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Tech comm trends: Providing value as a generalist in a sea of specialists (Part I)

Series: Tech comm trends: Providing value as a generalist in a sea of specialists

by Tom Johnson on Oct 2, 2018
categories: api-doc simplifying-complexitywriting

Technical writing jobs have shifted more from the end-user domain to the developer domain. This creates challenges because most technical writers are generalists, not specialists, when it comes to technology they document. In these specialist contexts, technical writers can add value by focusing on authoring/publishing processes and tools, knowledge of the user experience, and information usability.

Series summary

Developer tools and languages are becoming increasingly specialized and complex, requiring engineers to play more active, collaborative roles in documentation. The market opportunities for tech writers have gravitated toward this complexity, with most of the jobs in demand involving developer documentation.

Yet tech writers are typically generalists, so they face real challenges when it comes to providing value in these specialized contexts. What value can generalists provide in a world of increasing specialization? How can you avoid becoming a second-class citizen in developer contexts?

Even without a specialist’s in-depth knowledge, tech writers can still play powerful roles in shaping documentation. Tech writers can provide value as generalists even in a sea of specialists by (1) instrumenting the publishing workflow and platform, (2) relaying knowledge of the user experience, and (3) implementing information usability.


As a blogger who carefully looks at metrics (whether it’s clicks on newsletter articles or web traffic analytics), I have a sense of what topics resonate with readers. Without a doubt, one topic that gets the most clicks, year and year out is the topic of trends.

Exactly why the topic of trends is so popular, and whether bloggers have any special insight about trends, is not something I’ll go into. But I will tackle the subject of trends in a more head-on way in this essay.

What trends will I be covering? Chatbots, augmented reality, or maybe even the singularity? No. I’m focusing on trends toward specialization and complexity and how they affect tech comm professionals, who tend to be generalists. The tensions between specialists and generalists seems to articulate a key reason why tech comm professionals often feel undervalued.

Argument overview

In a nutshell, my argument is this:

  • Technology is becoming increasingly specialized, particularly with developer documentation.
  • Since tech writers are generalists, the task of documenting specialized technology often becomes daunting.
  • Because the information is so specialized, many developers participate and collaborate in the authoring process.
  • To provide value in specialist contexts, tech writers can focus on (1) authoring/publishing processes and tools, (2) knowledge of the user experience, and (3) information usability.

I’ll dive into each of these points in depth.

Interactive surveys

On each page, I include a short survey to gather your responses and input. Through these surveys, I’m hoping to gather some professional consensus about a lot of the points I make here. I want to know if I’m advancing ideas that seem shaky or that don’t align with your own experience. Ideally, everything I write or argue for would be meticulously based on lengthy research and studies; however, that isn’t always possible, so I’m hoping to leverage your own experiences and insights to get more confirmation.


I’m giving several presentations related to this series topic. For a slide presentation, see You can also download a PDF of the slides here.

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.