Farewell?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. While the writing can be straightforward, the publishing process for Markdown content can be complex.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.

Review: Modern Technical Writing by Andrew Etter

Andrew Etter has written a short, Kindle ebook called “Modern Technical Writing: An Introduction to Software Documentation“. The book is Andrew’s personal view of technical communication, based on his experience of being a technical communicator in Silicon Valley.

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.

New note-taking methods for technical communicators

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.

Reusable notebooks

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.

Everlast notebook

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”.

The “Bullet Journal” method of note-taking

The Rocketbook notebooks contain dotted paper pages, similar to the Leuchtturm 1917 dotted notebooks, and they are often used in conjunction with the Bullet Journal method of note-taking:

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.

You can organise your notes into electronic notebooks within these applications, and also add tags to add metadata (See I’ve Been Using Evernote All Wrong. Here’s Why It’s Actually Amazing).

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.

Beta release of our Revising and Editing Content course

We’ve just published, as a beta release, our latest e-learning course: Revising and Editing Content.

It covers the following topics:

  • Editing
  • Revising content
  • Revising tools
  • Editing and revising exercises
  • Getting your content reviewed
  • The relationship between editors and writers

WriteLessons screenshotRevising and Editing Content is available as part of WriteLessons, which provides you with access to a range of e-learning courses in technical communication.

You have access to all of the courses, which you can take at your own pace.

Can a Technical Author be a master of more than one trade?

Technical Authors are normally seen as masters of writing user documentation, but their skills are not often applied to other areas of the business. For example, it’s usually the case our clients for software documentation are different from our procedures writing clients.

However, we’re currently working for a client where we began by editing a white paper, and this has led us on to other projects across departments. Work has included developing customer journey maps, a terminology database, as well as the online Help. The role is morphing into that of a content editor role: checking for consistency, spotting errors in marketing copy, rewriting copy, and so on.

So what is different? What has led to this wider scope? It may be due to us being recommended to them by word of mouth, and they had greater confidence in our abilities. It may be because they are a start up. It could be because many of the staff are not native English speakers.

We suspect it’s because the first project was the white paper. They had something that was very useful to them, for promoting the company. They also included us in their in-house chat system, which meant we could see other areas where they had issues with content. This led to us intervening more than usual, making suggestions in a proactive way. The growth of chat systems, such as Slack and Socialcast, within companies could open up other opportunities for other Technical Authors, as long as they take the initiative.

How common knowledge disappears – customer questions & answers for a turntable

In the olden days, every family had a record player (also known as a “turntable”), and pretty much everyone knew how to use it. However, if you look at the Customer Questions & Answers section for a turntable currently on sale on Amazon, it’s clear that many people today don’t know how a turntable works, or what it does. Common knowledge sometimes isn’t as common as people think.

Training news

Just a quick update on some recent training-related news.

We’ve scheduled some new classroom courses:

We’re also continuing to add more courses to WriteLessons – our bundle of elearning courses for technical communicators looking to expand their core skills. We’ve added courses called “Writing and designing embedded Help” and “Markdown”.

WriteLessons is a subscription service – a bit like Netflix. You pay for it for as long as you need it. You can stop when you want, and the subscription will finish at the end of that month. You have access to all of the courses, which you can take at your own pace.

We’re currently working on a module on post-writing and verification, which focuses on editing and proof reading, which will be added to WriteLessons. You might also see a course on Cascading Style Sheets in the upcoming months.