The New York Times recently published an opinion piece decrying “Writer” as a viable profession for the future. In it, they noted that the income of “writers” has been going down over the past few decades, and since everyone thinks they are a writer, the era of unpaid content is upon us. They cited layoffs of journalists, the rise of unpaid bloggers, the “gig economy,” free content “fair use” on the web, and the way Amazon pricing has throttled the life out of the publishing industry to prove their case.
I suppose that, from the viewpoint of old-school journalism such as the New York Times, the current world looks very, very threatening. However, declaring our profession dead is both alarmist and premature. Indeed, we live in a time of both crisis and opportunity, where the old model is breaking down and making way for new ways of creating and distributing content. We live in a time of redefinition.
And Technical Writers are at the forefront. We may also be first to redefine our own job description. The term “writer” is giving way to the new terms of “Data Developer” and “Content Developer.” The very word “writer” describes a process that once involved putting an ink pen to vellum or paper. The very word “writer” may eventually take its place alongside the now-obsolete “scrivener,” the term for those who laboriously copied documents by hand.
As technical writers, we know the world can’t get along without content, and it is our job to deliver it. Whether it’s a description of how to set up a complex server installation, simple instructions for downloading an app on your smartphone, or description of a product in an online catalog, someone is creating and deploying that content. That person is what is currently called a writer, the invisible but all-pervasive creator. And we do more than create that content. Most of us also know the tools that allow us to deploy it, to the web, to the phone, or some other device. Any of us who have been in the industry for a while know that new tools for creating and deploying content keep evolving, and we have had to re-invent ourselves many times to keep up with evolving technology. At my first job, I created content on a manual typewriter and gave it to a Vydec word processing operator for electronic data entry; I now author in DITA XML for deployment on the web, with many evolutions in between that first job and the present.
However, having checked the source of the New York Times article, the Author’s Guild, it misses a vital point: that of what the Author’s Guild calls “censorship by marketplace.” This is an issue not just with an author’s chosen trade, but many others, as well. The forces currently driving the marketplace are working to reduce options and get the job done through the cheapest means, rather than promoting diverse offerings and ethical standards. The same forces that have sent other American jobs overseas are driving down the markets for writers. The chain is complex, but the trickle-down effects are felt in diverse places. The same forces that are reducing overall writing wages, setting prices of books high and writer compensation low, and reducing new opportunities and diversity in the field are the same ones bringing you cheap jeans from overseas, to be sold at giant chain stores.
So where do we go from here? I don’t know, but when I started in this business, I couldn’t have dreamed of some of the places it would take me. We keep re-inventing ourselves, as we always have. It’s how you survive, and writers are generally better at it than others. We learn new tools, new systems, and new ways of adapting to a changing world. Unlike mining coal, writing is not dealing with a finite resource. Our words, our thoughts, are constantly renewing. It’s the delivery and the marketplace that have changed, and it has done so radically, within a single generation. If anyone is poised to work around the changing marketplace and think outside the box, we writers are.