bookmark_borderThe Death of Tradition

Job titles are one thing, but what do you actually do? Are you a ‘traditional’ Technical Author or a modern technical communications professional? Is there a difference?

I think there is, I think there is a distinction between the two although I’m not quite sure where that line is drawn and, as with most things in this multi-discipline profession of ours, the line is probably blurry and not all that straight.

For me the line separates what I consider the old and the new, the line between traditional technical writing and the modern day technical communicator, and I think the distinction is largely around the approaches each type of professional take when it comes to managing content.

I realise this may seem a little contentious, and possibly a little divisive (pun intended), so let me explain.

At the recent West of Scotland Area Group meeting, a few of us started discussing this. We all agreed that the traditional notion of what a technical writer (author) does has changed and that the change was driven mostly through technological advances.

For most modern companies, gone are the days of the author, editor, and illustrator producing printed documentation. The rise of the internet has changed the understanding of information and so our job roles (if not our titles) have morphed into what we do today, we write, we draw, we collate, filter, edit and publish information from a wide variety of sources, we care about the user experience of the product, and we push all of that information and knowledge out in many different formats, to different devices in radically shrunken timescales. We write topics, not pages, and publish to online portals, not printed and bound manuals.

From what I can tell, and I’ll admit that I’m not best placed to comment on any of this, I’ve only ever worked in software companies, but chatting to people at conferences and so on it does seem like the more traditional (old-fashioned?) approach of having a team – where the technical author writes the words, the illustrator draws the diagrams and artwork, before their work is combined and sent to an editor before being printed en masse – is slowly shrinking. For me it seems like that approach is typically based around some level of regulation (or litigation) meaning the scope of the content, choice of format, and even the list of final deliverables is impossible to negotiate.

Meanwhile, freed of such constraints, many of us find ourselves free to choose not to document a small change in an obscure and little used part of our product, and able change what we deliver and how we will deliver it.

Is it fair to be so black and white? Is there really a line, a divide, within our profession?

After all, my exposure to other technical communicators is largely through online sources (blogs, twitter, articles) and as those of us in the software industry have a vested interest in understanding these different mediums, it makes some sense that we are the ones making more noise than our counterparts who work in industries that demand paper-based outputs.

I think the disciplines required to work in a regulated industry are starting to differ more and more from those of us who can have input into the scope of what we do (and what we don’t do). There is a risk that future professionals won’t be able to cross that gap, they won’t understand (or want to understand) why they have to have numbered paragraphs, or why every single change must be traceable to the root requirement.

Over time, the more traditional roles, or rather the industries within which they operate, will start to come more towards a more modern view, in fact they already are. Airlines are allowing iPads onto flight decks, more connected systems of documentation and information capture forms are being seen in car production factories, and as further industries invest in modernising their infrastructures, so to must the technical writers.

bookmark_borderHandling Information Laziness

Like most people, I ‘fell’ into the world of Technical Communications. I didn’t choose this career, and like many I didn’t study anything that remotely involved writing. But then, who really knows what they want to be when they are choosing what to study at university.

So, after spending a few years learning about Electronic and Electrical Engineering, and largely finding the entire experience boring, I packed that in and somehow found myself working as a Technical Administrator for a small local software firm. My Mother had spotted the job advert in the local paper and the rest, as they say, has passed under the bridge…

Having spent some time helping out at a local community centre, creating flyers and brochures for local charities and organisations, starting work as a Technical Author was a departure into a new ‘technical’ world. I learned a lot of things in that first job but the most important things can be easily summarised and stated that as “how NOT to be a good Technical Author”. Still, no-one can say I don’t learn from my mistakes.

Fast forward many years and I find myself in the position of knowing enough about my profession to understand how it can best help the company for which I’m currently working, and being comfortable enough about the processes involved with being a Technical Author that I don’t need to worry about them on a daily basis. I can quite happily paddle along, with nary a ripple cast in my wake. Of course I strive keep up-to-date with the latest fads and fashions in the world of information access and creation, technologies and methods which are constantly on the move, but the changes to the prevalent methodologies within the Technical Communications industry (the draft and review process for example) evolve rather slowly, and I have to admit that the lack of speed of progress in these areas is a concern.

Anyone involved with the software industry will have felt the varying effects of the internet, good and bad, as it has ripped across many different areas of technology, massively changing how people think about information. We, as Technical Authors/Writers/Communicators now work with a commodity which continues to rise in value as more and more people create and manipulate, publish and expose it for everyone to use. It’s no revelation to state that the internet has brought about an ‘information boom’ and this boom means that, for those of us working in the software industry, we need to rise and meet one simple expectation.

I want it now. No, I don’t want to look it up. No, I don’t want to have to read anything. No, I’m not that interested in anything else other than solving my current problem. Now. Please. Thank You.

Not even 10 years ago the expectation was different. The expectation had some built-in tolerance, an acceptance that information may need to be found, or at least filtered, from at least one source. Maybe that expectation was taken advantage of, maybe that expectation gave us an excuse to produce a level of product documentation that was ‘good enough’, as opposed to ‘better than expected’. Maybe not.

The field of Technical Communications prides itself on making information usable. Yes, there is a focus on making sure that information is complete, and accurate, but after that there is little point in having information if what the reader wants to find is hidden away behind some weird structure or methodology with which they are unfamiliar. There are a number of ways to presenting information to the user, and some consistent methods such as a Table of Contents, or an Index being the most common. However these all require some effort and in the age of instant access I’d humbly suggest that there is one growing universal truth by which all information must abide: If I can’t Google for it, why would I bother?

Of course it’s not all bad, one technological advantage of the “Google-age” is the relative lack of work required to make your information available to the mighty search engine. Put your PDFs, web pages, or even Word documents on a website and Google will find it. Simple enough.

However, to fully leverage the advantage and properly embrace the webcentric view so many people now have of the information world, we, as a profession, need to add another string to our bow, we need to master the skill of search engine optimisation (SEO). This is no small task but, naturally, the internet is brimming with information that can help, with plenty of hints and tips to get you started.

The world of information, both creation and usage, continues to change, I wonder what other skills we will need to develop?


Hello? Is this on?

Small blip there, apologies. I presume I missed a memo somewhere as it was definitely a server issue that affected a few other sites or was this one of those things I was emailed about months ago and have since forgotten? Most probably the latter so apologies again for the lack of warning.


As a Technical Author, I write software manuals for a living. The process of creating the manuals involves a fair amount of planning, information sourcing and research. Frequently I am writing the manuals at the same time the code is being developed, and it’s only towards the end of a project that I get to see the finished applications and compare them with the documentation. When that moment comes all hell breaks loose as usually my interpretation of a function (taken from a specification document) differs slightly from the implemented design in the UI. This is the way of things and I have no complaint at all as I’ve grown to accept that at the end of a development project, the tech author will always have a heavier workload than at any other time. I’ve worked in several companies with differing approaches to product development and it’s always the same. Universally constant.

I’m at that stage of the project right now. The only slight difference from the norm is that I’m currently working on six different projects, with manuals for two of them (the largest two) still being corrected and re-written. I’ve yet to start on a 250 page configuration guide, nor a 180 page system installation guide (these are large enterprise wide applications with many parts on different servers). And yes, I am beginning to hit the “mild hysteria” stage but have yet to make it full blown panic (I don’t think I’ll actually get there with this project as, for a change, all the information I need is available, I’m just lacking time to process it all).

Hang on, I’m breaking one of my own rules: Do not blog about work!

Suffice to say that whilst it may appear normal here, I feel very much like the graceful swan (ugly duckling?) of blogging. Posting glides smoothly onwards whilst real life is thrashing away under the surface. But then that’s no different from any other blog really, what you post is never a true reflection of your life, of your person, of your thoughts and emotions. For one, capturing such things accurately in writing is a skill beyond most, and if we blogged everything we did we would be churning out the most awful, boring and repetitive navel-gazing posts day after day after day.

Hmmmm, that feels a tad to close to the mark.

Never fear, posting will continue apace as I have plenty of ill-conceived draft posts that I’ll be dusting off and “pre-date publishing”, but I may be noticeably absent from your comment boxes (it’s normally Gert that notices, mind you, as she chases me from comment box to comment box). Of course, I’ll still expect you to keep me entertained with witty and pithy comments as, if nothing else, it would make a change.


I recently passed on a piece of knowledge that I was given by a previous boss. I was a young eager thing with no real mind of what I was doing. I would throw a document together and punt it out to the world without so much as a second thought, not advisable when you are a Technical Author. Nevertheless it was my first real job and I really wasn’t THAT sure what I was doing (still not that sure now).

Anyway, I came across a website tonight, read through it’s blog page and thought to myself “That person could do with that piece of advice”. So here it is:

“Always re-read”

Simple, huh. Then why doesn’t this bloke do it? The man’s an idiot, obviously.