Reading Usable Help
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Gordon R. Meyer
Boys and their toys
At The Creative Tech Writer, a dead-on observation about the state of the craft. We all love to talk about tools -- mostly complaining of course -- at the expense of any substantive discussion about the quality and characteristics of what we produce. Take a peek at nearly any technical writing or help authoring conference and you'll find that almost all of the sessions are about tools. How to fiddle with this or that template, how to move from tool A to tool B, a discussion of some nifty authoring toolkit. (The SIGDOC conference is an exception to the format-over-substance trend, but so few technical writers join the organization that it struggles to be a strong professional voice.)
I think a factor here is that technical writers work among the smartest, most technical people in the industry. People who use specialized and complicated tools on a daily basis. In order to feel like they fit in, writers too want fancy applications and complicated processes. Additionally, tools manifest specialized knowledge and insider-information that is otherwise internal to the writing process, and often intangibly present in what we produce, so they fight back against the "anyone can write documentation" mindset that every writer lives with. But unfortunately the profession's obsession with tools comes at the expense of truly moving forward by developing, learning, and applying new ideas that improve the content -- the substance -- of what we produce. And if authors don't want to discuss these things, who will?