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Valuable Techwriting

Users Don't Want Good Editing, They Want Answers   February 5, 2005 

Synopsis: Usability starts with the words on the screen, as did my entry to the field, coming from techwriting. Thus my strong advice below, to new techwriters and old, to stop worrying about making techwriting valuable and instead concentrate on making valuable techwriting.

A recent thread on the popular techwriting discussion group, focused on the perennial techwriters' lament, how to convince the business world that we techwriters do valuable work... that we shouldn't be second-class citizens, that you can't outsource us to another corner of the world, that we should be paid just as much as developers, and so on.

My advice is to focus one's energies elsewhere. My comments refer to business software techwriting in general, and I address them in particular to newer writers.

To substantiate that these are not empty words... In ten years I made it to the very top of the STC salary survey range even though my credentials are entirely home-spun. And I also wrote an Amazon-5-star book that has sold 8000 copies. So I've figured out a thing or two about writing. Or more likely, about what readers want and need. With that preamble...

How to Convince People About the Value of Techwriting

  1. Stop worrying about making techwriting valuable and instead concentrate on making valuable techwriting. For those old enough to remember, this is the Charlie the Tuna rule.
  2. People don't want good editing. They want answers.

    Good techwriting is all about research. If the only option, the one of last resort, is pestering people for info, then hone the craft.
  3. Writing is for reading. Only your readers "own" the decision-making.

    My classic pet-peeve example is "E.E.Cummings". Despite his preference for any damn capitalization he likes—and I don't begrudge him, I just ignore him in deference to my readers—capitalize things so that readers can read your sentences. And don't be afraid to put a period outside of quotation marks if it reduces misinterpretation. (Two or three issues ago in the STC quarterly, someone wrote a beautiful article debunking some grammatical traditions and dogmas. Could someone help me with the citation?)
  4. Do less writing and more picture drawing.

    I realized only recently that my professional career can be reduced to a single cliche: a picture is worth 1000 words. It has nothing to do with reader laziness: we are all incredibly overloaded with new info demands. Make posters, brochures, diagrams, reference cards, cue cards, and hyperlinked flowcharts. You will be valued long before genuine results are proven or disproven, but that is the unfortunate hypocrisy of the dynamics of techwriting. It has dominated book publishing for 1500 years—everyone judges books by their covers—so if you think you are going to reverse this, you are, um... mistaken.
  5. Get your techwriting placed right into the applications. This is called usability and UI design.

    This is the inevitable evolution of software and the real place for good writing. The recently lauded wave of Sarbanes-Oxley "pseudo work" (following on the heels of IS0 9000 [and look how well that improved software!]) is great if it helps some folks pay the rent, but it is a losing proposition overall; long-term, beauracracy doesn't create wealth, it removes it. If you ride the S-O wave, don't cry when the trough hits.
  6. Make all information accessible anywhere/anytime, what I call profuse Help.

    Put all of your product information into an integrated, web accessible system. For sensitive information, use passwords, not secreted-away information. Only format for paper approximately 40-70 pages per audience, what I call a "read-through." See a roughly converted web page with my long-ago published STC article, "To Print or Not to Print, What Should Go Online?"
  7. Base your writing priorities on those layed out by Gary Blake in The Wall Street Journal, 1/7/97: "It Is Recommended that You Write Clearly":

    From (just a synopsis, if you find the full text, email me)...

    " Gary Blake (1995), an expert on business writing, has ranked writing problems on a scale from one to ten. He notes that minor problems (1–5) may only cause embarrassment, whereas major problems in your writing (6–10) could "seriously harm the health of your organization" (p. A18). Spelling, punctuation, and misused words may just embarrass you, but lengthy sentences and paragraphs, passive language, vagueness, and poor organization could actually harm your professional reputation and that of your firm. In the field of finance, the ability to write clearly, concisely, and coherently is more than a virtue: it's a necessity!"

If you do all these things and are not valued, you know what to do, right? Except for the rarest of employers, the way our job market works, it is easier to make big steps by moving than staying.


"My interest in usability arose from the pain and tears of patching the wounds of suffering interface designs with the inadequate bandages of help files and user guides." — Daniel Cohen

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