atw: Vale technical writing?

Hi austechies


Some of you will have received, as I did, an invitation to attend an ASTC
presentation by DITA evangelist Dr Tony Self. Here is the outline of the
presentation Tony intends to give, exactly as received in the invitation:

Henry Ford revolutionised car manufacture when his production line replaced
the method where cars were hand-made by artisans. Famously, Henry Ford
offered the Model T in "any colour... so long as it is black". There are
parallels in technical communication. Many technical communicators are still
clinging to hand-crafted documentation, creating custom layouts and
"tweaking" formatting, when new modular methods are vastly more efficient.
The age of offering documents in any "colour" the customer wants is over.
And just as car manufacture has long since moved to automation, technical
communication too must embrace automation, with XML providing the technology
platform to make this possible.


Let's throw open for discussion three points stated or implied in Tony's


1.       So "the age of offering documents in any colour the customer wants
is over".  This sounds like the tail wagging the dog. Worse, it sounds like
a recipe for destroying the technical writing profession. Imagine this: in
2011 you wrote  a well-received set of documents for a client designed to
the client's specifications. In 2012 you are invited by that same client to
write another set of documents, and to the same specification. But you baulk
at this, saying "Sorry, but the age of offering documents in any colour the
customer wants is over. I can give you documentation in any colour as long
as it's black ..  oh, and it's got to be produced in XML as well".  How many
freelancers out there are willing to give that approach a try?  I strongly
suspect that If that  became our modus operandi, it would soon be  the end
technical writing. (Henry Ford had a  monopoly on the market; we don't.)


2.       Modular methods are vastly more efficient, says Tony. Well that
might be so above certain scales, but even so, is efficiency the primary
goal of documentation? If it was, perhaps we should be writing all our
documentation in Notepad and abandoning graphics. We don't do that, and we
don't because we correctly realise that what readers need must be a part of
the equation, not just what is most efficient or cheapest. (A parallel: the
most  efficient way to remove a  tumour in the occipital lobe might be to
lop off the entire lobe. Would the patient like that?)  If XML publishing
and DITA offered more efficient means of documenting AND offered us
readability and usability at least  equal with what our current methods
offer us, perhaps we might sit up and listen. But, by Tony's own admission,
they do not. (Recall: tweaking formats to achieve a more logical pagination
is not on offer in the black-and-black world of XML publishing.)


3.       Despite all the fanfare and hoopla surrounding the advent of XML
publishing and DITA, is Tony really saying that the very best that XML and
DITA will ever be able to  give us is one-colour-fits-all documentation? So,
there can be no tweaking of formatting and pagination to improve the
usability and readability of our documents. No stylistic artefacts to meet a
client's marketing imperatives. No breaking of a pre-determined content
structure to accommodate a novel yet instructionally superior placement. (It
sounds like we've hit the same brick wall we hit when we realised, 30 years
ago, that SGML wasn't going to be much chop.)  So why are we being
encouraged to adopt a technology that is so obviously inferior to what we
now have? Efficiency gains, are told. But is that  a strong enough reason to
abandon the flexibility needed to best meet the communication and
instructional design imperatives that have always driven our profession?


We write to impart practical information to people who need it, and in ways
that maximise their uptake of that information. That's our overriding goal
as technical writers, and it's why most of us do fuss about issues of
readability and usability. So why should we adopt any technology that limits
us in our ability to meet that overriding goal? Technology should not be our
master; it is  the needs of our readers that is paramount.





Geoffrey Marnell


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