Answering Reader's Questions: How To Keep Up with Work/Family Balance, and Which Tools to Use
I received the following email from a reader:
Super-sized kudos to you on your tech writer voices website and podcasts! Great job tackling topics that matter to tech writers. For me personally, it has really helped me stay current as I re-enter the field after taking some years off to raise young kids. So thanks, and tell me what vitamins you take to keep up with work/family balance. Do you ever sleep? (Good future topic, eh?)
Also, I'm wondering if a guru like you could direct me. Which online help authoring tool set(s) which would make me the most marketable while I hunt for a job? Specifically, for documenting a web 2.0 developed application, what tool do you suggest?
First, thanks for the feedback and question. As to the vitamins I take to keep up with work/family/sleep balance, I listen to podcasts while driving or exercising, and I also read feeds. You can learn a lot just by skimming down a list of feeds in a Feedreader, like FeedDemon or Newsgator.
But the content for most of my blog posts come from podcasts I listen to. I wrote earlier about how you can listen to podcasts without dedicating any special time for them. The problem is a lack of technical writing podcasts. To my knowledge, there are just two: Tech Writer Voices and DMN Communications. Other podcasts often have overlapping topics that spill into the realm of technical communication, but the focus isn't solely on technical communication. Still, they are extremely valuable.
I also learn a lot from creating the podcasts, because I get to talk to intelligent people who have interesting perspectives. I do have a family, so I typically don't get to my computer or email until after the kids are asleep. That's why I squeeze in podcasts during the day. The blog becomes a journal to record the information I learn about tech writing or technology trends. If you keep your ears open, every day you learn something worthwhile to write about. Plus I simply love to write.
As for the second question, about the online help authoring toolset that would make you most marketable, I'd say the market has shifted such that no one tool is the industry standard. I wrote a post a while ago quoting from Doug Davis on tools. To recap, he says:
… tools are just easier to use and more powerful than they were back then. So, a typical employer's expectation is that technical communicators worth their pay should be able to catch up on almost any tool pretty quickly. The net result is that it doesn't cost an employer very much to train a new person to use a tool. Maybe it means a day or two of less-than-usual productivity; that's it. What costs employers a whole bunch of money is training new technical communicators in the industry about which they're going to be writing.
Many job descriptions require that you've produced online help, but they don't mention a specific tool. General technical aptitude is superior to knowing a specific tool. While I may have not used a certain tool a company uses to create online help, because I know X, Y, and Z tools, I demonstrate that I can easily learn the company's choice of tools.
The tool market is in a state of flux — there really is no industry standard. RoboHelp, Flare, Doc to Help, Framemaker, WebWorks e-Publisher, XMetaL, AuthorIT, XML editors, DITA, content management systems, and so on are all used. Honestly, I feel confident that I could master almost any tool within a month. Given that you may be working for a company for 2 to 7+ years, one month is nothing.
If employers hire based only on a candidate's knowledge of one tool, and neglect years worth of training in writing, SME interaction, usability, information architecture, web design, interviewing, and other skill sets, they're shortchanging themselves. Companies should look for evidence of technical aptitude, and assume it will enable the writer to learn the company's tools.
For documenting Web 2.0 developed applications, which online help authoring tool do I recommend? I'd say if you're documenting a Web 2.0 application, where the code is open source and much of the content is contributed by users, or where you're expecting heavy user participation, use a wiki platform like Mediwiki. Wordpress is an open source Web 2.0 blogging platform, and their help is mostly written by users. (But they would probably double their appeal if they hired a paid technical writer to fix their help.) Web 2.0 applications are hardly the norm for most companies, though. We probably won't see this shift to corporate Web 2.0 apps in the purest sense (where users have control of the content) for several years.
One cool platform you can use to provide help for web 2.0 apps is blogging software. Check out the help content of this realtor website. I was thrilled to see this, and they said their users like it. Basically, it's a blog functioning as a help system. I've not run into other sites like this, but as blogging platforms blend with content management systems, delivering help this way may become more common. Mike Hamilton also told me Madcap is experimenting with putting wiki functionality into Flare. The only slowdown is lack of demand.
Web 2.0 is all about building relationships with your customers. Creating a blog to accompany your corporate website is the best thing you can do right now. For example, Sunbelt Software features a blog. What a cool new medium for technical writers to move into. It's easy, it's fun, and users love the transparency, access, and personal/human aspects. WordPress is a perfect blogging tool for this. Learning to customize themes, templates, and styles is helpful. It can take a while to learn this, but if you know CSS, it helps. (Note: If you missed it, be sure to check out my Corporate Blogging and the Technical Writer article in the Sept/Oct. 2006 Intercom.)
I also know your question about tools is a common one, so check out the Techwr-l archives. Also, subscribe to the comments for this post and see if anyone offers additional advice.
Open invitation: If you have some thoughts for this reader, please share them by commenting on this post.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.