Flat Earth Tech Comm

Working with my current client has really reinforced for me how much traditional documentation methods involve flattening reality. The client is dealing with a large body of troubleshooting information, in which there are complex relationships between issues the user experiences, the symptoms that help narrow down the issue, the configurations under which symptoms can occur, and the underlying faults, misunderstandings, or frustrated expectations that cause the issues.

The relationships between these factors are complex, many to many, and multi-dimensional. Any presentation of these relationships on paper, or on a piece of glass standing in for paper, involves flattening them. This flattening is necessitated by the media, which is, literally, flat. It is also a result of the limits of our own ability to visualize and express complex multi-dimensional relationships. Whether it is a result of thought patterns developed by a five-thousand year experience with paper as the media for externalizing and preserving our thoughts, or whether the limit is innate, we flatten as we attempt to understand. read more

Frankenbooks Must Die: A Rant

I was astonished at Sarah Maddox’s statement, in her guest post Why don’t technical writers use wikis — or do they? on I’d Rather be Writing, that wikis are not good at topic-based writing. Huh? Wikis are all about topic-based writing. In fact, it is the only type of writing they really support.

What’s wrong here? It certainly isn’t that Sarah does not understand wikis. If you want to know about using wikis in technical documentation, Sarah is the first person you want to talk to. If anyone knows wikis, it’s Sarah. She’s even written a book on the subject. What’s wrong, apparently, is that the term “topic-based writing” seems to have been corrupted or co-opted and robbed of its proper meaning. This is serious, and it needs to be fixed. read more

The Best Place to Find a Needle is a Haystack

HaystacksConventional wisdom tells us that the best place for a needle is in a needle case, and the best place for hay is in a haystack. If you want to find something, or want other people to find it, you should put it in the right place. As we were all taught: a place for everything, and everything in its place.

That was true when we lived in the physical world. But we don’t live in the physical world anymore. We live on the Internet, and the Internet is topsy turvey world in which the best place to find a needle is actually a haystack. read more

The Reader is the Enemy

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. read more

Princes of Erudition?

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.

Too little information

Were I asked to characterize the human condition in a sentence, I might choose this: to be human is to make decisions with too little information. All our decisions, great and small, are taken without adequate information: getting married, buying real estate, having children (this especially), saving for retirement, choosing the best route for a journey, taking a job, or hiring an employee. We don’t know nearly as much as we would like to in making any of these decisions.