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.
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.