Re: Incorporating Pagemaker in a Tech Writing Class?

Subject: Re: Incorporating Pagemaker in a Tech Writing Class?
From: "Steven J. Owens" <puff -at- NETCOM -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 4 Mar 1998 00:41:50 -0800

Michael R Moore wrote:
>> Do you think a substantial unit on design and graphics is outside the
>> scope of a Technical Writing class, or given the nature of the field
>> today, should it be emphasized? [...]
>> For context [...] very few -- if any -- students will go on to
>> become freelance Technical Writers, but are preparing for fields in
>> Engineering, Computer Science, Forestry, etc.

Robyn replied:
> At Carnegie Mellon University, Professional and/or Technical Writing majors
> are required to take many courses involving PageMaker. [...]
> I've been interviewed by several companies, and they all seem to be
> impressed by my exposure to design. I can't see how this would be
> out of line for non-tech writers, especially for Computer Science
> majors. Many of them will become programmers, who often have
> significant input on the design of a product. Also, in some
> companies, the developers are responsible for their own
> documentation.

For both students destined to become technical writers and the
many, many students destined to do some technical writing as part of
their job (i.e. programmers, etc) some design fundamentals should be a
part of the core curriculum. How much depends on their career choice.

Technical writers may often have to do basic design work in
situations where the budget doesn't allow for a professional. They
should know the basics and be given enough theory that they can
educate themselves further as they continue their career.
Particularly with the desktop publishing environments available today,
technical writers are more likely to end up doing their own design
work for routine projects. They also need to understand the process
and the language designers use, to be able to work with them
effectively. Consider setting up some joint projects between design
classes and technical writing classes.

Depending on the career decisions they make, these students may
end up being as much designers as writers. The root issue -
communicating, whether by visual design or written word - is the same,
but from there the individual can take their career in either
direction. The basic courses should touch on design issues, advanced
courses should lead them further into the topic (it should be possible
to get a techwriting major with a design minor, and vice-versa).

Non-writers should get some exposure to design issues and design
fundamentals - partially to prevent them from perpetrating some of the
more horrible mistakes, but mostly to give them a solid understanding
of the implications of design issues, so they'll have a better idea of
when to bring in a professional, how to communicate and work with
them. Most of the really horrible designs out there are a result of
sheer ignorance - people don't know enough to know the questions, let
alone the answers. These people need to know the shape and outlines
of design, not necessarily the nuances.

Most importantly, management majors should have more exposure
both to hardcore technical writing issues and to visual design issues,
so they can make more informed decisions. Today most fields of
management involve strong elements of writing and design (unless
you're planning to get into, say, the vacuum hose industry, where
apparently most things are still done the old-fashioned way, via the
old-boy network).

Note: most of the (admittedly not that many) graphic designers
I've worked with have had fairly little knowledge of how the business
works. I'm not saying that college should focus more on "practical"
knowledge like this (college is *supposed* to focus on theory) but
budding techwriters and designers should make some extracurricular
time to learn about this; both professions historically have had to
shoulder the burden of educating their bosses about what they do :-(.

There are several good books for techwriters - "Document
Development Methodology" and "Managing Your Documentation Process" (by
JoAnn Hackos), are two that come to mind. I've seen recommendations
that the Graphic Designer's Guild Handbook is good for teaching the
business side of graphic design. It's on my list of books to pick up,
sooner or later (sigh... so many books, so little cash & time). I
intend to pick it up and read it, simply so I can better communicate
with graphic designers when I work with them. I've also been trying
to bone up on graphic design basics for the past year or two, to learn
the terms graphic designers understand.

> While FrameMaker is used more than PageMaker in the industry,
> PageMaker is a much better design tool. Teaching both Page and Frame
> would be great!

I haven't worked with Pagemaker in ages ('91 or '92). The last
time I looked, PageMaker was mostly a page layout tool. Maybe it's
made great strides since then, but for most really technical writing
purposes, tools like FrameMaker are much more appropriate. On the
other hand, some technical writers are much more likely to spend most
of their time laying out trade journals and brochures than writing
500-page user manuals. For them, Page or Quark might be much more
worthwhile than FrameMaker.

Steven J. Owens
puff -at- rt1 -dot- net

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