People sometimes wonder what exactly the Hell it is that I do all day, what exactly a Technical Writer does. Believe me, we even have seminars and discussions at work about the answer to that one.
The easy response is that we take crappy documentation that nobody wants to read – or, worse, hilarious documentation that people scan and upload to websites – and make it into the sort of content that people actually find useful. Those rare occasions where somebody says “the user guide actually helped, I’m glad I read it,” – no, it’s not a case of “said nobody, ever,” although it is a Holy Grail of sorts that it sometimes seems we have made a life’s passion of pursuing.
Sometimes it’s a difficult job.
Heck, sometimes it’s an utterly futile job. Sometimes, nobody’s going to read the manual no matter what you do. Sometimes, all you end up with is hands covered in shoe-polish and turd.
It’s not about fixing up spelling and grammar errors, although that’s often what the tasks boil down to and if you can do that in a fun and interesting way it can be enjoyable if you’re the right sort of person. No, that’s just the cold hard skeleton of it and if that’s all you can do, with no nuance or interpretation, then I’m sorry but you just don’t have the soul for this work. First you must fill your head with wisdom, and so on.
It’s not about copy-pasting, or version control, or finding consistency errors, although if any or all of these things make you happy, we may have a job opening for you.
It’s about communication.
Imagine the customer, or subject matter expert, or other generator of source material, has just delivered a big mess of sludge and oysters into your inbox. As a matter of fact, if you’ve ever been in this industry you’ll know this doesn’t take much imagination.
Now, a lot of this is just mud, and slime, and bits of seaweed, and rocks and stuff, none of which is going to be any use at all. You identify the rubbish, and get rid of it. For the rest, quite a bit of it is shell. Tough to get into, difficult to pry open for the stuff that you want inside, and ultimately surplus to requirements. Some of it may be useful, of course – little pieces of the inside of the shell can be fitted together to make pretty iridescent mosaics or some shit, I don’t know, it really depends on what the customer wants and how far you’re willing to stretch the source material. If the customer wants you to glue the pieces of shell onto a big piece of cardboard to spell out the words CUSTOMER P. CUSTOMERINGTON IS HNADSOME, you’d best just pull out your glue. Although you could go the extra mile and suggest to them that they might have meant “HANDSOME”. Or “NADSOME”.
Anyway, once you get in there, you’ll find the meat itself.
Now, a lot of this is what various people think is important. And don’t get me wrong, it is. The oyster itself is what people eat. It’s certainly what the subject matter experts, the metaphorical oyster farmers, think is important. Give them half a chance and they’ll talk your ear off about how important the oyster is. It’s a whole heap of work to get it out, and if you come back in a couple of weeks you’ll find it’s started stinking up the place so it needs to be constantly replaced, but yeah, sure. It’s important. Can’t have a big mosaic billboard reading CUSTOMER P. CUSTOMERINGTON IS NADSOME without a heaping plate of oysters to keep the seagulls from picking off the shell bits.
These are all parts of the whole. What you’ve been given are all characters, mostly letters – a lot of it may even be legible words. It’s all information.
But only the smallest part of it is the essence of pure communication, that rare and valuable thing that will never age, will never lose its beauty, will attract people to the material and keep them there. It’s this that connects us, unites us, makes us better. It’s this that separates us from the other primates.
Only the smallest part of it is a pearl.