Technical Writing is Dying
No, not really, no it’s not, nuh uh, nope, nah…
I keep hearing that technical writing is a dying field. I have been hearing this “fact” since I first started doing the technical writing thing back whenst I was a wee babe. However, what I’ve observed in my LinkedIn inbox is very much the opposite. It still seems to be an in-demand thing that people want to continually pay me good money to do, so I keep doing it. If you are just starting out in your technical writing career, ignore the Googles about whether your fledgling career is dying, alright? That’s like going to WebMD when you have a headache. All of a sudden you’re convinced you’re dying of elbow cancer and you have three months to live. Just don’t do it. Don’t. Listen to Auntie JB, okay? You’re gonna be fine.
I mean, sure, the clickbait does get one thing right. Eventually, all jobs will go away and the world will mostly be run by robots and like the three dudes that can fix the robots when they break. So in that sense, yah, it’s a dying industry, but like, so is the entire rest of the economy? Eventually we will all have to cope with doing nothing while we let the robots do all the things, and I’m SUPER great with that idea as long as no one Minority Reports me, specifically.
I have yet to meet a developer that isn’t trying to automate themselves out of a job. But, like, have you ever spent much time with devs? lol. This XKCD comic will always be hilarious to me because of the scary accuracy to real life automation situations I’ve witnessed with my own peepers.
So yeah, I’m not worried about how long it will be before tech writing as a career is annihilated by advances in technology. That’s gonna take a WHILE y’all. I’ll be retired by then.
These are some of the arguments I’ve heard as to why my career is dying a slow and tragic death…
The Documentation Should Live With The Code
Have you heard this? “The documentation should live with the code.” I hear that all the time. Hey that’s cool, I’m not allergic to code. I can write in whatever tools you need. I’m flexible. Give me a markdown editor and a GitHub repo output to like a Jekyll or Sphinx site or whatever and I’ll hand you back some brilliant looking tech docs. That’s a standard part of the technical writer’s arsenal these days. What do you think we’re all cavemen writing on Big Chief tablets with pencil? ha ha ha ha …. *hastily hides legal pads* nothing to see here… If you want your documentation to live with the code, sure. If you want your documentation to live outside of the code in like maybe some other repository or CMS, fine. If you want me to work out of MS Word, I will quit and I will try to burn your office down as I’m leaving. Well, I guess in some ways I am not… that… flexible.
Better UIs Create Less of a Need for Documentation
Hahahahaha. Are you kidding? I’m not even going to bother with this one. I write about spectacularly designed apps for a living right now. The UI and the user experience provided is top notch, like, super slick award-winning stuff. We still have over 70 product guides that require updates because of the continually changing UI, and we have more new features coming out all the time, which means I never get to take a vacation. Pffftttt. Get outta here with this ridiculous notion that UIs will ever be so self-explanatory that users will not need additional details from documentation.
The other day a 75-year-old told me something I, a 32-year-old millennial hipster who works in the tech industry, did not know how to do with my own iPhone. Why? She took a class and read the manual. Such is the power of documentation… neat, right?
Automatically Generated Documentation Is a Thing Now!
Sure, there are advances in tooling. Swagger, for instance, is beautiful, and is now considered kind of the gold standard for API documentation.
Create Great API Documentation | Swagger
Swagger tools take the manual work out of creating API documentation, with solutions for generating, visualizing, and…
If it’s exposed to clients, does it still need to be looked over after it’s generated? Absolutely. I mean, have you seen auto-generated news articles that are like a sentence long, riddled with mistakes, and generally fail to explain much of anything? Or have you ever tried a speech-to-text app? Yeah, I have. It’s terrible. The technology’s not there yet. It needs more iterations (see above XKCD comic).
Developers Can Write It Themselves, After All, They’re the SMEs
If there’s one thing I know for sure about developers, it’s that most of them are not confident in their ability to write for a customer-facing audience. That, and they should stop tucking their t-shirts into jean shorts. Are there some devs who are great at writing? 100% yes there are and I love all three of them, they make parts of my job easier. Human error is a thing, and technical writers all have varying degrees of OCD about grammatical mistakes. We just do, it’s what we love. Leave us alone and let us fix things, my dears.
Technical writing is about more than editing.
I believe that the demand for people who can sit in a room with someone for an hour, and come out of that room with well-crafted documentation (or at least a Visio drawing) that can be consumed by multiple audience types will never actually go away.
I believe the demand for people who think as I do about end user behavior, and are always searching for the least complicated method to serve up information, will never actually go away.
I believe the demand for people who think about the documentation maintenance required to keep a page up-to-date will never actually go away. (This actually happened to me today, there was a page that literally had the oldest and newest release versions of $WhateverThing written out instead of just linking to the package repo feed where it gets updated in real time — if I left it as it was, the page would’ve become obsolete very quickly, thereby ruining trust in the documentation as a source of truth.)
I believe the demand for people who do what it is we technical communicators are good at, a̶r̶r̶o̶g̶a̶n̶t̶l̶y̶ elegantly poking holes in documentation, asking questions that help clarify the content and improve user experience, along with… other… general chicanery, will never go away.
There’s still demand for my skill set. I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon.
And later, when we’re all some (hopefully less awful) version of George Jetson, even the sprockets will need us human persons to push that big red button occasionally.