What is the future of technical writing? The answer is interactivity. The phenomenon of Web 2.0 has converted Web surfers into Web content providers. People don't just browse the Web anymore, they get involved. They post their photos on flickr, track their movements on twitter, interact with their friends on facebook, review books and CDs on amazon, and comment on their favorite blogs. Many of them probably blog themselves. Today's user expects to reach out to companies whose products he or she buys and uses, and they expect solutions if they have a question or a problem.
As a technical writer, how can you make your documentation more accessible to your users while adding value to your products and contributing to the Company's bottom line? Start a technical support blog. We've talked before about the advantages that blogs can offer your users and your Company. They are a great opportunity to learn what your customers think about the Company's products and what experiences they are having with them. Based on comments that you receive, you will be able to deliver solutions that you know people need, and have the chance to pass user feedback to your design and development teams. Here are the things you'll need to put in place to start your own technical writing blog.
A blogging "platform" is software that allows for the various aspects of any blog, posting comments, RSS feed, or others. There are a variety of hosted online platforms that anyone can register for and use for free. Some examples are Blogger, and Wordpress. There are also offline platforms that allow you to run your blog on your own computer and then publish it to your own or your Company's own hosted webspace. This allows your Company to list the blog under its own domain name, rather than the domain name of the hosting blog platform. Some online platforms, such as Wordpress, also offer blogging under the company domain name for a fee.
Ideally, your Company's IT or Web team will be able to help you set up the blog and design it so that it fits stylistically with the rest of the Company's site. If your Company is on a very low budget, though, give one of the hosted services a try.
What will you write about? Well, you're a writer. You should be able to think of something! Seriously though, once you get started, you'll probably have plenty of user questions to address. In the beginning, though, you'll have to come up with your own content. Posts about lesser known features of your product are a great idea, as well as short interviews with members of the design team, interviews with power users, and humorous pieces on customers who are using your product for a novel purpose, such as lawn mowers for a charity lawnmower race.
Blog posts are generally short, around 300-500 words. So it shouldn't take you long to develop a few posts that will engage, entertain, and inform your readers.
How often should you post? That's up to you. The most important thing is to post regularly. Once a week is fine, even twice a week is alright. Posting more than once a day can annoy your readers unless you have really useful information every time.
Make your writing style more informal and conversational than you're used to in your other writing. Don't cut and paste sections of a user's manual and call it a blog post. You'll want to give readers the impression that you're talking face to face with them. And don't forget to encourage them to participate. Ask them questions about the products and their experiences with them. Invite them to leave comments and ask questions.
How candid should you be? Do you want to air your Company's dirty laundry? Do you want the world to know that there's a significant bug in your interface and your company hasn't figured out how to solve it yet? The answers to these questions will vary by company, and unless you're the company, you won't decide on them alone (or at all). One thing to keep in mind, though, about the Web, is that openness is fast becoming a standard. It may be impossible to prevent information from getting out without your company's permission, and with networking applications like Twitter, news travels quickly. If you discover a problem, your best course may lie in being the first to tell the world about the bug. Instead of looking like you have something to hide, you'll look like a stand up company for owning up to your mistakes.
Try blogging. It can be a great way to promote your Company and products, stay in touch with users, and solve their problems. The time is coming when blogging may become a flagship element of online product help.
Staying in touch with your users isn't the only thing you can do in the blogosphere. You can also get to know other technical writers and stay on top of what's happening in the field by subscribing to and reading the wide variety of technical writing blogs out there. There are technical writers who blog weekly or even daily about the latest software tools, how to organize projects, managing your workday, and a host of other helpful issues which every aspiring technical writer needs to know more about. There are also a growing number of podcasts available covering technical writing topics.
Start Your Own
After reading a few of the blogs that are out there and leaving some comments, you'll start to be a contributing member of the community. Why not take this a step further? Why don't you start your own technical writing blog? "Wait," you may be saying, "I'm not a technical writer yet. I'm just taking a course!" Well, what about a blog covering your experiences as you get started as a technical writer? A blog like this could find plenty of interested readers who, like you, are looking into technical writing. You could also attract the interest of more seasoned professionals who will be happy to share experiences that they learned as they themselves got into the field.
Whether you get involved by posting to other writers' blogs or by starting your own, it's a great idea to get involved. In a high tech field like technical writing, everyone is online. Blogs are the places where people go for information and to meet others who share their interests. As you move forward with your technical writing career, you'll find that you have more and more of your own experience to share.
Technical Writing can be a skill you need from time to time in developing and marketing a product, or it can be a dynamic, rewarding profession. As technology pervades every corner of our daily lives, good technical communicators will continue to be in even greater demand. This course is just the beginning of all there is to learn about technical writing. Get involved. Join the online community of technical writers and the STC. Learn all you can, and never stop learning.