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Technical Writers Fear AI and Many Want to Re-Skill
This week I look into AI writing tools from the perspective of a technical writer (I used to be one). Also: latest #aiwriter news and opinions.
My first job in the tech industry was “Information Developer” for a technical writing consultancy called Sysdoc. Within a year I had segued into a webmaster / web manager role at the New Zealand outpost of a multinational corporation, so I didn’t stay in the tech writer zone for long. But it was long enough to give me an appreciation of what technical writers do — primarily, make software and other technical systems comprehensible to the users. It was a critical job back then (the 90s) and became even moreso over the 2000s and into the 2010s, as online software “ate the world” (in Marc Andreessen’s memorable phrase).
But how is the tech writer profession coping with ChatGPT and its AI ilk? Especially given that one of the main use cases touted for generative AI is documentation. Well according to Tom Johnson, a Senior Technical Writer at Google, “change is coming quickly to the profession.”
Johnson conducted “an informal survey to find out the thoughts and concerns of technical writers about AI's impact on tech comm,” and he got 291 responses across the first week of April. His first question revealed a lot of unease among tech writers about AI. He asked: “Given AI tools' ability to simplify complex content, how worried are you about the future of your job as a technical writer?” 45% were mildly concerned, 22% concerned, and 9% very concerned (just under 2% were “freaking out”).
66% of the survey respondents think that “developer doc jobs” will be more impacted than “more creative-oriented writing jobs.” Johnson himself seemed less sure about that, and later in the post he highlighted this comment from a respondent about AI writing documentation:
“AI won’t fix all of the broken processes that need a human to untangle. It also assumes the content available to train the AI will always be of high quality which is laughable. AI doesn’t know what is shipping or what changed and the bullet points handed over by PMs won’t be enough.”
That rings true to me, because I recall that a lot of my work as a technical writer in the late-90s was documenting business and/or IT processes — and that typically required talking to engineers and other technical people first-hand and testing the systems myself.
The counter to this is that SMEs (subject matter experts) will simply input all their data into an AI and get adequate documentation back. That does seem viable — especially with relatively simple software or API documentation. But with complex products or processes, there’s a lot of useful information that only resides in the heads of an SME, and many times those people are not inclined to write it down. A good human tech writer will always be able to coax that information from an SME (or at least, that’s a big part of the job currently).
The following question led to some good responses about how AI can help with documentation: “How do you think AI tools will write documentation for you?”
The post ended with a selection of open-ended comments about AI from the technical writers surveyed. A couple of the comments stood out to me:
“Current Chat-type AI can’t write about what it doesn’t know. Most information about technical products is tacit – it exists in bits and pieces, often in the heads of product managers, developers, and support analysts. Such information is inaccessible to a search engine, but quite accessible to technical writers.”
I agree that human tech writers will always be needed for complex documentation or where there is a heavy human component (e.g. business processes). However, more straight forward technical documentation does seem to be in danger, as this respondent laid out:
“I think there will always be a place for technical writers as stewards/custodians/architects of information. As companies begin to trust AI with their own internal data however, the actual writing part will become devalued and therefore the demand/salary for tech writers will decrease. I believe that the place that’s most likely to happen first is developer documentation (due to the highly-structured nature of code/API refs) which is unfortunately where my own skills lie. Time to re-evaluate my choice of career, I think :/”
In his conclusion, even Tom Johnson — who has years of experience as a technical writer — admitted that he is looking at reskilling:
“It [AI] seems poised to bring about the transformative changes that many people anticipate and fear. I want to explore content strategy and information architecture as potential areas of specialization while also learning more about training large language models (LLMs) for documentation purposes, including prompt engineering.”
In my view, the fear that technical writers have about AI is understandable when you see quotes like this from AI startups: “Your custom workflows are effectively a content cannon that you can aim and fire to build thousands of assessments” (emphasis mine). That quote is from the CEO of an ed-tech company using AI for generating educational material, as reported in an article I wrote for The New Stack this week.
In conclusion, it remains to be seen how technical writers fare in the age of generative AI, but clearly it’s already forcing them to re-evaluate their core skills.
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The Verge: “On August 1st, an AI chatbot tool was added to Macworld, PCWorld, Tech Advisor, and TechHive.” Results have been mixed so far.
Techcrunch: Google’s Duet AI can now write your emails for you; includes an “I’m feeling Lucky” option for tone and style!
AI21 Labs announces upgrade to its product, Wordtune; it’s now “an all-in-one platform with multiple features for generative AI reading, writing and knowledge control assistance.”
OpenAI releases “a guide for teachers using ChatGPT in their classroom—including suggested prompts, an explanation of how ChatGPT works and its limitations, the efficacy of AI detectors, and bias.”
Oxford University AI course director Ajit Jaokar discusses a course idea, Mentored by books: The creative AI leadership school. “To really prepare the next generation for leadership in AI, we need to go back to an older time and sources,” he remarks (meaning books). p.s. I’ve known Ajit since Web 2.0 days, so it was nice to re-connect with him over LinkedIn messaging about this idea!
Ashley R. Cummings discusses her survey of 220 content marketers about AI; “While most content marketers are using AI, a majority of respondents (57%) said it was only moderately helpful.”
NYT columnist Farhad Manjoo doesn’t fear AI. “For me, a human creator’s very humanity feels like the ultimate trump card over the machines: Who cares about a computer’s opinion on anything?”
Stephen King is skeptical about current AI (although he fears the future): “AI poems in the style of William Blake or William Carlos Williams (I’ve seen both) are a lot like movie money: good at first glance, not so good upon close inspection.”
The Guardian: ‘Be flexible, imaginative and brave’: experts give career advice for an AI world.
Technical Writer HQ: 14 Technical Writers on the Future of AI
Zoomin: How Generative AI Impacts the Technical Content Industry (pdf; March 2023 whitepaper)
Fabrizio Ferri Benedetti: Hiring technical writers in a ChatGPT world
Kayce Basques: The role of web service API reference documentation in ChatGPT Plugins
See you next week, my fellow augmented writers!
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