By Rachel Shoap
To many people, just hearing the words “technical writing” evokes feelings of fear but mostly boredom. “What kind of person can tediously and meticulously write all day long while simultaneously lacking even an inkling of creativity and originality? I could never.” So said my technically (untrained) mind. Whenever I wrote in high school or college, my papers were riddled with profound metaphors and dialogue that formulated beautiful stories and character development that I was proud of. How could anyone choose to write technical manuals? They’re so bland! How could they knowingly choose a topic and style of writing that prohibits that creative flare that most of humanity longs for?
What exactly do technical writers do? For the most part, they put together information, precisely explain the significance of it, take the reader through the necessary steps to complete a task, and disseminate it to the masses in a way the masses can understand. This
got me thinking. In its own right, technical writing has to be relatable and at the same time diverse. A technical writer has to strategically relay information while considering the mindset of the consumers of that information, as well as their ability to follow directions.
My ability to understand and dissect information presented to me may be completely different than Barbara’s, the 72-year-old grandma whose grandkids bought her a new cellphone for Christmas. Technical writers are tasked with making sure the information that they provide to consumers is relatable while making sure it is accurate and easy to follow.
Making something “easy to understand” truly takes inventiveness to another level. The ability to take this most technical information and make it understandable for people from different backgrounds, educational levels, and ages calls for the most creative of writers, even if writers that meet the social standard of creativeness do not think so.
Inevitably, during our first discussion with prospective clients about documenting an API, we are asked if we can do “something like Stripe’s”. Unfortunately, until recently, our response was “not really” because Stripe had created its own tool to publish API documentation.
Now, thanks to the hard work that people have put into open source projects like Redoc and the Open API Specification, we can finally say “Yes” to these requests for API documentation. Previously, three-column, responsive, web-based documentation was only available as part of an expensive subscription to a development platform or as a customer-developed portal, but as REST APIs have become more and more popular, the tools to support their development and use have become more widespread. We can provide three-column API specifications with a basic quick start guide hosted on our client’s own website. For the client, that means no recurring fees and no commitment to a development pipeline that may not be a good fit for its company.
For many of our clients, we are able to use their existing API documentation (with some editing), translate it into the Open API specification, and add any additional content (for example, how to build a basic application). At that point, using Redoc, it’s a simple matter of generating a website that looks something like this:
With this three-column format that organizes navigation, technical specifications, and examples, it’s easy for developers to find and understand the features of your API. And, as we all know, “easy” often means they, the developers, are more likely to use your API over one that isn’t. Clearly, as they say in corporate parlance, a “win-win”.
If, after examining and analyzing a problem, I find the best solution, I recommend and, at times, fight for that solution. This approach seems so self-evidently correct that I’m shocked to find myself even writing it.
Single sourcing, according to the ubiquitous Wikipedia, is a “content management method which allows the same source content to be used across different forms of media and more than one time.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Single_source_publishing). The benefits are obvious: the maintenance and editing of the source content have only to be done in one place at one time, thus making the editing process more efficient (quicker) and less prone to error. Most technical writers have become single source evangelists because we don’t want to spend our time editing the same piece of content in exactly the same way in several different places. It’s boring, it’s inefficient, and it’s expensive. Root canal surgery (with the right anesthesia) would be preferable.
T.S. Eliot dedicated the “The Waste Land,” arguably one of the most important poems written in the 20th century, to Ezra Pound for his timely edits. According to Richard Ellman, Pound persuaded Eliot to remove several poems that Eliot had inserted between the stanzas of “The Waste Land.” As Pound said, “the longest poem in the English langwidge [sic]. Don’t try to bust all records by prolonging it three pages further.” (From “The First Waste Land.” In Eliot in His Time: Essays on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of The Waste Land.” Princeton, Princeton UP, 1973.)
As technical writing consultants, our job is to advise and recommend. Of course, that advice and those recommendations cover lots of different aspects of the entire process. Obviously, we review the material and try to organize the information so we can present it in the most effective, most efficient way possible. Rarely, if ever, do we receive much push-back from our clients on this part of the process. After all, that’s why they hired us.
And while writing and organizing content remains one of the more important parts of our work, we also believe that we have some insight into what tools to use make that efficient presentation of material possible. Unfortunately, our clients don’t always agree.
Here are some examples.
A company approached us with a problem. It produced a piece of hardware that it sold with optional modules. The company wanted to ship a manual that covered only the modules that were purchased, not all of the modules offered. The problem the company was having was that it had created the manual in Word and either it had to manually manipulate the document each time it made a sale – delete the sections for the modules that weren’t purchased and renumber the chapters and pagination – or send a manual with all of the features and text for all of the modules. Which always creates problems – “Why can’t I get this machine to do what it shows in Chapter 8?” Answer: “Because you didn’t buy the module described in Chapter 8!”
We suggested we import the contents of their manual into FrameMaker and use FrameMaker’s conditional text feature to mark the text that belongs to each module. In this way, we could mark whole chapters that related to individual modules, as well as words and paragraphs – in feature lists, for example, in the introductory sections of the manual – so the resulting document would reflect only those modules that were purchased. A brilliant solution, we thought, and so did the client. Happy client; happy consultant.
A different company talked to us about documenting a large enterprise software package that also offered different, optional modules. After discussing the application with the SMEs and reviewing the existing documentation (our due diligence), we concluded that the final document would be very large – it was a VERY large enterprise software application that did many things – with lots of graphics and screen shots and would not do well in Word. Furthermore, the client admitted that its clients didn’t always buy all of the modules and so would want the ability to offer a manual that only included the modules purchased.
Fresh off the previous consulting engagement in which we were able to address the hardware manufacturer’s similar problem, we proposed using FrameMaker and marking the sections describing each module as conditional text. Then, the company could produce a “customized” document for each of its sales. Not only would we solve the “purchased module” problem, we argued, but we could assure the client that FrameMaker would handle the large size of the document much better than Word because that was what FrameMaker was designed to do and Word was not.
Our contact at the company agreed with us but found little support with her management. Why? Management wanted to be sure it could revise the document without having to hire a FrameMaker “expert” and so wanted it done in Word. What about the optional module problem? “We’ll deal with it internally,” they said. Since in our line of work, the customer is always right, we wrote the manual in Word and regretted every minute we spent on it, knowing the resulting material was inadequate. Alas.
I’ve yet to hear of someone instructing a plumber as to what kind of wrench to use to fix a leaking faucet or tell a carpenter what type of blade to use to cut a piece of wood, or, as I’ve said before, told a developer what language to use to code an application. We hire experts and rely on them to advise and recommend the best way to solve a problem. Technical writers are the experts. Listen to their recommendations.
Good writing is clear and precise. Good technical writing, to borrow a phrase from the young people, is totally clear and precise. Let’s be real: most people don’t bother reading technical documentation until they’re stuck and don’t know how to proceed. Enter this? Press that? “What do I do now?” Unfortunately for those sorry folks, their foray into the user manual or online help is often not a good experience. The reason: the explanation is not clear and/or precise. Such is the state of my chosen profession.
According to Wikipedia, a subject matter expert (SME) is a person “who is an authority in a particular area or topic.” When a company engages a technical writer, in addition to working with the actual product he or she is documenting, the writer must rely on the SME as the source of all knowledge, the one person who can explain how the system works and, perhaps more importantly, why it works that way.
Recently, a prospect called us about a training guide he needed written for a new enterprise application his company had recently purchased and was trying to implement. Unfortunately, he had already paid the company that developed the application to create training materials but found, once he had a chance to review the materials, that they were not only impenetrable and useless from a user’s point of view but mostly incorrect as well. A complete waste of money. Alas.
Objectivity tends to be one of the core values of technical fields. The fundamental laws of physics dictate the properties of microprocessors, and chemistry defines the properties of the materials we use. These methods make up the API, determining how that application behaves and what it is capable of doing. The way that people interact with technology, however, is anything but objective. They bring a lifetime’s worth of experiences that guide their behavior and frame their expectations for both what the technology will do for them and how it will perform its duty.