Technical Writing Appreciation

I'm a technical writer. This is a realization that has taken me some time to appreciate and understand fully.

Technical writing is one of those things that creators of technology, a term that I will use liberally, all agree is required, but it's also something that's very difficult to do properly. I think this difficulty springs from the following concerns: What constitutes describing a technology or process in too much detail? Not enough? Are all users of a technology able to make use of the same level of documentation sets? If users are too diverse, what is the best way to make sure that their needs are addressed: do we write parallel documentation for all users, or do we try and equalize less advanced users so that the core documentation is useful to everyone?

The answers to these questions vary of course with the needs of the product being documented and the use cases, but I think resolving these concerns presents a considerable challenge to any kind of technical documentation project, and the way that the documentation developers resolve these issues can have a profound effect not only on the documentation itself but the value and usefulness of the documentation itself. As I've been thinking about the utility and value of technical writing, a professional hazard, I've come up with a brief taxonomy of approaches to technical writing:

  • First, there's the document everything approach. Starting with a full list of features (or even an application's source) the goal here is to make sure that there's no corner unturned. We might think of this as the "manual" approach, as the goal is to produce a comprehensive manual. These are great reference materials, particularly when indexed effectively, but the truth is that they're really difficult for users to engage with, even though they may have all the answers to a users questions (e.g. "RTFM.") I suspect that the people who write this kind of documentation either work closely with developers or are themselves developers.
  • Second, there's what I think of as the systems or solutions document, which gives up comprehensiveness, and perhaps even isolation to a single tool or application, and documents outcomes and processes. They aren't as detailed, and so might not answer underlying questions, but when completed effectively they provide an ideal entry point into using a new technology. In contrast to the "manual" these documents are either slightly more general interest or like "white papers." This class of documentation, thus, not simply explains how to accomplish specific goals but illuminates technical possibilities and opportunities that may not be clear from a function-based documentation approach. I strongly suspect that the producers of this kind of documentation are very rarely the people who develop the application itself.
  • In contrast to the above, I think documentation written for education and training purposes, may appear to be look either a "manual" or a "white paper," but have a fundamentally different organization and set of requirements. Documentation that supports training is often (I suspect) developed in concert with the training program itself, and needs to impart a level of deeper understanding of how a system works (like the content of a manual,) but doesn't need to be comprehensive, and needs mirror the general narrative and goals of the training program.
  • Process documentation finally, is most like solution documentation, but rather than capture unrealized technological possibilities or describe potentially hypothetical goals, these kinds of documents capture largely institutional knowledge to more effectively manage succession (both by future iterations of ourselves, and our replacements). These documents have perhaps the most limited audience, but are incredibly valuable both archival (e.g. "How did we used to do $*?") and also for maintaining consistency particularly amongst teams as well as for specific tasks.

I think the fundamental lesson regarding documentation here isn't that every piece of technology needs lots and lots of documentation, but rather that depending on the goals for a particular technology development program or set of tools, different kinds of documentation may be appropriate, and more useful in some situations.

As a secondary conclusion, or direction for more research: I'd be interested in figuring out if there are particular systems that allow technical writers (and development teams) to collect multiple kinds of information and produce multiple documentation for different organizations. Being able to automatically generate different wholes out of documentation "objects" if we may be so bold.

I must look into this. Onward and Upward!

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