Adrian Warman has started a series of posts on his blog about the future of technical writing. In today’s post, Farewell to the technical writer, he argues the traditional role of a technical writer is no more:
“Marketing and sales specialists, designers, developers, developer advocates, support and operational people – indeed almost anyone associated with the overall creation and delivery of a service or product – are all perfectly capable of creating content that might not be perfect, but is good enough.”
There are many good points in Adrian’s post, and we look forward to the rest in this series. However, there is a counter argument to be made:
Why do organisations still buy Flare or RoboHelp, when they could use Markdown? We would suggest it’s because projects often become more complex over time. You start to need support more than one version of a product (the professional and the standard version, for example); you need to support more than release version; you end up developing bespoke versions for your biggest customer; you need to localise the content for international markets. As the products become more complex, so can the documentation, and it can be a struggle to manage this complexity in an efficient way with Markdown.
While the writing can be straightforward, the publishing process for Markdown content can be complex.
If people have two responsibilities (code and write user content), one of those tasks may be not given the time and attention it needs. It might be better to have one person focusing on a single task.
Only half the time in a documentation project is actually spent on writing. There’s a lot of planning and research that should go on before that into what users need from the content. Programmers may struggle with that aspect (although UX developers less so).
A Technical Author might be cheaper than a programmer or a UX developer. If you can free their time, by delegating the writing activity to a Technical Author, you might enable them to focus on more productive activities.
The traditional role of a Technical Author is certainly changing, and there is likely to be a more collaborative authoring process. However, the Technical Author can still add value.
It neatly describes the “Docs-like-code” approach to technical writing, and it challenges the impulse to write about everything. It describes Andrew’s experience of creating documentation in lightweight markup languages, such as ReStructured Text and Markdown, and using GitHub and static site generators to manage and publish the content.
Overall, I enjoyed reading the book. Andrew describes the benefits from following his approach. Ideally, I’d like to have seen more information and evidence to justify his opinions against other authoring tools. Microsoft Word might be a better choice than Markdown if you need to include complex images, tables or numbered lists. A Content Management System might be a better choice than a static website generator, if you want to provide intelligent content that modifies content to suit different users. The need to manage localised content (in multiple languages) might be easier to accomplish in DITA or MadCap Flare than by using GitHub and Markdown files.
Having said that, the book provides a useful insight into a increasingly common approach to documenting software applications.
Note-taking is an important part of a technical communication process. A typical project can move from the account manager to the project manager, and then onto the technical communicator. Sharing information gathered at client meetings with project team members is often done through internal meetings and phone calls, handover documents written in Word, and other related files uploaded to a SharePoint folder. This type of approach works, but it can be slow and time-consuming.
There are some new(ish) note-taking approaches for students that might also work for technical communicators. We’ve described them below.
The Rocketbook Wave and the upcoming Everlast Notebook are reusable paper notebooks where you transfer your notes into the Cloud using your smartphone. Both notebooks work by you using Pilot FriXion pens. In the case of the Rocketbook Wave, you can erase your notes using your microwave oven (or hairdryer) and reuse the notebook. With the Everlast, erasing is done using a damp cloth.
While notebook costs and storage issues are important to students, they are unlikely to be of much concern to technical communicators. You could use the same note-taking system, but with different “hardware”.
We’ve yet to test the Bullet Journal method, but it might mean that it’s possible for others to read handwritten notes and reduce the need to transcribe them into written notes.
Transferring your notes into the Cloud
There are three popular Cloud storage systems for note-taking: Evernote, Microsoft OneNote and Google Keep. You can use your smartphone to scan your notes and upload them as images to the Cloud. The dotted paper notebooks, such as the Leuchtturm 1917, should improve the scanning image quality.
Into those online notebooks, you can also clip web pages and insert files, such as Word documents. It’s never easy to get everyone to use a new application, so OneNote has the advantage of being part of the Office 365 suite and easily integrated with SharePoint. Unfortunately, custom tags can’t be created currently in OneNote for Mac, and this may be an issue for some users.
Which methods do you use?
Please about share your ideas and suggestions below.
Here’s a trend that didn’t make our list of predictions for 2017 – having company policies and procedures accessible via an Application Programming Interface (API).
API is a term used to describe mechanisms that allow an application to access data or functionality provided by another application, system or service. For example, if your policies and procedures were accessible via an API, they could be embedded or used in other systems within your organisation. APIs offer connectivity, flexibility and future-proofing.
Instead of staff having to look up procedures in a manual or on an intranet, the official guidance or instructions could be embedded into the applications and forms they’re using. Developers could save time by connecting the application they’re developing to the API. They wouldn’t need to write the information, and staff would always be presented with the official, definitive policy or procedure.
You’re still able to create policy and procedure documents, as a web page or in paper format.
This prediction didn’t make the list because it relates mostly to business documentation rather than technical documentation, and we’re unlikely to see many examples of it within the next 12 months. In practice, the content might be managed by a headless CMS; however, the approach would remain the same. Perhaps the NHS and other organisations in the healthcare sector will be the first to take of this approach.