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The joys of technical writing

A collection of early technical manualsBefore I started in the computer industry in 1983, I had never heard of technical writing. I found out about it from a job listing at the CSUN Career Center. As I got into the field, I discovered how much I liked it. The career combines two things I enjoy: writing and working with the latest gadgets.

This year marks my 35th anniversary in the computer industry and 15th at my employer. I’d like to share with you the joys I found in technical writing.

You see world-changing technology being born

In 1993, I went to a multimedia expo in Los Angeles. All of the booths had the latest multimedia CDs. Then someone told me about a room in the back where they were playing with some new technology. The plain text and graphics didn’t look like much compared to video clips and spinning 3-D logos in the main hall. But they showed how changing a page on one computer can send those changes to all of the other computers on the network and around the world.

They were demonstrating something you’re using right now: the World Wide Web.

Over the past 35 years, I saw computers go from something that sat on a desk to something you can carry in your pocket. Graphics went from 320 x 200 resolution to pixels so small you can’t detect them. Digital cameras replaced film and videotape, and smartphones replaced digital cameras. Each new innovation offered new possibilities. I can call my wife, look up directions on a map, and order dinner — all from a single device.

Who knows what technologies are being developed that will shape our lives tomorrow? As technical writers, we learn about them first.

You develop new skills all the time

Technological progress not only affects what you write about, it changes how you write. When I started, documentation consisted of printed manuals. Although we wrote the content on computers, we still needed to paste them up on boards to be photographed on plates and run through an offset printer.

Then online help was introduced. At first, we had to add codes manually to Microsoft Word documents to generate a help file. Eventually, tools like RoboHelp and ForeHelp made the task easier. In time, printed manuals went away in place of Adobe Acrobat PDF files. We also switched to more specialized tools for creating documentation, such as FrameMaker and Flare.

Now, we’re using a technology called DITA that automates the process of generating documentation. By applying tags to an XML document in a tool like XMetaL or Oxygen, we can generate help and PDF documents in the format we define. And to develop those custom formats, I had to learn technologies like XSLT, FOP, and other acronyms most people haven’t heard of.

Each step forward in documentation creation requires us to master new tools and skills. We also need to rethink how we present information. Long narrative descriptions gave way to numbered steps and chunked information. We must also think about how information will appear on different size screens and meet the needs of different types of users. These challenges give us opportunities to learn and grow.

You connect with others around the world

Russian Alphabet on a Commodore 64Even before the World Wide Web and the fall of the Berlin Wall, computers were an international business. In 1984, I reviewed Commodore 64 programs Beginning Russian and Politburo 64 created by Russian emigres. These programs use custom Cyrillic characters as you see in this photo. Also in the eighties, companies produced Arabic word processors for IBM PCs. I worked on computers designed for the then-emerging Chinese market. Creating translated versions has always been a key part of our work. I know what my writing looks like in French.

When we are not working with international teams to create products for a global market, we share ideas with technical writers in other countries. When I post questions about technical problems on message boards, I get back ideas from writers in Canada, Israel, Australia, Poland, India, and Switzerland. And I’ve returned the favor by answering questions for writers around the world.

Technology knows no borders. We all face the same challenge to provide information for our customers. As technical writers, we are part of a global community.

You can make a difference in people’s lives

We hear that hardly anyone reads the user documentation. But when users need it, they’re glad it’s there.

I experienced this recently when I updated my iPhone to iOS 12. It has a new app called Measure that enables you to measure items with your iPhone’s camera and the magic of augmented reality. But I couldn’t figure out how to make it work from the prompts on the screen. After a Google search, I found the instructions I needed. I’m not ready to throw away my tape measure, but I now can get good estimates from my smartphone. I wouldn’t have been able to use that feature without documentation.

When you consider how technology has embedded further into people’s lives, including potentially life-saving features like the ECG in the new Apple Watch Series 4, providing clear and accurate documentation becomes more important. Changing regulatory requirements also require us to keep information up-to-date. As technology products expand into new markets in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, we need to provide localized guides that meet their requirements. New adaptive technologies enable people with limitations to live fuller lives. Our documentation helps them use these tools.

The biggest joy of technical writing is that it’s an evolving and expanding field. We use technologies that haven’t existed before that change how people live. We are part of a global community that looks for better ways to make technology accessible to users of all kinds. This is why I’ve enjoyed the journey as a technical writer for these past 35 years, and I look forward to many more years to come.


Also published on Medium.

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