Building on Past Successes for Future Directions

The many directions one can go

The many directions one can go

I have a lot of flexibility and freedom in my job. That’s part of the appeal. The other day I was reflecting on the best route to take, the most fruitful path I should follow.

There are quite a few directions I could go. I could become meticulously detailed about style, knowing the ins and outs of every handbook (and being able to compare them with wit and perspective). I could become a tools guru in skinning online help, branding it with the right look and feel for our department. I could become a content producer, immersing myself in the product to write longer, more comprehensive topics.

Or I could become a SME project leader, organizing the writing efforts of a dozen or more subject matter experts (SMEs). I could become a manager, leading and inspiring my team. I could become a champion for usability, inserting myself into the design process and working towards better interfaces. I could become a content management specialist, managing the content for an entire team. I could become a community leader, or a single source champion, a taxonomist, a metadata specialist, a content strategist, a failing fiction writer, and many other things as well.

After reflecting on directions, I decided to focus on past successes. By successes, I mean those things from which I constantly hear praising feedback from customers.  My main successes in tech comm have been with the following:

  • Quick reference guides
  • Screencasts

My longer documentation is fine, but no one ever writes in to say how much they enjoyed the user manual. In contrast, quick reference guides win users over every time, and screencasts actually show them how to use the product. People are always submitting feedback about how helpful the video tutorials were.

Outside of work, my two main successes have been as follows:

  • Blogging
  • Podcasting

Writing is my core strength, especially the blog format. And podcasts — well, I seem to go in spurts with them.  I don’t think I’m a particularly good podcaster — I just happen to be one of the few people recording podcasts in tech comm. Regardless, I love the conversations and connections I make in my podcasts. That professional interaction is rewarding.

Of all the above, I think screencasts hold the most promising future. I plan to move more fully in this direction for several reasons:

  • I prefer to learn software by video (for example, by watching the videos at Text makes sense for a lot of things, but when people are learning software from ground zero (rather than searching for a specific question), visual learners prefer video more than text.
  • Videos are something others cannot usually do. Everyone seems to think they can write, but few can actually record a screencast. This ensures that I’m putting effort into a skill that can’t easily be replaced or outsourced.
  • Video has a lot of room for growth. I can learn so much about audio and video themselves. I want to learn After Effects so that I can better demonstrate concepts. This would be a powerful skill.

My screencasting prowess is only mediocre at best. Eventually I’d like to get good enough to create videos such as the WordPress release videos, or Mailchimp’s tutorials. I think there’s a high demand for people who can create this type of content.

That said, I’m also fascinated by findability, and there’s still so much here I haven’t explored. Even though it’s not my strength, perhaps I’ll add it as a key area of focus.

That’s me: quick reference guides, screencasts, blogging, podcasting, and findability. I guess that narrows it down enough. What’s your specialization?


photo from Flickr

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

  • Ketan Sevekari

    You are right when you say screencasts or videos cannot be easily outsourced.

    From an outsourcing point of view, creating screencasts or videos requires two skills:

    1) Ability to understand the software and its use cases, and the ability to create the screencast or video.

    2) For audio, the perfect voice accent, which is suitable and acceptable to all audiences.

    A person having both these skills is rare in non-native English speaking countries.

    Though the second point can be taken care of with good text to speech software 😉

    • Ketan Sevekari

      Apart from doing all the typical activities required as a tech writer. I had success in:

      1) Gathering information from SMEs (Especially difficult ones).
      2) Improving document structure for better usability and findability. This also involves evaluating and suggesting appropriate documentation tools.
      3) Ramping up new technical writers (especially freshers) on company policies, work environment, documentation techniques, and tools.

  • Gordon

    Interesting post.

    I think using past successes is a good idea, if your customers/users have responded well to something in the past, doing more of it certainly does make sense!

    Findability is the main focus for me, as I don’t write much content any more so the structure and layout of information is becoming increasingly important.

  • Jonovitch

    Tom, this was incredibly insightful!

    I’ve often thought, “How can I make myself less expendable/more valuable at work?” But I’ve never been able to formulate a good answer (because I was asking the wrong question). You just gave me the perfect question and some inspiration about my answer:

    “What have other people complimented you on? What has gotten you praise? What do other people say you’re good at?”

    Awesome. All of a sudden, it’s made things so clear.

    My main areas of success are (1) translating complicated concepts (health insurance, legalese, finance) back into simple, clear, everyday English; and (2) understanding the consumer/user perspective.

    Coincidentally, a secondary success/hobby/interest of mine is video production. Thanks to your inspiration (and your pointing out that it’s a rarer/more valuable skill than writing) I think I’m going to work on turning my video production hobby into more of a professional skill. (Can you recommend a good screencast software?)


    • Michelle Schoen


      I so excited that you will be delving deeper into screencasting because that means even more awesome posts from you on my favorite subject. I’ve been teaching Camtasia and Screencasting for the last 3 years now and you are right when you say it is truelly a unique skill, because there are so many really bad screencast videos out there.

      I recommend people start by downloading the free tool from called “Jing”. When they are ready to learn how to edit and create videos longer than 5 minutes move on to downloading the trial version of Camtasia 7. In my opinion, it is, by far, the best tool for a PC user for creating powerful screencasts for marketing or training.

  • Vinish Garg

    This post gave me a good food for thought. I wonder if I mix my past successes with my professional strengths but I would say that my key success is: Ability to create the whole documentation process for an organization including the style guide, the practices and conventions. I very strongly emphasize on having a consistent and concurrent process and all users involved in documentation process, should be well trained to follow it.

    For example, for a business in London, the product was really complex and the client was not too sure about how well the Online Help served the purpose. I had to work really hard to make him understand that we need to address documentation concerns, and I suggested screencasts for key features (I learnt Camtasia in the process).

    Tom, while talking about my past successes, I am tempted to add my weakness also. I am not very good in doing research when I am stuck while using a specific feature of a HAT or new software for myself. Probably, it is a different skill altogether to be patient and use internet, and seek help from professional forums and community. It happened when I was learning how to use Camtasia. Sometimes, I run out of patience and I try to find workaround rather than to focus on how to fix the issue. In a way, your post made me relook at my bads also, and now I need to work on it.

  • write essay

    Awesome. All of a sudden, it’s made things so clear.

    My main areas of success are translating complicated concepts (health insurance, legalese, finance) back into simple, clear, everyday English; and understanding the consumer/user perspective.