23 thoughts on “What I Learned About Tech Comm During 2011

  1. Christina

    I was thinking along the same lines this week but I never got to writing it down. The part about “non-writing tasks” eating up your day is SO true when you have your hands in 10 different pies. I was really stretched thin this year and you are very blessed to have so much influence on your work load.

    I love your blog. Thanks for inspiring me! :)

    Reply
  2. Larry Kunz

    Here’s one of the many, many things I like about your blog, Tom: the great amount of self-awareness you evidence. This year you’ve learned about your preferred way of writing, your disinclination toward multitasking, your nutritional needs, and your preference for non-fiction. A very good year, I’d say.

    Regarding nos. 5 & 6: I hope you’ll keep writing about these topics. I listen a lot to “DITA evangelists” who tell us that the future is all about collaboration and content-over-format — and, to be honest, I tend toward these views myself. Some writers are very comfortable with the idea of giving up control of the format, but many are not. Those of us in the former group need to hear from those of you in the latter group, so that we can better understand the issues involved and work to accommodate your preferences. Similarly, some writers are more comfortable than others with opening things up to the crowd and “letting them run with it.” On this one I think that my view is much closer to yours, but again we need to sustain a dialog so that one side doesn’t feel like it’s being dragged kicking and screaming into what looks to them like a very scary future of tech comm.

    Reply
    1. Tom Johnson

      Larry, thanks for your comment. I will definitely keep writing about topics 5 and 6. The wiki is actually a centralized help authoring system, right? So I’m somewhat contradicting myself here. I am also going to keep writing about findability. My thought is that after writing 100 posts on the topic, I’ll have enough information and awareness to put together a book of some kind about it.

      Reply
  3. Eddie VanArsdall

    Thanks for sharing this list, Tom. I share many similar observations and a similar list. I also tend to read many of the same books that you read. The biggest difference is, you’re more brave than I am about sharing your goals. Maybe I’m afraid that someone will hold me to them. ;-)

    Happy Holidays to you and your family.

    Reply
    1. Tom Johnson

      Thanks Eddie. Re sharing goals and transparency, I think I’ve become more accustomed to this being a blogger for the past 5 years. Of course a tech comm blog is still in the professional rather than personal sphere, so it’s not that transparent.

      Reply
  4. Raj

    Corporate blogging is the most boring thing to do on earth. Period.

    I am a vegan, but still find it difficult to keep up good health as I am working for a long time from my desk. I guess we need to do some form of rigorous exercise for at least one hour a day. Right now, I am walking for half an hour and resting for the remaining half ;)

    Reply
  5. Mark Baker

    Tom,

    Regarding number 5, I suspect your experience here illustrates the fundamental problem with the way such tools are designed and implemented today. You say that you rely on a single, ususally remote, person for publishing. This suggests that you either still feel, or still acutally have, end to end responsibility for the help system, including its publication. If not, you would not depend on that person, thought they might depend on you.

    I’m having a really interesting conversation with Laura Palmer in the comments on Scot Abel’s blog post http://thecontentwrangler.com/2011/12/13/technical-communication-2012-our-biggest-challenge-is-thinking-differently-about-being-different/. We are talking about technological determinism — the way that our tools shape how we think about our tasks.

    One of the ways that desktop publishing tools shaped how we think about the tech writing task was that it gave authors end-to-end responsibity for a document, right throught the publishing process. When we move to a centralized publishing system, we still keep that DTP model of the task, still making authors responsible for publishing while taking from them the ability to control it. Responsibility without control is always frustrating.

    If publishing is part of your responsiblities, then naturally you want to have control of it yourself. These systems are never going to be comfortable for writers to use until the writer’s responsibility ends with the submission of valid content and publishing is entirely the responsibility of someone else.

    But the way the current tools are designed acutally makes this very difficult, because they still tend to have WYSIWYG interfaces, which encourage the author to think in publishing terms, and because they don’t capture or verify content structure rigorously enough to ensure that if the author submits valid content so that the content will always publish correctly.

    These tools are, in short, bastard hybrids of a desktop publishing system and a structured writing/database publishing system, and they are frustrating to use because they are neither one thing nor the other.

    Reply
    1. Tom Johnson

      “Responsibility without control is always frustrating.” Insightful comment. You captured the frustration perfectly. Part of the problem is that the system is still being developed and implemented, so it’s not yet finished. Also, it works best for certain types of documentation projects, not necessarily mine. If all I had to deliver was content, and not publish it, that might alleviate concerns. But I have never worked in such an environment. Tech writers have always been publishers too.

      Reply
      1. Mark Baker

        Relatively few tech writers have worked in a properly constructed structured writing systems with a proper and effective segregation of roles. Many of the structured writing tools/implementations out there do not do a good job of this segregation.

        What I have seen, over many years of helping people adjust to properly segregated structured writing systems, is that it takes a while for them to get over the need to see what the output is going to look like. There comes a certain point after a few weeks where they suddenly let go and begin to trust the system and the process. You can almost see the their shoulders rise as they shrug off the weight of publishing responsibility. At that point I have had more than one person say to me that they never want to go back to FrameMaker again.

        What I have come to realize is that it is actually much easier to persuade someone to take on a new responsibility than to give up an old one. Savvy vendors realize this and layer new functionality on top of the old, rather than making something new and simple and easy. Writers have become so used to complexity that they don’t trust simplicity.

        It is the reason, I suppose, why tech writer’s jobs seem to be becoming ever more fragmented. The irony is that while tech writers are devoting most of their energy to learning new media and new media tools, companies are putting an ever-greater emphasis on specific domain knowledge in their hiring criteria. I worry that writers are becoming so focused on where media are going that they are losing sight of where content is going.

        Reply
  6. Neal

    Short version: “Me, too!”

    About five years ago, I got the chance to work for a company that used a wiki to deliver documentation. I came from the FrameMaker-to-PDF (or online help) world, and I was happy to leave it behind. I do like Frame, but I love the immediacy of wiki documentation.

    I’m now the entire tech writing department for a small company, and I while enjoy being the content creator/standards setter/publisher/wiki admin/etc., I miss being able to bounce ideas around with other tech writers. Thanks for sharing your ideas, since I’m using your blog (and Mark Baker’s) as something of a surrogate team.

    Reply
    1. Tom Johnson

      I’m glad to connect with another wiki administrator. The immediacy of the content online is a huge step forward, in my opinion. There are shortcomings, for sure, but just having the information be online and stay online seems like the way to go.

      Reply
  7. Michelle Corbin

    Hi Tom. Your blog is one of the reasons why I started blogging. I also heard you speak on social media in the past. I always love reading what you are learning about and exploring through your blog. For this reason, I have chosen you for the Versatile Blogger Award. I was chosen (http://techeditors.wordpress.com/2012/01/14/someones-actually-reading-my-blog/), and I have in turn chosen you as one of my most inspiring and useful blogs that I read on a regular basis. Congratulations and keep on blogging! See my post for the rules and links about this award.

    Reply
    1. Tom Johnson

      Michelle, thanks for the Versatile Blogger Award. I really appreciate the feedback and am glad you find my blog useful. In looking over the award, I see that I’m supposed to identify 15 blogs I read that would also fit the same category? That seems a bit extreme, if it gets passed on to 15 people, and then the award would be distributed 15X15, or 225, on every iteration. At any rate, it made me feel good about my blog.

      Reply
      1. Michelle Corbin

        I understand. I listed 15 in my blog post, but only “awarded” 5 or so I think…. It definitely started to feel like too much. Thanks for writing your blog!

        Reply
  8. Saul Carliner

    Good blog post, Tom.

    A few follow-ups: As noted by many of the other commenters, the post identifies some of the challenges of writing in the team-based, open environments that many advocate. The lack of control over formatting has been mentioned a lot by other commenters, so I won’t belabor the issue.

    But the challenges of working with “volunteers,” is one that is rarely mentioned when discussing SME-authored and user-generated documentation. Having had worked with volunteers in a number of sectors over the years–from work-related ones to community ones–the issue of volunteer management is one that still challenges all of them. Incentives and clarity help, but not always in the way intended. Even in areas that have years of experience with volunteers, it’s more of an art than a science. Just because we’ve moved to community-based approaches to documentation and the wikipedia has been successful doesn’t mean that other ventures don’t involve nurturing.

    As far as meta-data goes, some recent research presented by John Killoran at the STC Online Conference on Research to Practice suggests that, despite its potential, it’s not playing the central role in cataloging the Internet that we have been led to assume. You might familiarize yourself with that presentation; although understanding meta-data might still be a good goal for the year, following the Search Engine Optimization discussions and understanding how Google and other search engines currently catalog content might yield better strategies.

    Last, to understand the cognitive reasons why focusing tightly on 2 projects has provided better results than focusing on many, check out Decisions: We’re maxed out say Montreal reearchers at http://www.montrealgazette.com/technology/Decisions+maxed+Montreal+researchers/6030734/story.html.

    Reply
    1. Tom Johnson

      Saul, thanks for commenting. I value your insight. I’m intrigued by your note about the challenges of working with volunteers. I haven’t run across too much literature that discusses strategies and challenges about working with volunteers, yet it seems extremely important in my own role, as I work in a non-profit organization with a lot of volunteers. I think I may reflect on this more in a new post.

      Also, it’s good to hear my fascination and later disappointment with metadata wasn’t misguided or isolated. I wanted to make it work, but either I don’t have the right tools, approach, strategy, or something.

      Reply
      1. Saul Carliner

        Tom,

        Much of the material about working with volunteers comes from 2 places. The first is the practical literature for working with volunteers and volunteer boards. There’s a lot of how-to articles, most focusing on how to clarify expectations. The second is actual experience of people who work with volunteers–and following which tasks they leave to volunteers and which ones they leave to staff. One of my students research volunteer leaders for her masters thesis and one of her cases was of a volunteer who ultimately failed on the job–but mostly because she realized through volunteering that she wasn’t all that interested in the organization. She only volunteered because she thought it would make her parents happy.

        The metadata research was surprising but it’s typical in the technology field. Ideas, technologies and stuff that we think should work don’t always work the way that people intend or want. That’s why my appreciation for empirical research grows each year–because it kind of tells us what’s really happening.

        Reply
  9. Melanie Blank

    Tom – I’m a bit late seeing this post – excellent ideas as usual!!

    I especially like the idea of Tech. Writers sitting/working in their project teams instead of having all the Tech. Writers in a separate area.

    Melanie

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>