The Reader is the Enemy

By | 2011/04/28

Noz Urbina asks, Is Communication Mired in the Past? Well, yes, obviously. Most of the tech comms world is still making books in FrameMaker. But also no, because the problem is more profound than the words “mired in the past suggest”. People get mired in things through carelessness or misfortune. They want to get out, but they can’t. Technical communications isn’t mired in the past, it is entrenched there, gallantly, if with dwindling hope, guarding the battlements against the encroaching hoards of readers.

You would think that writers and readers would be natural allies. But think about the language that writers use to talk about readers. You have to “grab the reader” and “hold their attention”. Sound more like a kidnapping than a coffee klatch. And what is the first words that every technical writer is taught in their cradle: RTFM. Read The Flaming Manual. An expression of outrage and exasperation. Make no mistake, the reader is the enemy.

This is not new. Readers and writers are two dogs with one bone. And that bone is the right, privilege, and power of organizing information. As David Weinberger documents, writers have been trying for centuries to impose order on human knowledge. The early encyclopedists attempted to organize all of human knowledge in a grand hierarchy. Readers preferred alphabetical order. Yahoo tried to catalog the web. Readers preferred to Google. Miscellany, it turns out, is more powerful than order.

Readers do not win every round, however. DITA was originally developed to create help content — independent topics that could be accessed in random order. Writers fought back and added DITA maps so that they could organize topics hierarchically into books. Readers turned to the web for free access to content the way they wanted it. Writers are fighting back by rebranding themselves Information Architects and organizing entire websites into complex hierarchies in an attempt to control how readers access the information. Writers are working actively to remove internal linking from content so as to prevent readers from surfing away when they should be paying attention. “Links are distracting” they say, in defence of this practice. Readers are supposed to finish all the content on their plate. No desert until you eat all your peas.

To give them their due, writers are well meaning in this. They genuinely believe that readers cannot organize information for themselves, and that they both need and want writers to organize if for them. This is fundamental to the writer’s identity. It is what they do. It is what makes them valuable and respected members of society. And, as I have noted previously, there is a definite and well understood hierarchy among writers. The longer the pieces you write, the higher your status as a writer. The highest status writers are those who write books. Asking a book writer to write topics is like asking Michael Jordan to play tiddly-winks. It is low status work, and they don’t want to do it.

I’m not sure if this is the case among younger writers. After all, bloggers today can be higher status than many novelists and journalists, and many high-status book writing writers also blog. The short form, the transient online form, is gaining in stature every day. And, as Weinberger has demonstrated, the battle to control the organization of content is over. The readers have won. Any further resistance is mere rearguard action. A few enclaves of writer control may live on, particularly in regulated environments, but the war is over. Time to hoist a new flag.

Is communication mired in the past? If so, the problem is not one of technology, but of identity. Writers need to discover a new role, a new self image, new marks of status, and new ways of delivering value. Perhaps they may even learn to find satisfaction in helping readers to organize content for themselves.

9 thoughts on “The Reader is the Enemy

  1. NU

    Thanks for the response post, Mark. I find it quite an interesting premise and quite well written and constructed, and, I take no small pleasure from the fact it comes from a fellow Canadian. Of course, as a Content "Strategist", my available war metaphors are many and often quite apt…

    Upon finishing the article I notice that the focus is seems squarely on technical communication, whereas my central thesis was that we need to integrate thinking across types of communication. It thought point this should have gotten a nod to mention that it was being left out.

    Beyond that, I tried keeping an open mind but I can't swallow the premise that Readers somehow see it as a goal to organise information. I don't feel they are not fighting over the same bone as writers at all.

    The reader seeks to consume and leverage information in techcomms and in other types of content, consume for the sheer pleasure of it.

    Do they care about organising information? They make have their favourite links and gather up snippets here and there, but that's only to accelerate their original task which was: whatever it is they were trying to do when they got stuck and were forced to Google for help or (gasp) RTFM. JoAnn Hackos quoted the inventor of Visual Basic recently on user requirements: What the user really wants to do is go home at 5 o’clock. All tech writing and the whole enablement idea that I was putting forward comes from that. We’re here to help them do what they were trying to do before they needed us.

    ‘Keeping their attention’ any longer than is useful for *them* is a disservice. We only want to do that when we’re using TechComms material in a presales mode. Then we want to get them back on the road to doing the task we want, which is deciding our product / service is best and that they should jump on board!

    If readers really engage in the organisational process, this is when they are become writers and contributors themselves. If they do this and share it with anybody else, we’re getting into the fascinating area of user generated and community content. If they do what most do, which is get in, get their answer and then run for the hills as fast as possible before being subjected to any more delays, they’re being the typical reader for whom we should all be writing. We’re writing not for us, but for them.

    Noz Urbina – // @nozurbina

  2. NU

    Oh – and regarding finding a new identity and relationship with modular content, I couldn't agre with you more. It is a vast psychological chasm for the writer and I get many emails from organistions that have focussed on technology without investing sufficiently into rejigging their people's thinking. They struggle immensely, even with half a million pounds worth of fancy new systems on tap, because their writers are trying to ram round pegs in the square holes they've been provided.

    Writing in topics and writing for reuse and translation are great challenges and it's great when a team sees is as a gaunlet to take up, and not a straight jacket.

    Noz Urbina – // @nozurbina

  3. Mark Baker

    Hi Noz,

    I agree, the reader is not interested in organizing content the way a writer is — permanently and for everyone. They are interested in organizing it ephemerally and personally by getting to the content that solves their problem so that they can go home at 5pm.

    We would more conventionally call this navigating rather than organizing. But the point of the writer's organization of the content is to guide the reader into certain navigational channels. The conflict between readers and writers lies in the reader's desire to break out of these predefined channels and head directly to their individual destination.

    On the web, though, readers' personal navigational activity does turn into tacit organization for others. Like ants laying down scent trails that other ants can follow to a food source — the scent trail growing stronger as more ants follow it, readers finding useful content leave a digital trail that search engines can follow to lead other readers to the good content.

    Reader participation can be more active as well. Tagging and liking content creates an even stronger digital trail. This collective social organization of content is generally at odds with the kind of organization that writers want to do, and writers tend to resist it — by trying to force visitors onto landing pages, for example. (The point of Every Page is Page One is that every page is a landing page.)

    I remember reading once about a university campus that struggled long and hard with students who refused to use the laid out footpaths, preparing to walk directly to their destinations across the grass. The passage of many feet was wearing out the grass, leaving unsightly trails of packed earth across the otherwise pristine lawns. The path builders were at war with the path users, and the path builders were losing.

    Eventually, they stopped trying to change the student's navigation patterns. Instead, when the opened a new building, the did not put in any foot paths at all. A year later, they came back and laid down footpaths over the trails worn in the grass.

  4. Mark Baker

    Noz: Oh, and yes, you are correct, I did narrow the focus from communications generally to technical communications, and without properly noting that I had done so. I suspect that this struggle with identity is the same for writers of all stripes, but technical communication is the pond I swim in and the one I feel comfortable making broad sweeping generalizations about. 🙂

  5. Ethan Duty

    In response to "I'm not sure if this is the case among younger writers," you can rest assured that it's not.

    Those of us that come into the industry learning how to write for reuse, localization, and amorphous topic-based environments recognize that this is the way the audience digests content. We thrive on content management systems and web-based tools.

    When I encounter a writer that still wants to create an 80+ user guide in FrameMaker and touts anything made of paper as "quality" documentation, I shake my head and wonder why he or she still has a job.

  6. Mark Baker

    Thanks Ethan,

    It is reassuring to hear that things are changing.

  7. kevinmcl

    … and just around the corner, you can read about the exact opposite of what Ethan touts – engineer and coder users who get cranky at all the bloody chunking and want the entire documentation as a single “page” that they can scroll and search and jump around, while still having a feel for where they are in relation to every other bit of information in the document. These are the guys (it’s mostly guys, not women) who just lo-o-o-o-ove what Javadocs or Doxygen puts out… except… “can you put it all into one PDF that I can scroll? “

  8. Mark Baker Post author

    Hi kevinmel,

    Thanks for the comment. I’ve certainly seen the same thing — readers asking for a PDF so they can search. Part of the reason, at least, is that so often when content is chunked, no provision is made to make it easy to search and browse the resulting chunks. I’ve also seen improved linking and search capabilities reduce the requests for PDFs.

    I have argued recently that links are the last mile of findability (, and that findability at the local level is being seriously neglected. I don’t doubt that topic based documentation is the future of technical publications, but I think we have a huge amount of work to do before we really start getting topic-based documentation right.


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