Why enter contests for technical documentation?

Subject: Why enter contests for technical documentation?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 5 Jan 2001 16:24:13 -0500

Bruce Byfield, responding to Iain Lang's thoughts about entering his
company's documentation in a contest, wonders: <<
Why would they want to? I'm not asking to be snide; I'm genuinely curious...
Writing contests of any sort - whether it's poetry or manuals - are
influenced by prevailing fashions, and, all too often, by cronyism, with the
judges' company or the judge's friends winning far more often than you'd
predict by probability.>>

Sometimes it's just for bragging rights. Telling your customers you won a
documentation award is worth a fair bit of good will in terms of persuading
them you take their needs seriously. Win a bunch of awards and they're going
to be awfully impressed. That's worth money.

Other than that, the purpose depends on the nature of the competition and
how open they are about their guidelines. Granted, many of the problems you
mention are rampant, as are a wide variety of scams. But competitions such
as STC's are considerably less subjective. For example, STC tries to use
consistent guidelines across all chapters; in the one competition I entered,
I received a detailed evaluation of my publication based on those
guidelines, with a score beside each item on the checklist, and when I wrote
in to explain a misunderstanding by the judges, I received an adjusted score
based on my critique of the relevance of the checklist item to the
communication goal. (fwiw, I won an award of merit.) It's that evaluation
that made the entry fee worthwhile: I got a professional, relatively
unbiased assessment of my work that I could subsequently use to improve what
I do for a living. That kind of guidance is very difficult to come by;
friends are usually too polite, and hiring a formal evaluator to give me the
same feedback would have cost considerably more than the entry fee.

Not all competitions are that objective, and even STC's process has (or had)
its problems. For example, I considered one winner in their technical
illustration category to be wholly unrepresentative of technical
illustration: one that I recall, a beautiful painting, was basically "war
porn" intended to sell military helicopters. Though it was likely a
marvelously effective marketing piece, it had nothing to do with technical
illustration because it revealed nothing about the technology of helicopters
and had little to do with the act of technical communication. What irked me
was that it beat out some extremely effective drafting work that was much
more what our profession is about. Of course, being one of those individuals
who can't draw a straight line with a ruler, I didn't submit any art, and
thus didn't get a look at the guidelines for art. That means I may have
wholly misinterpreted their definition of technical art that year.

So pick your competitions carefully, and treat the results with a healthy
grain of salt. Personally, I feel the writer's group model is more useful;
gather a group of pros and tear apart each other's work--lovingly, of course
<g>--so you can see the flaws that you miss because you're too familiar with
your own stuff.

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
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