Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Confessions of a Technical Writer

For the last eight years, being a technical writer has paid my bills. From full-time employment to contract work, freelance assignments to unemployment benefits, I’ve always answered the “Profession” line in forms with Technical Writer.

I didn’t set out to be a tech writer. It’s something I fell into – like a deep, dark hole. The only difference is that most days, a deep dark hole would be more fun. The primary trouble with tech writing is that you write instructions that no one ever reads. When was the last time you used an online help system or opened a computer software manual?

I’m not complaining (much). Like I said, it pays the bills and decently paying writing jobs are few and far between. At least I’ve never really had to go over to the Dark Side. (i.e. marketing) I started a three-month contract this week and I’ve been thinking about divisions and sects. The world is full of divisions – Catholics and Protestants, North-siders and South-siders, chunky peanut butter eaters and plain peanut butter eaters, night owls and early birds…

In tech writing, the division is Framemaker or Word. In my long career, I’ve used both and I’ve developed some opinions and preferences. For this contract, I have to use Framemaker. The advantage of Framemaker is two-fold: its layout features allow you to put pictures and text exactly where you want them to create a good looking printed manual and WebWorks will create HTML Help files from Framemaker files. The downside of Framemaker is that it’s as fussy as the sort of old lady who wears pearls and carries around a yippy sweater-wearing, child-biting rat dog.

You don’t usually get a choice about which tool you’re going to use. Every company has standards and procedures and style guides and you just have to suck it up and jam your square peg into whichever round hole is signing your paychecks. Your preference is shaped by experience. I believe psychologists and other smarter-than-me-people call this adaptive preference, or something like that. You have to use the program so you learn to love it, warts and all.

I’ve used Word more than Framemaker, so I guess I prefer Word. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but I’ve adapted to Word’s quirks. The worst thing about Word is that it continually makes the mistake of thinking it has a better idea of what you want than you do. You might find yourself typing along in Word, then you set something off with a dash and before you know it, you’re working on a bulleted list.

And what about that psychotic paperclip who always thinks you’re writing a letter? I hope they’ve sent him to the Office Supply Closet in the Sky. I hate that little blighter. He’s creepy and he’s stupid – not a good combination.

Word is also prone to the occasional freak-out. Numbered lists can be a little troublesome – sometimes the software just doesn’t want to let you restart the numbering. I find that styles I know I’ve created and saved to the template vanish into some the ether on a completely random, unexplainable basis. The grammar checker often can’t accept that you do, in fact, have subject-verb agreement or that sometimes, you just have to use a fragment or passive voice.

Plus, Word isn’t really designed to do desktop publishing. Setting up a layout in Word is always a bit of a gamble. It might decide you want your picture to appear on a page all by itself, regardless of the fact that you want it in a column surrounded by text. Styles in Word can behave a bit arbitrarily and you can’t create a style at the character level. For example, if I wanted to have my name in the middle of a paragraph and make just that word bold, italic, green and 32 point Helvetica, I would have to apply each of those formats.

Framemaker gives you a lot more control over how your text looks. I could create a character style called Crazy Ann and could use it to make my name look like big, green and crazy whenever I wanted to. I can anchor a graphic to some text to make sure that the two are never parted. Unfortunately for me, visual layout is not my strong suit so the most compliant layout tool in the world isn’t going to help me much. My designs will always look like they were created by an attention-deficit-disordered toddler who got into the coffee beans. I can use a template, but it’s a waste of everyone’s time to ask me to create one.

Framemaker gives you a shot at layout perfection, but it demands perfection in return. It does not have a multiple undo stack. You can’t type away, make a bunch of silly mistakes and then Control-Z your way out of them. You get one strike – like with a hanging judge. You get to undo only your last action.

Where Word caters to your customization needs, Framemaker requires you to use their toolbars and icons. You can’t set up keyboard shortcuts to speed yourself along. Speaking of speeding along, my mouse wheel doesn’t work in Framemaker files. I have to scroll down the old-fashioned way.

For the short-term, at least, I am in an arranged courtship with Framemaker. I’m going to have to learn to adapt to its fussiness. I’m going to have to slow down a little and not rely on Undo to get me out of trouble. I’m going to have to think about how best to use graphics and where to put them. I’m going to have to let go of customizable toolbars and keyboard shortcuts.

Otherwise, I’m going to end up like a bitter divorcee on a blind date. “Well, my ex-husband used to do things this way.” The blind date doesn’t care and neither does Framemaker.


At 20 October 2005 at 02:44, Blogger Career Guy said...

I didn't even know there was such a thing as Framemaker. Imagine that. I also just learned that there is a thing called Impatica that you can use to add narration to a Powerpoint. This is embarassing because just a year ago I used a laptop, LCD projector and digital video camera to project a powerpoint presentation, and videotape it while I did the narration off camera. Oh. Did I just say too much? Whoops.

At 22 October 2005 at 13:08, Blogger hufflepuffer said...

Does technical writing pay well? I am exploring options since I really don't feel like going back to law school and re-experiencing the feeling of being crammed into a closet that's too small.


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