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Top Trends in Technical Communication

by Tom Johnson on Dec 23, 2009
categories: beginners

In a recent email to me, Jake from California (not his real name or location) writes,

I've spent most of today exploring the world of technical writing, and I find that you're very central and visible. I've read, listened to, and watched a good deal of content you've produced, plus viewed snippets of threads on the STC listserv where you either weighed in or were referenced.

If I can prevail on you for just a few minutes of your time, I'd like to ask some advice. To summarize quickly, I decided on a writing project in the mid-80s that got me into PCs and DTP software. That led to steady work in software documentation for the next ten years with much of it overlapping the development of the web. I learned several tools for that, as well. My most recent job has taken me off in another direction, and I've lost my familiarity with this industry for a few years.

I'd really like to return to what I know and like best, and I know I have a pretty steep learning curve ahead. The nearest STC chapter is more than three hours away from me, and I don't know how active they are. I was disappointed to see that the STC is having difficulties. I read David Farbey's and your posts on it. Most of my time today was spent in gathering names of software applications currently in use to begin an investigation. And I looked on a few jobs sites, too. It's been a busy day.

Could you advise me where to spend my time and energy? Besides your blogs and others I like it that I find, the TECHWR list, and possibly joining STC to gain access to their resources, how would I inform myself on current trends in documentation? When I entered the field in 1991, I did so because I had learned one software application and joined a local software user group through which a recruiter found me. I couldn't be that lucky a second time! At the moment, I feel like I could spin my wheels for quite some time without getting anywhere.

Thanks for any nudge you might be able to give me.


I am always flattered to read comments like this. I don't know what the experience is like searching for trends in technical writing, but it's neat to think that I'm "very central and visible."

I often respond to reader questions on my blog because other readers have the same question. What are the trends in the technical writing, what tools do you need to know, and how do you position yourself as a strong technical writing candidate in a competitive job market?

The technical writing tools question is always the hot button. I've learned to avoid tool discussions as much as possible. Even in my recent STC Screencasting webinar, I completely omitted tools, and someone still asked, What are you using to capture the screen? I said Camtasia Studio. Then I mentioned some other video capture tools for Macs and PCs, and within a minute, someone piped in to say that Captivate is far better than Camtasia ... and so on.

Tools are an inevitable part of the job application process. HR departments perpetuate the need to know specific tools in part because IT jobs often require specific programming language skill sets. Nevertheless, the tools issue can be deflected or minimized as you start talking about the core issues and trends in the field. So without further ado, here are the top ten trends in technical communication that you need to be familiar with.

Top Trends in Technical Communication

I loosely ranked the top ten trends according to how I see their importance.

Trend #1: Collaborative authoring. Authoring projects are no longer written by a single author working from a single perspective. Robust projects require input from multiple subject matter experts, often based in various locations/departments describing different business processes that only a person immersed in that environment can know. You need to know how to harness and integrate information from multiple authors and pull them into one searchable source. For more information, see this post on Collaborative Authoring.

Trend #2: Social media. Twitter, blogs, podcasts, Facebook, Ning, LinkedIn, and the other social networks on the web are where conversations are probably taking place about products you document. Successful companies participate in social media because it allows them to interact with their customers, gather feedback, and strengthen relationships. For more information on social media and documentation, listen to this podcast with Anne Gentle about conversation and community.

Trend #3: Hybrid technical writers. Just knowing how to write won't make you competitive. You have to wear multiple hats and become a hybrid. You're not just a writer, but a writer/web designer, a writer/content strategist. You're a writer/multimedia producer. You're a writer/information architect/business process analyst. You're a poet/programmer/QA tester/motivational speaker. :) For more on being a hybrid, listen to this podcast with Jack Molisani. Also listen to Bogo Vatovec explain that if writing is your only skill, you'll soon be fired.

Trend #4: Globalization. You may work with a team distributed globally. But your products are often globally distributed as well. This means you have to simplify your language and write in a way that can be translated. You should be thinking of different cultures and how they might [mis]interpret your instructions or need more information in different areas. For more information, listen to Kirsty Taylor's 2009 STC Summit session, Collaborating Around the World.

Trend #5: Multimedia. Screencasts are short video tutorials often streamed on YouTube or other video sharing sites (or simply played locally) that show users how to do tasks. Screencasts are part of the multimedia explosion of the web. They're intended especially for visual learners and are usually narrated. For more on screencasting, you can see my slide deck from a recent webinar I gave on screencasting.

Trend #6: Single sourcing. Maybe single sourcing isn't a new trend. Maybe it's a holy grail that was never fully achieved. But knowing how to single source content within a project is essential. You have to know how to reuse content from online help into printable guides, at theleast. If you can single source more than that, more power to you. For more information on single sourcing, listen to a few perspectives on single sourcing from Michael Hiatt, Sarah O'Keefe, and Neil Perlin.

Trend #7: DITA. Darwin Information Typing Architecture is the latest XML standard that allows reuse on a robust scale. More and more tools are supporting the DITA standard. If you're gearing up to do single sourcing and content repurposing in the big leagues (for example, the airline or pharmaceutical industries), DITA is a standard you may want to learn. For more information, listen to this podcast on DITA. Also, Sarah O'Keefe recently published a study about the rising trend of structured authoring that you may want to check out. (DITA is one way of doing structured authoring.)

Trend #8: Content strategy. Content strategy looks at content as a whole in every format (web, social media, product descriptions, instructions, forums, etc) and asks what the message is. Do we need it all? Are we diluting our branding and core message? For more on content strategy, listen to this podcast with Rahel Bailie and also check out Kristen Halverson's book on Content Strategy.

Trend #9: The Cloud. More and more applications are becoming accessible from an Internet browser rather than requiring a local install. As an application in the cloud, help is also in the cloud, which means you should be able to update your materials in real-time. Your help can be web-like. You can also start taking advantage of all the web tools that can make your content sexy, such as jQuery. For more information, see Ben Minson's post Time for Help to Get a New Wardrobe.

Trend #10: User-generated content. Rather than treating your users as passive consumers, you can empower them to add comments, become forum moderators, and contribute articles on a wiki. Users are your secret weapon, as long as you can find and foster the communities where they thrive.

If I could add one more topic, it would be intelligent content, but I already hit 10.

More Resources

Not enough for you? A couple of years ago Mark Lewis gave a presentation at the STC Summit called 10 Skills to Advance Your Career. He also included a nice handout. (And gave me permission to include both the PowerPoint and handout in this post.) His presentation is relevant here, since each of the skills he covers will make you a stronger candidate.

That's a lot to focus on, I know. But more than learning Framemaker or Flare or some other help authoring tool (which one company may use while another rejects), I recommend becoming familiar with the core trends in the field and how you can help a company move forward in each of these areas.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the tech comm, be sure to subscribe to email updates below. You can also learn more about me or contact me. Finally, note that the opinions I express on my blog are my own points of view, not that of my employer.