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September 28, 2010

The business of technical communication

By default, managers and executives see technical communication as a cost center, similar to a QA department or a Human Resources group.

“Necessary evil” is not where you want to be for great career success.

You want to be “indispensable.” And you want to be indispensable in ways that are financially compelling. For example, you might:

  • Introduce minimalism principles, which reduce the total amount of content and therefore localization expenses by 20 percent.
  • Reduce the amount of time that content creators spend on formatting by improving templates and therefore formatting automation, thus saving the organization hundreds of hours per product release.
  • Find a workaround for [some nasty technical problem], which cut document production time from 5 days to 3 hours.
  • Use search engine optimization techniques to improve your content’s Google results, increasing page views and therefore visibility of your content. (For bonus points, show a correlation between increased web site traffic and reduced technical support calls.)

By now, you’ve probably noticed that “write great content” isn’t on my list. This is because of the following factors:

  • The hackneyed “anyone can write” makes it difficult to sell “I’m a great writer.”
  • Most technical communication doesn’t require great writing. It requires “good enough” writing.
  • In many organizations, management is either incapable of differentiating between good and bad writing, or simply does not see the value of better writing. (See: “necessary evil”)

For technical communicators and consultants, these are the implications. You must:

  • Demonstrate sufficient competence as a writer to get hired. In most cases, an adequate writer who produces content quickly will be preferred over a great writer who works more slowly.
  • Produce content that conforms to established style guidelines, templates, and other corporate standards. (Clean content is more valuable than messy content.)
  • Look for ways to improve productivity and drive down the cost of supporting content development.
  • Develop innovative new ways to create and deliver content, such as increased community participation.

To succeed, technical communicators need to focus more on the process of efficient technical communication and less on the art of writing.