Saturday, 2 July 2016

Why Do People Like Writing Documentation?

If you want to annoy a technical writer, nothing hits the spot quite like hearing "Man, I'm so glad you write the documentation! I know it's got to be done, but boy, it's soooo boring!"

The technical writer-approved responses to this are:

A) smiling through gritted teeth and then seething for the rest of the day,
B) barely-concealed sarcasm about the commentator's level of (il)literacy, or
C) physical violence. 

Personally, I veer between B and C depending on the number of witnesses and the size of the person making the comment. (Ok, B.  But I spend the rest of the day wishing I knew kung fu and imagining C.)  But why, I hear you cry?  We ARE grateful for those weird people that sit in the corner and enjoy typing! Seriously, writing documentation sucks! 

Oh. Dear. God. *imagines nunchuks*

Right, listen to me.  I like writing.  I like learning things.  I like organising my thoughts on paper.  I like helping people.  I like helping people by learning about things and then organising my thoughts on paper using the power of writing.  This is fun for me, and for my fellow writers.  You think I started this blog to make myself rich?  Are you kidding me?  I write this blog because I LIKE WRITING, and I know a bit about technical writing in an agile environment, and I wanted to help writers in similar situations by sharing my knowledge.  You see how that works?  I'm helping people by organising my thoughts on things I've learnt and writing it down for other people to read.  Just because YOU don't like writing - you big philistine - doesn't mean that everyone else doesn't like writing either.  Writing is the mark of an educated civilisation.  Writing well is the mark of an educated person.  Education is a good thing.  You hear me? A GOOD thing.

We don't become technical writers to get rich (damn you, JK Rowling), get famous (hello, Shakespeare) or get people into bed (Lord Shelly, you dog!).  Those are benefits for novelists, playwrights and poets, not those of us who help other people work out how to bypass the bad design and hurried implementation of people who are glad they don't have to write the documentation.  We live in a gift economy, where the most important thing we have is our knowledge and our skills.  Tech writers don't get paid as much as devs, but we're still fortunate enough to do better than a lot of people if we work for any decent company.  As such, being able to show people how to do something they couldn't work out for themselves is a valuable commodity because generally speaking tech people don't care for overt shows of material wealth.  What gets respect is knowledge and skills, and boy oh boy do your technical writers have those in abundance.  You just know too little about what we do to realise that sometimes.

And, while we're on the subject, writing documentation is not dorky, or nerdy, or geeky.  Well, not any more than any of the other technical professions we work with day in, day out.  For us, writing things, organising concepts, helping people, these are what get us out of bed in the morning and we won't apologise for it.  Some people like playing WarHammer, some people take pride on being able to quote every line from every episode of the original Star Trek, and some people are so obsessed about their coffee that they're happy to drink something that's been defecated by an animal.  Some people do all of those things.  The Venn diagram of these people and people who work in software development contains a lot of overlap, so just remember that next time you think a writer is a bit geeky or weird for not wanting to write code instead of natural language.

Although, to be fair, developers are definitely not alone in their bemusement of why people would want to be technical writers.  When someone asks what you do and you say that you're a technical writer, there's often an awkward silence while they try to think of something to say, and that's mainly because the stock answer of "Oh, that's interesting + [question]?" seems to get stuck in their throat.  Because not only do they not find technical writing interesting, they find it SO uninteresting that they can't even maintain the social civility of lying.  At least with a lawyer or salesman you can make a crack about their lack of morals and know they've heard it a thousand times before, even if you couldn't give a flying duck about the intricacies of their job.

Don't worry, like the weasels in notorious professions, we're also well-used to hearing a stock answer.  It's just that for technical writers that stock answer is "Ah.....um.....", and believe me, as people with both morals and a soul that we'd like to keep relatively unsullied, we're much happier with that than poorly-disguised contempt. Still, to help you, here's a few gambits that might help:

  1. "That's interesting, is your documentation in the definition of done?  That's a thorny issue at our place."
  2. "Yeah, a friend of mine does that too and she loves it!"
  3. "Man, I couldn't do that job because my English sucks.  Much respect to people who've got that talent."
  4. "Oh, so you teach people about new tech?  That's awesome!"
  5. "Really?  Wow, you know I've always thought writers were really sexy....."
Ok, maybe not #5.  But the first 4 are all good.

Anyway, having got slightly distracted, back to the issue at hand.  I like what I do.  Scratch that, I love what I do.  Learning stuff, organising that knowledge logically, writing it down for other people - that's like crack cocaine to me.  Yes, I do other things like knowledge management and training people because I'm not a pure technical writer any more, and yes, I love those aspects of my job.  But my love stems from those core desires that all technical writers have: to learn, to organise, to teach. 

That's why people like writing documentation.