a straightforward job. We learned the subject, learned to write well, learned to use an authoring tool – often Microsoft Word – and generated the output – often in print form. But when online help appeared in the early 1990s, that simple job began to change into today’s multi-layered, complex, and evolving one. How do we stay ahead in this environment? That’s the subject of this post, starting with…

Learn to Communicate Better

At one time, I would have entitled this section “Learn to Write Better” but times change. Many of us still write content but more and more of us create additional forms of content like graphics, video, audio, even augmented reality.

Writing is still the most common form of content but even the term “writing” isn’t as clear cut as it once was. There’s a difference between writing for print output vs. online output, as there are when writing for online output to large monitors vs. tablets vs. cell phones vs. augmented reality vs. the next thing that comes along. So those of us who write must create content in a form that works best for the output mediums that we support today and those that we may have to support tomorrow. And the same holds true for the additional forms of content as well.

The best way that I’ve found to learn to write for different mediums is to learn to write as well as I can and to look at content in different mediums and ask myself what examples work, what don’t, and why.

Learn to Use Our Authoring Tools More Efficiently

Modern technical authoring and publishing tools like Flare are packed with powerful features, and using them properly is critical to gaining the benefits they were designed to provide.

The best way to learn to use our authoring tools more efficiently is to take a formal training class. Full disclosure: I have a conflict of interest here since I am a Certified Flare Instructor, but I’ll stand by my statement. The benefit of a certified training class is that it provides guided and structured learning, plus the instructor has probably made all the (at least basic) mistakes for you, thus getting you off to a fast start.

Can’t afford a class? Look at other official sources of information – recorded webinars on the vendor’s website, tool forums supported by the vendor, or user groups supported by the vendor. I emphasize “official” sources of information simply because the further away you get from official information, the greater the risk of misinformation. You can assume that almost any question you have, someone else will already have had and answered so these sources of information are simply a way to get “in touch” with that person.

And the more you know about your authoring tools, the more employable you’ll be.

Learn the Technology Behind Our Authoring Tools

As good as today’s authoring tools are, one of their primary purposes is to provide a friendly face to the underlying technology. For example, Flare provides a friendly face for complex technologies like XHTML and CSS. But the more you know about the underlying technologies, the better you’ll understand what the authoring tool is doing and perhaps be able to do things that the GUI authoring tool can’t do, such as implementing CSS features that work in the output but are not supported in the tool’s GUI.

What technologies should you learn about? Everyone’s needs differ but CSS, version (or source) control, and SEO (Search Engine Optimization) are three useful technologies that are useful to know in almost any circumstances. Plus, a knowledge of the underlying technologies will make it easier for you to judge the strategic effects of new technologies, methodologies, and trends on your company. And the more you can do that, again the more employable you’ll be.

Stay Curious

Technical communication can be all-consuming and there’s often a temptation to learn what we need to know and then slack off a bit. That’s a mistake. New technical communication technologies and methodologies pop up often and you need to be aware of them – what they are and how they might affect your company. You don’t want to get caught up short if your manager turns to you in a meeting and says “So, what do you think of technology X?” Being able to answer that question will make you look good and perhaps give you a reputation as a forward thinker.

What’s out there to be curious about? Consider Information 4.0 and expert system-generated content, just two of the items that I’ve been discussing in the last few years. Will they affect my clients? I don’t know. But I can discuss them in a fair degree of detail if necessary. And they’re just cool, which always helps.

Learn Beyond Technical Communication

Technical communication is just a small part of the larger company environment so the more familiar you are with that larger environment, the more effective you’ll be as a technical communicator, project manager, or higher.

For example, learn about finance and you’ll be better able to phrase funding requests in the language of the Finance department. Learn about strategic planning and you’ll be better able to understand the company’s direction and perhaps even help steer it. Learn about marketing and you’ll understand what product features the Marketing department wants to emphasize to prospective customers and design your content with that in mind. Learn more about the engineering behind the company’s products and you’ll be in a better position to talk to the Engineering group and, again, perhaps steer some of the technical decisions.

Conclusion

Technical communication will never lack for things to learn. And the more you learn the more flexible, more employable, and better a technical communicator you’ll be. As simple as that.

About the Author

Neil has 4 decades of experience in tech comm, with 33 years in training, consulting, and development for various online formats and tools including WinHelp, HTML Help, CE Help, JavaHelp, WebHelp, Flare, and more. Neil is a frequent speaker at MadWorld and other professional conferences and groups and the author of several books about Flare and mobile app development.

Neil is Madcap certified for Flare and Mimic, ViziApps certified for the ViziApps mobile app development platform and certified in other authoring tools.  He provides training, consulting, and development for online help and documentation, Flare, Mimic, other authoring tools, mobile apps, XML, single-sourcing, topic-based and structured authoring, and content strategy.  He can be reached at nperlin@concentric.net, www.hyperword.com.