Introduction to problems in writing for digital media.

The Past, Present, and Future of Professional Communication

August 19, 2016

This is going to sound like it is about me, but, in fact, it is all about you.

There is a saying: “If you don’t understand history, you are destined to repeat it.” Right now, the history I mean is the history of those people who are now discouraged by their unemployment and their inability to find good new jobs. They complain that they were left behind. This is perhaps the greatest tragedy of a dynamic economy. People get left behind. They reach middle-age and they look up and see the end of their financial security coming at them like a runaway locomotive.

But there is another way of seeing that problem. The economy is going to change over time. We all know it. Worse, it seems to be changing faster and faster. Technical writers are happily writing online help, manuals, guides, and other important material and suddenly they start hearing the phrase, “single sourcing,” and terms like ASP/SQL, XML, DITA, RSS, AJAX, and more. In what seems like a flash, their old skills are not worth as much.

They no more adapt to single sourcing and they begin hearing “creative economy,” “outsourcing,” and “offshoring,” and their skills become worth even less.

When I was hired at USU, I was tasked with identifying emerging technologies and teaching them to my students. It was our goal to always be teaching on the cutting edge of the profession. I have spent the past 25 years keeping up with all the changes — and there were many of them.

The problem is this: as with all professions, as writers, you keep up or you will be left behind. What follows is my proof.

The Profession 40 years ago
When I began my career as a writer and designer, I worked in a shop that perpetually smelled of hot wax. We created layouts, comprehensives, and paste-ups as a part of our day-to-day work. To paste something down onto a paste-up, we ran it through a hot waxer and pasted the item down with the hot wax (onto a sheet of cardboard on a table that lighted the paste-up from underneath (a light table)) so we could see where to paste the content. The machine creating the type we pasted down (a Lynotype) created the type in lead in real time. The lead was inked and printed on a page. That is where the profession was when I began it.

I remember once taking the paste-up of a book to the printer with the book in a box exposed to the sun. When I got there, the sun had melted the wax and the book had come unglued. Knowing that the paste-up needed to stay in the shade was valuable information back then. Of course now it is irrelevant.

I once took a photo of a man (sans hardhat) driving a construction machine. We needed the technicians to put the hardhat on the man digitally. The computer they used filled a room, took two men to run it, and the project took a day of programming – and cost $700K. Today, I can do that in 30 seconds with a software that costs $10 a month.

Staying Relevant
I have stayed relevant through the decades by changing as circumstances demanded. When PC computers became available, I got an AT&T 8086 with two floppy drives and a word processing software called WordPerfect (there were no hard drives yet).

When Corel Draw came out, I began doing my drawings digitally.

When PageMaker and Ventura Publisher came out, I purchased each and began exploring desktop publishing.

A new software called “ToolBook” allowed me to begin building hypertext documents, and later versions permitted me to do hypermedia.

A little app called “Composer” was attached to the original Netscape browser, and it allowed me to build webpages as early as 1995.

I won’t bore you with more, but the thing that kept me relevant was keeping up with the evolution of the profession. That is the most important advice I can give you. To stay relevant, you need to keep up. That requires a habit of lifelong learning.

The Takeaway
Many of the things I teach on this site are as alien to traditional writers as quantum physics is. The big difference is this: if you know nothing about quantum physics, there is no harm, no foul. If you don’t understand the future of professional writing, you will be left behind.

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