Re: Technical writer/engineer nightmares

Subject: Re: Technical writer/engineer nightmares
From: kendal stitzel <kensti -at- KENSTI -dot- AUTO-TROL -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 21 Oct 1993 13:43:14 MDT

> I am writing a paper on the different approaches that a technical writer
> may take to writing as opposed to an engineer. If anyone has any
> "nightmare" stories/anecdotes (on the tech. writing as well as the
> engineering side), I'd
> be interested in using a few in my paper.

> Thanks
> patrick morgan
> tscom016 -at- dunx1 -dot- ocs -dot- drexel -dot- edu


I had thought to respond by e-mail. Not quite sure if this story is the type of
thing you seek. But this might provide entertainment value to other list

My first job as a technical writer. I had been hired off the assembly line of a
small robotics company when they needed a writer desperately and a friend in
management put in a good word for me. I'm ecstatic at the measly salary they
offer because it beats $4.50 an hour.

The project is a subcontract for a big firm doing a major construction job on
a prison on the west coast, far from Colorado. Robotic vehicles will transport
food and supplies from a central service building to remote cell blocks. In
theory, this provides better security because you don't have to feed prisoners
in large groups where they can fight, riot, smuggle, etc. Guards and prisoners
will operate the robot system, which is admittedly pretty simple. But there is
no guarantee that the operators can even READ, much less understand the
manual! (How's that for audience analysis?)

The project is seriously behind schedule,and no one has even started the
documentation effort. I struggle along for about a month, then management hires
a contractor to help me out. I'm happy again because I have help and because
they raise my pay so that it isn't so pitifully small when compared to the
contractor's exhorbitant fees.

Set up:
Now this contractor is a nice guy who has worked for the company before with
satisfactory results. He's a PHD candidate in English and my background is tech
journalism. Sometimes we compare notes about the different approaches that we
take, and he seems to think I know what I'm doing. (Big mistake.) We are working
on three documents at once, and he volunteers to take over on the operation

I have done some rough drafts of the operation manual. My approach to drafting
sometimes included writing notes to myself when I get stuck for ideas. I write
anything that comes into my head: jokes, cynical comments, nonsense, football
scores, etc. Before giving the files to the contractor, I go through and clean
up all my garbage EXCEPT for one paragraph that contains a cynical, sophmoric
joke about how at meal time the guards will bang on the side of the robots and
yell,"Come and get it before we slop the hogs with it!"

The contractor disappears with the operation manual for a few days, creates a
passable draft (he alleges), and delivers it to the field personnel and the con-
truction contractor. The book is sight-unseen by me or anyone else. (Great
process, huh?) I talk to the contractor briefly, and he says something
about how I had opened his eyes to a whole new way of writing manuals.

The Nightmare:
I come in to work one morning and hear what I think are joking comments from
the engineers: "Hey, I hear they really liked your manual. Somebody threw it at
the wall!" Turns out it was true. The contractor had seen my little "joke" from
the rough draft and decided that I intended a high level of informality to
address our audience of guards and prisoners. He had inserted a number of little
"jokes" and the like. The lead engineer said, "I'm not gonna read this crap!"
hurled the manual against the wall. The lead construction manager contractor had
been clamoring for the manual and actually had a copy on his desk (fortunately
unread) when my company's project manager tiptoed in and stole it while the
contractor was on the phone.

The writing contractor and I were called into the boss'es office and managed to
tap dance an explaination about how it was all a misunderstanding. We managed to
keep our jobs and negotiate a major revision. One engineer actually took the
to thoroughly review our manual, provide technical comments, and lecture us
solemnly about the appropriate degree of formality.

We managed to get our documents completed. A couple of the books were actually
pretty decent. (I had to work a couple of 48 hour days in the process.) We all
got laid off when the project started winding down.

Word for the day: fiasco.

hope you enjoyed this windy account...

Ken the `trol

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