Re: Baiting for the single source rant

Subject: Re: Baiting for the single source rant
From: Andrew Plato <intrepid_es -at- yahoo -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 5 Sep 2001 13:21:39 -0700 (PDT)

--- Glenn Maxey <glenn -dot- maxey -at- voyanttech -dot- com> wrote:
> Hi Andrew,
> Why are you being so hard on single-sourcing?
> With some of the tools out there and a little bit of smarts, you can get
> some pretty good results.

1. It tries to be all things to all formats. On-line help and print media
are fundamentally different mediums. Readers use them in fundamentally
different ways. Therefore, they need different text, tone, and content.
Single sourcing degrades both since it must standardize the text across
multiple mediums. I can always tell when a manual has been single-sourced,
because it reads like an on-line help system and lacks context for each of
the technical concepts.

2. It unfocuses the writer into managing a large complex process and crude
tools and not the content. These systems require extensive setup and
management, and so far, most of the single-sourcing project I have seen
required writers to jump through far more hoops than a manual methods. Its
like the recent post where somebody too 4 hours to code a macro in Word
when copy/paste would have acheived the same results and taken 4 minutes.

3. Most of the available tools are crude, unpolished, and require
extensive customization. Maybe when somebody comes out with
Single-Sourcing 2003 that does all the nonsense work for you, this won't
be such an issue.

4. SS is often used to avoid the "real" technical writing work. Rather
than just sit their rumps down and produce the documentation, writers
obsess and fuss over SS systems. They spend months tweaking, fiddling, and
bickering to build a system that MAYBE saves a few weeks worth of work.
In the process, they become so distant from their actual jobs, that the
content becomes a secondary thought. You end up with an exquisite process
that produces utter crapola.

5. It destroys "contexutalism." One of the largest problems (IMO) today
is technical documentation that lacks context. The incessant mantra of
single-sourcing and information mapping has destroyed context and flow.
Complex ideas require a "unity" of tone and description. When you chunk up
everything and package it into neat little shrink-wrapped bits, the
content as a whole suffers. This leads to manuals where the information
lacks a consistent delivery. It also leads to "instructionalism" that is -
all instruction and no education.

6. It is not always a time saver. You spend 4 months to set up a system
to get back what? A few weeks worth of reusability?

7. The output always needs tweaking. Its never perfect, and getting it
perfect can become a nightmare.

8. Its value has been way overhyped in STC conferences. If you listened to
the consultants, SS would be the solution FOR EVERYBODY. When in fact,
probably only 1 in 10 organizations would actually benefit from it. Most
organizations do not produce enough documentation to warrant such a major
investment in a complex documentation system. If you run the pure
financials on it, most SS solutions are terribly overpriced and fail to
yield real value. I wrote a post detailing this about a year ago. Just
scan for any response I made to that Tim Altom guy (who was a big SS

Is SS pure evil? No, its just overwrought. Its been touted as the perfect
solution for everybody. I disagree.

Complex documentation systems do not make for happy customers. Rock solid,
meaningful and insightful documents make for happy customers. In some
organizations, handling massive tons of materials, SS can have real
benefit. But for the majority of mid-tier to small companies, there is
absolutely no value in SS. The money spend on SS should be diverted into
training tech writers to be more knowledgeable in the products and
technologies they are documenting.

I have cleaned up more company's failed SS projects then I care to
mention. The situation is almost always the same. Some fire-in-the-belly
tech writer sold management on a SS solution. Then 4 to 6 months later,
there were no docs. The writers had spent all their time bickering over
tools, fonts, document specs, etc. and never had time to write the docs.
So the company has to quick, contract outsource provider (like my firm) to
come in and doc everything in a flash. In the end, costs have tripled,
docs are done, and the SS writers have absolutely nothing to show for
their efforts.

Can SS work - sure. But, if you buy into SS be prepared. Its not a light
decision and it won't, necessarily, make life easier.

Just my thoughts.

Andrew Plato

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Baiting for the single source rant: From: Glenn Maxey

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