Enough with the heroics

My boss keeps telling me that the great thing about startups is that everyone wants to do everything. And the worst thing about startups is that everyone tries to do everything.

I should have listened more closely. Heroic efforts are good sometimes. But you can’t base realist plans on that. If you do, it’ll bite you in the ass. That’s what happened to me.

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My summer vacation

I took a long-overdue vacation earlier this month, and came back to a maelstrom of work. Which is my excuse for not posting, but there’s also the problem that once you break your writing habit, it’s difficult to get that going again.

First, though, I want to mention that I’ll be a presenter at the Information Development World conference in San Jose in October. I’m going to be part of the “Management Issues in Information Development” panel on Friday, and I’m very excited about it. And I realize that based on my history with conferences, I need to do what I can to make this panel interesting, fun, and generally worthwhile for everyone attending. I promise to do my best.

Now, let me tell you about my vacation (this is where you can skip out).

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What users are looking for (hint: FAQs)

I spent last week researching support and learning management systems, working on a documentation delivery schedule for the rest of the year, and responding to a few complex support cases.

Those support cases, along with some comments from other users, have made me rethink my opinion of FAQs. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that this feedback is pushing me in a direction that I’ve been trying to avoid, while I knew that I was fighting the inevitable.

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Why you shouldn’t do it all

Responding to my post about startups vs. large companies, Anindita Basu asked, “I am curious why you don’t recommend stepping up and taking on as many things as we can (when in a small company).”

Not too long ago, I would have replied that it’s exactly what you should do. I would have explained that it’s important to try to do as much as possible because that’s how you establish and maintain your relevance and authority in your company.

But that’s the wrong answer. Doing that will lead to burnout, frustration, and disappointment. Let me explain…

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Responding to Craft vs. Commodity

Connie Giordano has an interesting take (and a reader poll) on technical writing as a craft vs. a commodity. She’s writing something of a rebuttal to my post about the same topic. When I checked before posting this, the results were tilting towards “Tech writing is a hybrid profession,” slightly ahead of “Heck yes we’re craftspeople!” I voted for “hybrid” even though I’m not entirely sure what that means. But I think it’s closer to my argument.
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You should work for a (small||large) company because…

When I was talking to people at the Write the Docs conference, I had a couple of interesting conversations with people who were weighing the costs and benefits of moving from a large company to a small startup. I prefer working for smaller companies, but I’ve been through this decision process a few times, and I’ve seen the good and bad of both large and small companies.

I can’t tell you much about being a contractor, though. I’ve only dabbled in it, and all I can tell you is that it made my tax returns slightly more confusing.

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I wrote a guest post for MindTouch

While I was at the Write the Docs conference, I ran into some of the MindTouch product team, one of whom I’ve worked with before (and on a personal level, I like the team; they’re really friendly people). This led to an opportunity to write a guest post for the MindTouch blog, which I very eagerly agreed to.

I worked with MindTouch’s Content Strategist (and that comment about “funny new titles” comes back to bite me…again!), who suggested a very interesting topic: “what businesses / management should be doing to help their techcomm writers deliver more value to customers.” I took that idea and ran with it: 8 Ways Management can help Techcomm Writers Deliver Customer Value.

Structured writing = commodified writing

While researching doc tool and process options, I’ve been interested in developments in DITA, especially a call for simplified DITA. I’m just surprised that it’s taken this long to get started. But I’ve seen at least one DITA expert say that simplified DITA is good for engineers and other transient contributors. Again, people are stuck in the mindset that only professional technical writers can write “correctly,” and we’re doing everyone a favor by allowing them a peak into our walled garden.

But here’s the thing about DITA, and structured writing in general: It commodifies technical writing. And while that might not be a bad thing, we have to acknowledge that if we go to a fully-structured writing world, one of the consequences is that we turn tech writing into a commodified skill, making it easier for everyone to write acceptable documentation.

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