Princes of Erudition?

By | 2011/04/10

Just back from JoAnn Hackos’ CMS/DITA conference, where it became clear that even in a conference dedicated to a topic-based authoring methodology, most people are still writing books. Certainly, they are writing them in the form of topics, but then stitching them together into books. The fundamental product is still a book.

Actually, It’s not quite accurate to say that people are writing topics and them stitching them together. Rather, the preferred method seems to be to architect the book first, and then create topics to fill predefined positions in that architecture, like hanging ornaments on a Christmas tree. To be sure, there is some reuse of existing topics in this model, in some cases a great deal of reuse, but the very concept of reuse betrays that the topics are being created not to stand alone, but to play a part in a larger object: a document. A truly standalone topic would not be subject to reuse. It would simply exist and do the job that it does for all who require it.

Why, after all this time, are so many tech writers still producing books? It’s not as if we have any illusion that people read them. The expression “RTFM” was already shopworn when I entered the profession 20 years ago. John Carroll’s research showed that adult learner learn by exploring, not reading. They dive into a product, work till they get stuck, and then look for quick answers to get them unstuck. All this was well known before the Internet made Google junkies of us all. And today, of course, people who need a bit of technical information Google for it. They don’t sit down and read technical manuals cover to cover. As David Weinberger has pointed out, the power to organize information has passed from the writer to the reader. And yet still we write books. Even when we adopt topic-based tools, we use them to build books. Why?

In their book, Switch, Chip and Dan Heath note the research of James March, which holds that people make decisions based on one of two models: the consequences model or the identity model. Decisions based on the consequences model are made by looking at what will happen as a result of the decision—if I throw this brick through this jeweler’s window, I will get arrested and go to jail. Decisions based on the identity model are made by asking what kind of person I am—although there are no cops around to see me, I am not the sort of person who throws bricks through jeweler’s windows.

Since we have known for decades that people don’t read the books we write, it it hard to imagine that writers’ decision to continue to write them is based on the consequences model. We don’t write books because we think they are the best way to communicate technical information. We know they aren’t. We have know for years. If March’s research is correct (and frankly, it is one of those “well duh!” conclusions so commonly produced by modern psychology) then the decision to write books, despite them being so ineffective, can only be the result of the identity model at work.

We write books because we are the sort of people who write books.

I suppose this is not surprising. Why, after all, did we become writers? We wanted to write. And just as every driver dreams of Formula 1, every writer dreams of the book. Among writers there has long been a hierarchy: hacks and scribblers turn out 500 words for the newspapers;  academics and serious journalists turn out 5000 word articles for journals and magazines, scholars and thought leaders write 100,000 word books. The longer the narrative you produce, the higher you rank in the castes of authors.

The erudite read books; those who write books, therefore, are the princes of erudition. We don’t write books because they are the best way to communicate technical information (they’re not). We don’t write books because it is easier to write books than it is to write topics (it’s not). We write books because we are the sort of people who write books.

If this is the case, though, those of us who advocate for true topic-based documentation are going to have to change our tactics. As the brothers Heath point out, you don’t change a behavior founded in identity by appealing to consequences. You need to change people’s sense of identity. So the question is, how do we change writers from seeing themselves as the sort of people who write books to seeing themselves as the kind of people who write topics?

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