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The Costly Myths about Documentation

Technical writing is an often misunderstood (and too-often maligned) field. Those who believe the myths about technical writing may not see its value and therefore miss its bottom-line benefits. Let’s look at those myths and then you decide the truth about technical writing for yourself.

It’s not important

Technical writing expert Mark Baker asks the question at the heart of the matter in the title of his blog post “Are Docs a Responsibility or a Business Asset?” This shift from thinking that documentation is an unfortunate liability to a strategic function is absolutely necessary.  There are many examples of how treating documentation as a strategic function has actually increased profitability.

Consider our own experience working with one of the nation’s largest transaction processors.  Each time the company boarded a new national chain, it had to dedicate one of its experienced relationship managers to babysit the implementation because its documentation was unusable.  Shoap rewrote the specifications in such a way that the companies were able to implement the new messages without even a part-time relationship manager.  More recently, one of the world’s largest credit card associations engaged us to help on a website redesign. For years, the web developers have pestered the project leader to get information on his vision for the website. Eventually, he realized he needed detailed, documented requirements to effectively communicate what he wanted if the project were ever to be completed. What both companies finally learned is that quality documentation is the only way to communicate between stakeholders. And this communication means a reduction in costs.

Anyone can do it

A technical writer typically completes extensive education in the field and has deep knowledge about both the technology and instructional design. Software engineers are the classic example of non-writers who are told to document their work. But what software engineer wants to document anything? And, more importantly, how cost-effective is it to have expensive developers writing documentation?

It’s all the same

Another myth is that all technical writing is the same.  Not true. Just as there are considerable differences in the type of technical writing required, there are substantial differences in the skill sets technical writers possess. It is important to choose the right type of writer for your needs. This whitepaper provides an overview of the many different types of technical writing.

I don’t need it

It’s true: you don’t need documentation – until you need it.  And when you need, you really need it.  While it is true that for much of its existence, the manual may sit on a shelf or the file may remain unopened.  But when you can’t figure out how to do something or need a definition of a field or a list of values, the document more than pays for itself. Each type of documentation provides unique information that users need when they encounter a problem.

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2 Responses to The Costly Myths about Documentation

  1. Well said…and true.

  2. Phoenix Writer June 21, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    Just ran across your article. Myths that my manager seems to believe that drive me crazy are that technical writing is easy and shouldn’t take so much time, and also that users who want to use a complex function will “know what they want,” and thus thorough documentation is not needed (that is a message to me to not put much time into it).

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