Re: How is your pubs dept set up?

Subject: Re: How is your pubs dept set up?
From: MMB1 <mmb1 -at- AOL -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 23 Sep 1994 12:16:02 -0400

Kendall Robinson writes:

" is the pubs department set up in your company? Do you have
separate resources doing the on-line help? Do you feel it's possible, or
a good idea, for
writers to write manuals and develop complex hyper help systems
at the same time?"

Hi Kendall,

Your email made me grin a little.. I've worked for a software company in
growth mode for the last five years... Since January 1990, the company has
gone from about 50 employees to 500 worldwide. When I started five years
ago, there WERE no tech writers. Back then, I wasn't even allowed to ask
the programmers questions about the product! Now, we have a department of
about 15 people, five of whom have joined within the last month, another
five within the last six months!

However, enough radio chaos and reminiscing...

IMO, there isn't really a dichotomy between on-line help writers vs.
technical writers who develop printed manuals. The writers at our company
do both. (Plus training materials!) What's more important than anything
else is the ability to quickly synthesize and then regurgitate information
in whatever format is required. (Hi-tech bulimia?)

Here's more advice than you probably want--but it sounds like your company
is currently about where ours was two years ago. Here are some things to
do now (or conversely, things not to do) while you still have a beast
that's relatively tameable:

1) If your company hasn't reorganized into multi-functional teams yet...
push for this, because it really does promote concurrent engineering! Our
company went through a reorg earlier this year. Documentation initially
opposed it because it meant that our group was going to be split up and
scattered throughout the R&D building. However, it is working out pretty
well. The cross-fertilization between programmers, application specialists
who work a lot at customer sites, and technical writers has been very,
very helpful.

Just to give you an isolated example--on my team, after we put the
developers and application specialists through one two-hour training
session on writing on-line help... they helped us improve the software
tool we use to create our on-line help! Before the reorg, (1) we would
never have thought we could improve that tool and (2) even if we had, we
would never have had access to the programming resources to do it!

Don't be afraid to allow "non-writers" to write. With the proper guidance,
they can do reasonably well. In the years to come, you're going to find
that your job is not only to write, but to make it as easy as possible for
subject matter experts to write your rough-draft documentation. DO NOT
threat if your department is perceived as a bottleneck within the
organization... Especially if your department is overworked, this is the
direction to go.

2) Buy the very best production tools you can afford! We are about to go
to Framemaker, after having limped along with Ventura Publisher for
several years. Be careful before you select your on-line help system! If
it's complicated to work with, not only are you going to go berserk, but
so will any "non-writers" who have to work with it!

I'm currently working on the online help and release bulletin
simultaneously (thanks to Windows and Reflection X, a nifty workstation
emulator package for PCs). When I'm through, my final products are going
to be much better than anything I've ever been able to write at this

3) Get your electronic document files as organized as possible NOW, before
you have a bazillion of them! (We are currently having to do a lot of
housekeeping because we're starting to send docs out on electronic media.)

4) Develop a style guide if you don't already have one. Five years into
the fray, we're just developing one now...

5) Investigate information mapping. If you can design a process in which
information is transferred as seamlessly as possible between requirements
definitions and technical specifications to on-line help, printed manuals,
and training materials, you'll save yourself lots of time and errors in
the long run.

6) Take a tip from the software developers and establish mini-deadlines
rather than having to finish everything in time for the BIG HORRIBLE
LURKING DEADLINE! Take the attitude that, OK, September 30, we'll print a
draft of whatever's in the draft on that date and not worry about what's
going to be put in next week--that way, people can be reviewing it as
they're working on related projects. (Also, this gives you something
tangible to hand the company president who's convinced that you're not
earning your keep...) Then, between now and, oh, October 31, you make
corrections, and at the end of the month you print out another draft.

We used to try to have everything done by one specific deadline. This was
a colossal mistake! Aside from being massively stressful, our
documentation was full of errors because there was no review time built
into the schedule...

7) Don't work more than 50 hours a week! I used to kill myself with long
hours. This year, I cut back to about 45 hours/week, and I'm still as
productive, but I also have time and energy for other activities besides

Good luck!

Rgds, Madeline Bechtold (mmb -at- qad -dot- com or MMB1 -at- aol -dot- com)

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