Satisfaction (was ... Re: The value of technical writers)

Subject: Satisfaction (was ... Re: The value of technical writers)
From: "Eric J. Ray" <ejray -at- RAYCOMM -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 29 Dec 1998 16:33:10 -0700

At 12:03 PM 12/29/98 PST, Melissa Schauder wrote:
>Yes it is unbelievable! I experience (nearly always) the same treatment:
>basically, whether I am developing manuals, creating online documentation,
>etc., I am considered someone who "doesn't mind doing the boring stuff." I
>was once told that being a Tech Writer is really just being a Secretary, but
>with less contact with others in the company....
>My current employee has said that I, as a Tech Writer/Electronic Publisher,
>means that I'll never be able to "advance" because writers are simply
>"production personnel."

Note: I'm writing this only partially in the context of
bragging or gloating--it's actually mostly an attempt to let
some of the students and relative newbie tech writers
know that it doesn't have to be like this.

Ahem.. A recent contract project.
As many of you know, Deborah and I have been kicking
around from one short project to another for a few months.
Here's the scoop on a recent (and ongoing) contract I've
been working on.

I walked in two weeks before the beta deadline
with the assignment of developing online help
(HTML-based) for this new application. Code
freeze was slated for the same day as my
deadline--the final code freeze and beta build
times were the same. As you'd expect, everyone
was WAY behind, the other two writers on the
project (doing various hardcopy manuals) were
busy with those, and the list of show-stopper
bugs wasn't shrinking. New software builds were
happening every couple of hours, and the QA
team kept filing bug reports nonstop.

I found that every engineer I contacted was happy
to take all the time I needed to explain the technology,
application, or their roles in developing it.
When I needed some help to implant the help
hooks (context ID equivalents for a
creative HTML-based help endeavor) so the
app could bring up the browser, I told the engineers
what I needed and they did it--often within the
hour. (After one of the hooks changed a few times,
one engineer gave me access to her source files
so I could change it to my heart's content.)
When I needed access to different builds or special
access to certain aspects of the software, I was
immediately given access to people's individual
workstations to look and learn.

When I had questions, doors were always--ALWAYS--
wide open and answers were forthcoming.

I had a completely free hand in design, organization,
look and feel, and structure for the help. I had some
loose standards to reference and style guides to follow,
but also flexibility in adapting to the particular situation.
When my plan clearly differed from one of the lead engineer's
vision, he said "you're the online help guy--just
tell me what you want, and we'll do it."

The lead writer on the project pointed out to the
project team that we had to have a documentation
code freeze, beyond which point UI and
functionality changes wouldn't be documented.
We got the freeze scheduled for--and implemented on--
the second day after she asked for it.

(Reminder: This isn't fiction.)

Made the deadline for beta and still working on the
project for the 1.0 release.

No, not all of the projects I've been on have been like
this, but this isn't terribly uncommon, and it's certainly
quite possible to walk into a tech writing position and
have/earn/not screw up a solid working relationship
with most people. Additionally, after showing that you
"get it", don't ask the same questions twice, learn from
your mistakes, and are respectful of other's time and
efforts, you can generally even improve on a good
situation. In other words, while some companies or
organizations are simply dysfunctional, many others allow
you to control many aspects of your corporate

Food for thought...if anyone else has wonderful job
stories, it might be nice to hear some of those for a


Eric J. Ray RayComm, Inc. ejray -at- raycomm -dot- com

*Award-winning author of several popular computer books
*Syndicated columnist: Rays on Computing
*Technology Department Editor, _Technical Communication_

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