Re: SME vs Tech Writer

Subject: Re: SME vs Tech Writer
From: "Gray,Gary P" <GRAY -at- BOS -dot- MSMAIL -dot- IDX -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 21 Apr 1995 09:15:00 EDT

Mike LaTorra wrote:

>WARNING! FLAME AHEAD!

Erm. lemme get out my extinguisher.

<<Mike gives a general overview of how things between SME's
and writer should work, which is The Way It Should Be from
my perspective, too.>>

>I was surprised and disheartened when I read the following on
>Frame Tech's WWW homepage under the subject "ISO 9000" subsection
>"Characteristics of Quality System Documents":

> - The documents are generally written and maintained
> by subject matter experts rather than professional writers.


Well, I think you're missing the key word here... "ISO 9000." These
sorts of documents are made for internal use only, to govern the
standards of quality control in any group within a company. ISO
9000 is a set of quality assurance standards that dictate that
*everything* a company does should be documented in every
detail.

Now, granted, these things would greatly benefit from a full-on assault
by technical writers with backup from technical editors (and an
on-call staff of mental health professionals). But I think most companies
would want to put their usually limited technical writing resources to
work on things that customers actually read, or are actually read
by people when they are doing their jobs.

For a perspective on ISO 9000 documentation, see if you can find
the 'Dilbert' cartoons from a year or so back that deal with it. It
went something like "Step 1) Everyone writes a bunch of unreadable
instructions. Step 2) We put them all in a big honking binder and
give it to our manager. Step 3) Manager hands off the document like a
dead raccoon to the first passer-by to review."

Considering the fact that the ISO 9000 standards (the ones created by
the ISO committee) are themselves completely unreadable (written
entirely in passive voice!) I'd hardly expect that the documents written by
companies to comply ISO 9000 would be any better.

>It seems to me that this is a prescription for documentation that
>is written by experts, for experts; and even then it may not be
>well-organized, well-written (grammatically), or even complete.

That is ISO 9000 documents in a nutshell (from my limited experience,
granted).

>When non-experts encounter such documentation, they typically throw
>up their hands in disgust. And do you know whom they blame for this
>poorly written stuff? Not the SMEs. They blame us, the tech writers!
>We are certainly not perfect. But it galls me when we take the blame
>for others' mistakes.

No one besides the people in the group the documentation is written
for needs it. In this case, no one is going to blame it on the
tech writers... Of course, tech writers could volunteer to clean up the
ISO 9000 documents. If you do, you're a far better person than I (and
probably far less sane). Seriously, though, I do think tech writers have
a place in a good ISO 9000 plan, and I'm sure a lot of them are about
to send me nasty e-mail ;-) It's just that I've never seen a good ISO 9000
plan, and frankly, I'd rather write useful documentation for end-users or
internal users than ISO 9000 docs.

>Live long & prosper,

Can you do the funky hand thing?

Gary Gray
(Who is overjoyed that his non-international company isn't
doing ISO 9000 certification).
Technical Writer
IDX Systems Corp.
gray -at- idx -dot- com


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