WHEN YOU COULD LOOK IT UP IN A BOOK

Last night, someone I actually know and who should know better, complained the camera company from whom he bought his camera should fire the tech writer. Because there was no manual.

I felt obliged to point out the reason there is no manual is they never hired a tech writer in the first place. If they had technical writers, there would be a manual. You wouldn’t spend a thousand dollars on a camera and get a three-page leaflet. You’d get a book with an index and a table of contents. Screen shots. Explanations not only of where to find a function, but what the function means, so when you get there, you know what to choose.

Once upon a time, that was my world. I thought it was important, at least to the people who bought products about which I wrote.

Years went by during which the work I did was my life. I got up, got dressed, scraped the ice off the car, went to work (stopping for coffee along the way) and went through my day. Between having done the same kind of work for a long time and perpetually racing against a deadline, life was busy. I knew, no matter what the ad said when I took a job, my work wasn’t permanent. I would work until the book was finished, then I’d move on. It was the way it was.

The industry in which I worked ultimately decided the work I did was no longer necessary. Who needs a manual to tell them how to use equipment that costs a gazillion dollars and controls the operation of a steel mill? Or a missile tracking system? Or a satellite grabber for use out in space? They can always call the help desk — especially in space where you can easily find a signal for your phone.

I was the one who organized the chaotic information into a book with a table of contents, index, chapters, and diagrams so you would not always have to call someone. Considering the state of tech support these days, you can see where this failure to supply reasonable documentation has landed us. That’s why the phones are always busy and why the quality of support is so awful.

The help desk people don’t have a book, either.

Regardless, I was obsolete. You need developers and a boss because someone has to say why you are all gathered here this morning. Also, the boss makes sure there’s coffee. But a writer? They only hired me when they were at the end of a production cycle, realized the contract required they deliver documentation with the product. Sometimes, I got as little as three weeks to learn a product and produce a book that looked professional. At that point, no one cared what was in the book or whether the information would be of any use to anyone. It just had to be big, thick, nicely designed, and weigh enough to use as a doorstop.

My days were numbered. Eventually, I was gone.

To substitute for professional writers, they produce “automatic documentation.” Which is raw data generated by a program using “comments” left by developers, many of whom speak English as a second or third language and in any case, do not understand how regular people work and the kind of information they need to navigate a complex product. It turns out, people were still willing to spend oodles of money for an undocumented product. So I guess they were right. No one cares until they get an expensive product that includes nothing. The good news? You can find entire books — the kind I used to write — on Amazon. Buy them and find out how the product works. It’s just like the books people like me wrote. Cool, huh?

For all of you who believe that crappy documentation is because tech writers are lazy? No, we aren’t lazy. What we are is fired.

22 thoughts on “WHEN YOU COULD LOOK IT UP IN A BOOK

  1. Not sure if you have the heart now but many people, probably with the wealth of knowledge you have, now write the manual for IT products or software but not for the company who’s selling the stuff but independently in a book format. Some have made loads of money, to some extent, new industries all together.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And many people do that for a living. I don’t know if they make an entire living doing it. Those kinds of books have a very limited audience, so you aren’t going to make a lot of money no matter how hard you work at writing a book about it.

      The company that builds the product ought to make sure there’s a proper document, not a leaflet thrown together from scraps of information. Writers, compared to developers (for example), work cheap. And when you pay a lot of money for a product, you deserve a manual. It should be part of the product. I’m sorry it no longer is.

      Liked by 2 people

    • The answer is — some would. Anyone with a tech background would read it, if not page by page, at least much of it. Other’s won’t, but enough would and a lot of the time, you don’t READ the manual. You look stuff up. And that’s really what the book is about. Looking stuff up.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m one of those people who read the manual when they get a new product. These days a great many of them are written in Chinglish and not very helpful but before I start using my new gadget or putting together a piece of furniture I want to understand how it is supposed to work. I was delighted that when I bought my secondhand Pentax DSLR it came with a manual the size of a paperback novel as well as the “Quick Start” leaflet. I am still learning what the camera does in different modes so the book is very useful.

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    • I always look up at least where everything is located, then look up things as I need them. That most of my cameras came with NO manuals of any kind really pisses me off. I have to go online to find any information, and often have to find other bloggers who use the same equipment I do.

      I figure for the prices I’ve paid, they OWE me the books.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I called our help desk today and got a recording. Basically, they had too many calls and were busy fixing the problems they already knew about. If there was a way to find out why my Nuance PDF would not open any PDF file, I was not going to find out today. It seems the helpful desk installed this on my computer to help do certain tasks they wish to eliminate in a system that works perfectly well. No, there was no manual or even forewarning they would install it overnight. The problem may not be Nuance. Maybe I will find out tomorrow.

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  4. “An Idiot’s Guide to…” is the modern day equivalent of a tech manual you can actually hold while attempting to solve your problem

    There are after all an unlimited supply of idiots customers 😉

    I hate buying the latest gizmo and only having a warrantee card to read to find out how to use the features.
    I could go on line and search for the on-line manual (hahahahahahaa). Apparently someone still writes those things but they can’t afford the paper to print them on anymore, plus they would probably be out of date by the time you bought it even if they did – things change (updates) so much more quickly these days 😦

    love

    Like

    • A lot of companies don’t even write the manuals online. They are, as I said above, just piles of data accumulated using software. There are no explanations of how things are supposed to work. They won’t even tell you what a particular function is supposed to do. If you want information, you find bloggers who use your equipment. YouTube has useful videos. But the company that made the item? Nothing.

      Liked by 1 person

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