WritersUA 2014 Day 2: An open letter to Amanda

Tweets from a disgruntled tech writing studentDear Amanda: I’m sorry that you had an unfortunate experience in your technical communications class. There are a couple of problems in teaching technical communications. First, outside of the quality technical communications certificate programs taught at some universities and STC, technical writing often isn’t taught well. There are instructors who don’t realize that technical writing isn’t writing essays with numbered steps. Second, the technical writing field is changing so rapidly, what is currently being taught is probably out-of-date.

But Amanda, by giving up on technical communications, you’re missing out. As Tony Self, one of the speakers at WritersUA, said, “This is the most exciting time in technical communications.”

New technology is forcing us to rethink how we present information to users and how we create that content. The traditional approach of “let’s write a big book and print it out (or generate a PDF so the customer can print it out)” must change as more readers opt for mobile devices. As another WritersUA participant, Chuck Martin, said, “Let’s stop thinking about documents. Let’s start thinking about content.”

New technology also provides us with alternatives to paper or even computer screens. Tony Self described how inexpensive eInk panels can provide changeable information on grocery store shelves and on products like electric drills. You may have seen QR codes on packaging and mall kiosks that you can scan with your smartphone to view information or videos about a product.

You are not doomed to submersing yourself to writing endless lists of numbered steps. That’s because the way we write documentation has changed. We can create reusable content that can be shared across documents and products. Some documentation systems, like DITA, provide useful tags that enable us to assemble topics quickly and easily using content that already exists. Tools like these enable us to focus on distilling, assembling, and delivering the right type of information for our users.

So, technical communication remains an exciting field, and it will get even better as new technologies offers us new capabilities and opportunities. If you’re only being taught how to write policies and procedures, though it is an important basic skill to learn, you’re not getting the whole picture as you suspect. Try technical communication again, this time with the guidance of your local chapter of the STC and by seeing the content provided at WritersUA. There’s nothing stupid about technical communication as long as you open yourself to new ideas and be willing to try something new.