Re: tool nonsense (gearing up to be a tech writer)

Subject: Re: tool nonsense (gearing up to be a tech writer)
From: "Eric Ray \(Web\)" <ejray -at- raycomm -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 01 May 2001 11:16:40 -0700 (PDT)

Quoting Bruce Byfield <bbyfield -at- progeny -dot- com>:
> You don't need to know specific tools. But you do need to know what to
> expect in general category of tools. For example, if you are working
> with a word processor, you should expect to find some implementation
> of
> paragraph styles. For a typographical program, you might expect
> kerning
> tools. For on-line help for Windows - well, you get my drift. If you
> know what features should be there, you can learn a new tool in that
> general category fairly painlessly.

Exactly! This concept is what I'd call general technical
literacy--the ability to readily identify characteristics of
technical stuff, and to learn new technologies based on other
ones. (Basically schema theory, for those familiar with the

In brief, when one learns, one makes a mental map--schema--
of the new knowledge and how it interrelates and how it relates
to other existing knowledge. If one's mental
map flexibly describes general cases, one can readily learn new
stuff by relating it to the old.

For example, a schema for an operating system might include
models for methods of starting programs, managing files, accessing the
Internet, configuring the system, and a bazillion other things.
To the extent that the schema is general, it helps you learn
other OSs because you need only learn the specific actions
associated with existing concepts (e.g., configuring operating
system characteristics in the System folder on a Mac is much
like the Control Panel for Windows or Linuxconf or the
/etc directory on Linux).

To the extent that the schema isn't adequately general, it
either doesn't help or actively interferes with learning
(e.g., a mental model of an OS that lacks an effective model
for managing files (think IBM's MVS/TSO) would be a poor
model for learning about that aspect of other operating systems).

One of the biggest problems facing our profession as a whole is
the inability of HR departments, hiring managers, certification
proposals, and university programs to inculcate technical literacy
and to adequately distinguish between teaching facts and building
appropriate schemas. This applies both to the tools and the
broader technical issues encountered on the job.

For example, depending on how an individual learned Word and
built a mental model, he or she might--or might not--be able
to pick up other tools and run with them. If the mental model included
styles, places to do formatting as opposed to places to enter
text, and a WYSINNWYGATO (what you see is not necessarily what you
get and that's ok) mentality, the learning curve to Frame
or SGML will be a snap. On the other hand, a "use the wizard and
click formatting buttons until it's right" model will lead
to insanity in the world of Frame or structured information.

Generally, when a job requires specific tool knowledge or specific
background knowledge (must know Unix, for example), the powers-that-be
would probably be more than happy with an accurate mental model
that would allow the new hire to pick up on the specifics quickly.
However, that's darn hard to define or evaluate, so the copout
answer is to just require the specific tool/technology that will
be used.

Similarly, it's far easier for a technical communication department
at a university to teach how to use RoboHelp than to build
the appropriate mental models to describe online help (and implement
those models with Robohelp), so students can easily graduate with the
Tools du Jour, but insufficient literacy to adapt to other



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Re: tool nonsense (gearing up to be a tech writer): From: Bruce Byfield

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