It seems I’m writing a minor series on the current status (and possible future direction?) of technical writing and documentation efforts. Both in terms of establishing a foundation for my own professional relevancy, as well as in and for itself because I think documentation has the potential to shape the way that people are able to use technology. I started out with Technical Writing Appreciation and this post will address a few sore points regarding the use of wikis as a tool for constructing documentation.
At the broadest level, I think there’s a persistent myth regarding the nature of the wiki and the creation of content in a wiki that persists apart from their potential use in documentation projects. Wiki’s are easy to install and create. It is easy to say “I’m making a wiki, please contribute!” It is incredibly difficult to take a project idea and wiki software and turn that into a useful and vibrant community and resource. Perhaps these challenges arise from the fact that wiki’s require intense stewardship and attention, and this job usually falls to a very dedicated leader or a small core of lead editors. Also, since authorship on wikis is diffuse and not often credited, getting this kind of leadership and therefore successfully starting communities around wiki projects can be very difficult.
All wikis are like this. At the same time, I think the specific needs of technical documentation makes these issues even more prevalent. This isn’t to say that wiki software can’t power documentation teams, but the “wiki process” as we might think of it, is particularly unsuited to documentation.
One thing that I think is a nearly universal truth of technical writing is that the crafting of texts is the smallest portion of the effort of making documentation. Gathering information, background and experience in a particular tool or technology is incredibly time consuming. Narrowing all this information down into something that is useful to someone is a considerable task. The wiki process is really great for the evolutionary process of creating a text, but it’s not particularly conducive to facilitating the kind of process that documentation must go through.
Wikis basically “here’s a simple editing interface without any unnecessary structure: go and edit, we don’t care about the structure or organization, you can take care of that as a personal/social problem.” Fundamentally, documentation requires an opposite approach, once a project is underway and some decisions have been made, organization isn’t the kind of thing that you want to have to manually wrestle, and structure is very necessary. Wikis might be useful content generation and publication tools, but they are probably not suited to supporting the work flow of a documentation project.
I think the idea of a structured wiki, as presented by twiki has potential but I don’t have a lot of experience with it. My day-job project uses an internally developed tool, and a lot of internal procedures to enforce certain conventions. I suspect there are publication, collaboration, and project management tools that are designed to solve this problem, but I’m not particularly familiar with anything specific. In any case, it’s not a wiki.
Do you have thoughts? Have I missed something? I look forward to hearing from you in comments!