When I was a science journalist earlier on in my career, a good friend invited me to join a leading software company as a technical editor. I began to weigh the pros and cons of staying or leaving the Fourth Estate.
I reasoned to myself that being part of the Press was challenging and offered me a dynamic environment. Being in constant touch with leading scientists, science-policy makers, politically inclined scientists, and analytical politicians kept me on a constant high.
On the downside, the newspaper industry has sharp deadlines, keeps one under constant scrutiny of the public. Working with clunky tools (in those days) meant that pages vanished from systems at the ‘drop of a vowel’.
I did make a move into the IT industry as a technical editor. They say that ignorance is bliss and I was in the throes of it! I took the plunge little knowing that there were sharp deadlines to meet and late night calls to reach out to the remote teams. After learning a smattering of UNIX and serenading the style guide, I quietly plunged into the coding zone.
Now, several years have gone by and I have moved from editor to writer to manager to consultant, as per the dictates of the job (or lack thereof), growing interest or a changing need.
The growing pool of technical writers rely heavily on being able to articulate well, understanding the demands of changing technology, relating to clients and customers, speaking the product language, and being adaptable to the esoteric corporate culture.
If the technical writer of the past carried a compact kit of skills, today this kit has turned into a knapsack. At a very fundamental level, the technical writer must have good language skills which are the bedrock of good documentation. Yet I know writers who, even today, quietly ignore the red marks of the spellchecker, and bulldoze their releases despite gunky grammar. That’s strictly taboo. You cannot reach your destination by skipping parts of the path! All documentation tools come equipped with language and spellcheckers, and writers are encouraged to use them, if not for their own sanity, at least for that of their reader’s.
Good writing is only one part of good technical communication. Today technical writers have to use novel ways of gathering as much pertinent information as they can, before they start writing. For this, they need to know where to find information, and collate questions on the topic that they are documenting.
A unique challenge for technical writers today is the ever-increasing features being built into software products. Companies are scaling dizzying heights to please their customers. Even as a writer completes documenting a feature, the engineering team approaches the writer with a request for change. It could be in response to the demand from one customer or several customers. The growing competition is making companies reach out to as many clients as possible and cross the Finish-line well ahead of their competitors.
All this certainly comes with a price tag. For a writer, it’s a fine balancing act between the internal teams and their external users. Are the users as happy with the documentation as they are with the product? Writers will do well to garner feedback from support teams, over documentation. They might even want to create a process for this type of information gathering, if such a process does not already exist in the organization.
At the Indian Institute of Science, we recently designed a questionnaire for leading entrepreneurs in Bangalore. The aim of this project was to understand the growing entrepreneurial ventures in Bangalore from a social, technological, and economic perspective. The questionnaire looked good to us as it was replete with pertinent questions. However, when we did a field survey, meeting entrepreneurs face to face and presenting them with the questionnaire, several entrepreneurs complained that it was too verbose, cumbersome, and even disjointed in a few places. Clearly, there was a gap between what we sought from our users and what the users themselves wanted. So we have gone back to the drawing board to simplify and re-organize the questionnaire.
One cannot overemphasize the need for research, analysis, and interpretation of information, not to mention etching out a sensible documentation plan before hitting those computer keys.
The tools, methodology, and medium of communication used are also undergoing a dramatic evolution today. The pre-publication process (or production process), often seems daunting for new writers. Often enough, documentation teams build on a methodology by adding a train of tools that ‘talk’ to one another in typical tools-based jargon. For example, if you have moved to DITA methodology, you will have to understand the workings of a tool like X-Metal. Your team might also migrate to a new Content Management System (CMS) suiting the new methodology, understanding how topics are stacked, organized and combined into DITAMAPS.
Writing concepts, tasks or procedures also needs a clear understanding of how to group or chunk information. So information ceases to be linear and moves into a higher order of semantic sorting and mapping.
Information has suddenly become multidimensional in many ways. If information mapping is one paradigm, you also have different channels for putting out information, or broadcasting it. From blogs, YouTube videos, forums, Tweets, Facebook fan pages, social media has unfolded a whole new way to massage and present information.
Writers today need to change styles quickly to suit these channels of communication. Writing for videos has to be brisk and clear. Blogs have a certain refreshingly free style to showcase your products. A quick Tweet to announce a new release has a wide reach and enjoys quick response. Social media flattens hierarchy in an organization- for writers and CEOs use the same platform for showcasing information.
Wiki pages pave the way for a very interactive method of gleaning documentation. Author and user roles have suddenly become interchangeable and it’s a totally new-fangled learning ground that we see out there.
Ultimately, writing is all about reaching out to people and making a connection. If you’ve ‘clicked’ with your users, it’s probably not merely because of one particular method or medium that you have adopted. It’s much more than that, and I’m still trying to figure it out. Good writing is like making good pasta and serving it up piping hot. But great writing is like topping your pasta with a million scraps of Mozzarella cheese to give it that ultimate zing…
Manjula Kandula is a a part-time communication consultant at EMC and at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Manjula specializes in content development, which includes both writing (white papers, market collateral) and editing, and has been in the technical writing industry for over ten years.