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I think George made a very good point regarding docs that were meant to be read
and those that were not. I agree with his idea that some docs are meant to be
read and some are not. However, I think the problem is a little deeper.
To refresh our memory...
> Chris Kowalchuk's points out that the proactive SME interview mode
> advised by Andrew Plato might not apply to writers working outside an
> R&D department. According to Chris:
> "The other writers seemed perfectly happy to bang away at whatever the
> SMEs provided them, without even looking at the technology or ever
> leaving their desks. When I inquired, I found that they always worked
> this way, and made a pretty good living at it to boot. I couldn't even
> understand what it was that they were doing. I guess they were
Those "wordsmithers" who bang away on docs without ever questioning the content
are, in my opinion, not writers. They are editors.
Writing is a process of consuming, digesting, and regurgitating information.
Writing is an active, assertive process. A writer must project his/her ideas
and vision into communication. The process of writing requires the ability to
form concepts, ideas, and procedures and then accurately and effectively
communicate those in written form.
Editing is a passive process. Editors take pre-formatted information and clean
it up for presentation. The job of an editor is to improve an existing
Naturally there is a super thin line between these two. A line that can be
pushed in many directions. Nevertheless, it is a simple concept: Either you are
actively gathering information and building something (writer), or you are a
passively improving something that already exists (editor).
Editors have a place in all organizations. A good editor can make a worthless
hunk of crap look like a diamond. Yet the process of editing is inherently a
passive activity. Likewise, writers have a place in all organizations. Writers
can pile through mounds of information and poop out well digested instructions,
concepts, and procedures.
I think the problem arises when editors are tasked to be writers (or vice
versa). Many editors make the transition from editing to writing perfectly.
Great writers are usually good editors as well. But writing and editing have
two, very different skill sets. Some people possess one skill set and not the
Many editors attempt to apply the same skills that make for good editing to
writing. They sit and wait for information to come to them and then make it
pretty. Sure, this makes for, as George suggests, fine ISO9000 documents that
no human on earth would ever read. Yet it does not make for great user
manuals, web sites, or on-line help - material actual humans must read and
acquire useful information from.
As I have raved before, the act of tech writing is simple - to ram as much
information down the readers' throat as painlessly as possible. To do this,
the person writing the document must possess an exceptionally broad perspective
of the information presented. The writer needs to see the technology
(concepts, ideas, designs, etc.) from multiple viewpoints. This ensures the
information he/she is ramming is truly valuable reader.
It is impossible to see the forest when you're chained to a tree.
I have worked at numerous companies that treat their writers like editors.
They chain them to a desk and tell them not to talk with any engineers. Then
they wonder why their manuals are useless and clumsy. Likewise, I have seen
companies that treat editors like writers. They expect them to produce rich,
useful documents. When all they get are polished fluff, they wonder why.
In the perfect world, a writer easily switches between the active, assertive
act of writing and the passive, critical act of editing. Since it is nearly
impossible to find a person with strength in both skill sets, it is a good idea
to have both types of people working a project. People who write and people
Okay, got to go make money now.
President / Principal Consultant
Anitian Consulting, Inc.
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