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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Why Placeholders

Today, we're going to talk about placeholders. According to the Wiktionary, a placeholder means:

noun (plural placeholders)
Something used or included temporarily or as a substitute for something that is not known or must remain generic; that which holds, denotes or reserves a place for something to come later.

If you haven't stopped reading, let me explain why I discussing something that seems insignificant.

While they seem unimportant, placeholders help capture the big picture of a document. They are especially helpful when you have a document with fields or you are crafting a template. Rather trying to reinvent the wheel, you can simply fill in or replace the content you want. But you will have the look and feel and structure of the document you're writing.

Placeholders are also a prelude to something better, meaningful, or complete. In my humble opinion, they are a significant step to help you paint, or in this case write, an instructional or informative picture.

Now, I want to get to the heart of what I'm saying. Placeholders aren't just some bits of text or pixels on a screen. They are stepping stones in life. 

Every job we have is a placeholder. It doesn't matter whether we work somewhere for 30 days or 30 years, it's temporary. Even if you plan to work there for the rest of life, there are some things you can't control:  a company folding, a company eliminating the tech pubs team, you becoming debilitated in some way so you can't work anymore, you taking care of a loved one long-term, or even you dying.

No job on this earth lasts forever.  Job security is a myth. Work is a placeholder until something else comes along. You might need to mentally prepare yourself for this possibility.

And for us independent contractors,our projects are just a placeholder until we fulfill the bigger picture. Let's say you're hired to do a project that just rebranding and minor updates on some company's documents for a couple of months. It may seem like droning busywork to us. But to the company, there's a bigger picture.

What if they are trying remake themselves to better serve their customers? What they are being merged with another company, and the documents have to represent this change? The documents in either scenario are a part of a bigger picture that the client is trying to show to their customers.

And finally, our work could be foreshadowing of something better or meaningful. Some of us technical writers may go on to be novelists. Having the discipline to finish a manual can also translate into a focus on writing and completing a novel.

Or maybe some will go on to be a role where we have to mediate between people who are in conflict. As a technical writer, you have to learn to how to build relationships with different groups of people to create a technical document. Technical writing is a very collaborative process. Whether that's interviewing an SME or guiding SME through their document on how to reshape it, you're working together.

A technical document is the result of building bridges with each other, so you can a build a bridge with the customer using the information you've written. I've seen tech writers move on to be project managers based on their experience in this aspect of technical writing.

Or maybe, some of us who are content with the possibility of staying as technical writers, like myself. Changing careers doesn't always mean it's a sign of something better. Just staying in the same role has its rewards. You can increase in your knowledge about subject you're writing about. Or perhaps, if you work on something from a different field, your knowledge base expands. 

I once told someone I was perfectly fine staying a technical writer. It doesn't mean I'm happy being stagnant. I'm just happy and grateful in what I do. And along the way, I've learned some things. I feel like I'm always learning when I work on a document.

So the next time you see a placeholder, ponder on what its role is and how it can apply to your life.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Technical Writing: Ubiquitous, Instrinic, Subtle

When we think of technical writing, we might come up with some different ideas. We might think of a neurotic wordsmith, straining over grammar, style, and finicky about formats when creating documentation. Or, maybe an engineer just waiting to unleash their inner writer, waiting to plaster their prose on the screen, and waiting to release to the world the greatest manual ever written. Most likely, though, they are someone who got stuck writing something because no one else wanted to do it.

And speaking of reading documentation, how about the things we toss to aside because they don't make any sense when we're trying to put something together. Yep, guilty as charged! The list can go on and on. I don't think you and I want to fall asleep while listing out these ideas. I'm getting drowsy thinking about it.

Whenever anyone asked me what I do and I say technical writer, sometimes I get a puzzled look. When I say I write instructions, they say okay and nod. Anyway, where the heck am I going with this.

If we are just viewing technical writing as something on a screen or on paper, we are limiting ourselves on what technical writing or, as I like to say, technical communication, is.

Technical writing is everywhere. Yes, the user guides, on-line helps, API documents, white papers, tutorials, quickstarts, how-tos, the hokey pokey and turn yourself around song, or whatever fancy, shiny titles you come up with. Other than helping to keep a writer employed, why is there so much technical writing out there?

In my humble opinion, I think it's because technical writing is intrinsic to us human beings. When we perform dance steps, fish, hunt, drive a car, using a programming language, cooking a meal, our inclination is to show others how to do this. This is one of the ways information and knowledge spreads. We have been showing others how to do something for ages.

Even things like teaching a Tae Kwon Do class, preaching a sermon, or parenting a child, are a form of technical communication. You're instructing others how to do something or you're explaining what something is. Technical writing is the written manifestation of the verbal instructions and physical demonstrations.

Finally, technical writing can be subtle. When we do our normal routines, we forget that there are steps involved and they fade into the background. We just do it. It could be anything from making coffee, tying your shoes, changing a diaper, or brushing your teeth. We don't think about it.

I remember one time I had to write step-by-step instructions on something I normally do. When I took up this exercise, I thought this was going to be easy. But when I had to write down the steps, I realized how many things I didn't think about while performing this routine task. It made me think about how much we take for granted when don't think about what we do. It's only when I began to write it down, that I paused to clear up my thoughts and to make sure I didn't miss anything.

So, the next time you look at a manual, a standard operation procedure guide, or an on-line tutorial, stop and think how much technical writing there is in our world, whether it's obvious or not.

Hello World!

My name is William McFadden and I have been a technical writer for over 18 years. What I'm hoping to accomplish here is to share my experiences, insights, and my philosophy of technical communication. And maybe, do some actual technical writing here. I don't want to get hung up on what tools to use or whether you should learn some programming language or not. Granted, these are helpful. I'm focused on talking about some core principles of technical writing, as well as issues that may surround it. I don't speak for all technical writers out there. I'm just one guy who's been doing this for a while. I'm hoping to encourage those who are new writers to consider this writing style or prose. I'm also hoping to encourage those who have been doing this for a while to continue. Thank you for stopping by. Hope you come again soon.