RE: Oh those tender users

Subject: RE: Oh those tender users
From: "Mike Starr" <writstar -at- wi -dot- net>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 2 Jan 2001 0:50:48 -0600

Hello, Andrew

I have to disagree with you for a change. I've been saying for years that
I'm a professional clueless idiot. I have a good enough engineering-type
background to understand all of the technologies I'm asked to document but
I've never really had any specific knowledge of the product or the
technology involved.

I've been doing documentation for years for products that I didn't even
know existed until I started the project. In the course of things, I've
grown to be damned near expert level with all of them. The projects have
been big enough that there was more than enough for me to do creating the
structure of the documentation while learning the product. My normal
procedure has been to work up the outline of the documentation and as I
drill down into the detail level of the outline I learn the things I need
to learn in order to fill in the pigeonholes I've created in the outline.

My first job as a tech writer was for a company that manufactured laser
trim systems for the hybrid microelectronics industry. Never heard of the
technology at all before I started. Next, I moved to doing software
documentation for programmable controllers. Following that, I was asked to
document the change management system for a cable TV operation. In the
process, I found that there really was no change management system so I
ended up creating the nucleus of it as part of the documentation project.
Then, I went on to doing the documentation for a sophisticated network
monitoring package for systems administrators. Next, repair documentation
for a nuclear imaging system. And now, I'm doing documentation for a
programmable controller-driven feed mill system as well as a programmable
controller-driven asphalt batch plant system. The one thing all of these
have had in common was that I didn't know much of anything about any one of
them before I started.

I'm proud of the documentation projects I've completed because I keep
asking questions with that newbie wide-eyed wonder until I have a thorough
grasp of the product and what it's designed to do and hopefully have
answered any questions a user might ask. For all intents and purposes, I've
never really had anyone to hold my hand. It's usually been just me and the
product. Occasionally I've had pretty decent access to folks who could
answer my questions but there have been several times when there just was
nobody available so I just plowed right in and figured it out myself.


Mike Starr WriteStarr Information Services
Technical Writer - Online Help Developer - Technical Illustrator
Graphic Designer - Desktop Publisher - MS Office Expert
Telephone (262) 694-0932 - Pager (414) 318-9509 - writstar -at- wi -dot- net

>Subject: Oh those tender users
>From: Andrew Plato <intrepid_es -at- yahoo -dot- com>
>Date: Fri, 29 Dec 2000 15:45:36 -0800 (PST)
>X-Message-Number: 73
>> The freshness of the "non-technical" person can provide him or her with
>> objectivity that more closely mirrors that of the TARGET of all our
>> writing - the USER.
>This is akin to saying "I am a better writer because I remain ignorant."
>I hear a lot of writers extol the virtues of understanding the needs of the
>user as if they were a prophet communing with the Lord. I hate to tell you
>this, but the beloved users could care less about you and you're not doing
>any favors remaining ignorant.
>Imagine you're getting a college degree in Physics. It's your senior year.
>You've worked really hard to get good grades and you've paid thousands of
>dollars for your education. In your last term, you're required to take a
>in quantum physics. The course is taught by a guy who really cares about
>and takes a lot of time to get to know your needs, but he has little if any
>knowledge of Physics. He doesn't even know the difference between quarks
>Would you want to remain in this teacher's class? How on earth could he
>teach you anything if all he does is reformat the information handed to him
>from a textbook. Sure, he may talk a good talk, but how can you trust
him? Is
>this the kind of teacher you want when you spend $50,000 on an education?
>Okay, now lets apply that to our profession. I spend $9500.00 on a
>product (let's say its an e-mail server). I get handed a manual written
by a
>guy who really cared about my needs - but clearly did not have a clue what
>mail server is, does, or can do.
>Do you think I want this product? How dare this company sell me this
>only to provide a manual written by a person who felt the needs of the user
>were more important than understanding the product.
>If you do not understand the technologies and topics you're documenting
>doing the greatest disservice possible to your beloved users. You're
>them incomplete or inaccurate information.
>Command of style and grammar is the BEGINNING of technical writing. The
>where you start, not the end point. At some point you must move beyond
this or
>you'll never be able to write effectively.
>> In essence, it made me the perfect "For Dummies" test subject for our
>> documentation: If _I_ could understand it, ANYBODY could! (Go ahead
>> Andrew, load your missiles!)
>So you're a professional dummy. There's a title I have aspired to all my
>Ignorance is not a professional skill. Good writers know the topics they
>documenting so well they can anticipate confusing ideas, designs and
>before the product is ever finished. They can also see through to the
>side and as such educate the user rather than instructing them.
>> I think you can be a tech writer if you can learn, organize, and present
>> information to your audience.
>You can be a decent editor with those skills. You will never be a good
>until you know what you're writing about.
>Andrew Plato

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