Re: Open Discussion

Subject: Re: Open Discussion
From: "Susan W. Gallagher" <sgallagher -at- EXPERSOFT -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 8 Dec 1998 14:10:45 -0800

At 01:45 PM 12/8/98 -0500, Leona L. Magee-Dupree wrote:
>Penny, what types of writing have you done in your ten years of experience?
>How has technical writing changed since you have been writing? Do you
>think technical writers are required to know more about programming in the
>field than in the past? What are your thoughts?--Leona

Well, Leona. You didn't ask me, but since I claim 15+ years as a writer
in the software industry, I'll chime in.

I started as a trainer, teaching office automation skills at the local
Navy bases -- y'know, Wang word processing and list processing and
mini-computer system administration -- and somebody had to write the
curriculum, ans so in 1983 my career as a writer began.

There weren't any theories and techniques -- modular docs, minimalism,
and info mapping didn't exist. (I recently came across magazine articles
I'd saved from ~1986 -- one by John Carroll that proposed some of the
arguments that were to become minimalism and one by Edmund Weiss that
introduced some of the concepts of modular docs.) We guessed at what
worked and what didn't; often holding meetings to run through instructions
and find the gotcha's before we took things out to the field.

Nobody had thought about style-guides and standardized verbiage yet.
If there was any online information, the programmers put it there.
(I didn't write my first online help file [OS/2 & Windows] until 1991.)
And the phrase "task-based" hadn't been coined yet. Docs were mostly
program-centric; programmers were discovering menus.

And there wasn't any building on prior knowledge, either. Now-a-days,
we assume people know how to stick a floppy into the drive, but then?
Nope. No such luck! ("Gently slide the [8 1/2"] diskette into the drive
-- label up! -- until you hear a faint click, then close the drive door.")

The physical work was quite a bit different, too. We printed everything
out on a daisy wheel printer at first; then we got a high-density dot
matrix and wow! you could put two different fonts on a page! That meant
you could do italics without having to stand over the printer and change
the wheel! Oh! The possibilities!!! But graphics were still done on
blue-lined graph paper using form-a-line tape and sheets of half-tone
dots, then either glued or waxed into their place in the docs.

By 1987, I'd installed my first mouse (to use with Windows 1.0) and
now there was a laser printer and downloadable soft fonts! Yeehaaw!
;-)

Penny says:
>The biggest change I've seen: companies used to be more willing to hire
>someone with potential and spend a few months training them. I think new
>Tech Writers are facing a more difficult job world; companies expect a new
>hire to become productive very quickly.

Employers *had* to train you back when I started, Penny. Most doc people
came from the journalism world, but most had never seen a computer before.
And so, yes, writers are expected to become productive much more quickly,
but then, too, there's more of a knowledge bank to draw on.

Let's see, what kind of applications have I documented??? Well, back in
my training days, 14 or so different word processors, 3 or 4 databases,
3 or 4 spreadsheets, a couple of different operating systems... And
after I left the classroom and started writing full-time, escrow
processing software, scanning/color correction/prepress software,
purchasing and inventory control, version control and system maintenance
utilities, a Smalltalk application development environment, and now
middleware programming tools.

I think writers need to know more about their craft now than they
did then -- but then again, there's more to know. There are methodologies
we can use as models, style-guides that specify what wording to use, and
usability research to let us know what works and what doesn't before we
even get started. So, industry may expect more of a tech writer now, but
tech writers have more of a foundation to base their work on. That sure
makes things easier.

And, as an *almost* charter member of techwr-l, I gotta tell ya -- the
increased opportunities for communication with one's peers that this
list and others like it provide is a *major* change for the better
from the way things were in the 80s.

Do writers need to know more about programming now? I think that trend
is just beginning. Software companies are learning that technology
exchanges are profitable and object-oriented code makes these exchanges
much easier. As more and more companies package their products as modules
to be integrated into bigger and better applications, more and more of us
will be called upon to doc those APIs.

Then, too, docs have migrated from paper to online. We're firmly
entrenched in online help and html user guides, but users turn to
docs less and less frequently as interface design becomes more
refined. Tech writers who become involved with the first line of
communication between the software and the user -- the interface --
will maintain control of the communication process and assist
development teams in building high-quality software. And I think
the converse is also true -- writers who don't become involved
in the programming end of things may still be around 5 years from
now, but their contributions to the software industry will decline
significantly in value.

Just some thoughts from someone who still remembers CP/M, coal-
burning WordStar, and manuals that were written *entirely* in
passive voice! (Pass the geritol, somebody, will ya???) ;-)


-Sue Gallagher http://pw1.netcom.com/~gscale/susanwg/
sgallagher -at- expersoft -dot- com http://www.expersoft.com

The _Guide_ is definitive.
Reality is frequently inaccurate. --Douglas Adams

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