Listen to Richard Millership, Technical Writer, speak with Michael Wagner about this fascinating niche in the writing profession.
Michael Wagner: Richard, you’re a technical writer, what is a technical writer?
Richard Millership: Definitions of a technical writer’s task vary a great deal, so I suspect it’s probably best to keep it at a very high level. Fundamentally, a technical writer is a translator of both designs and concepts, but with a particular audience in mind.
Originally, as a technical writer, concepts would be communicated via the written word, via hard copy, but as time has gone on and our roles have changed, we’ve evolved into what is now known as technical communicators.
As technical communicators, the breadth of media [we work with] is almost unlimited and encompasses… just about anything you could think of in terms of IT (Information Technology).
Michael Wagner: Give me a list of a few things that you would translate?
Richard Millership: I suppose 50 per cent of my work would be involved in the information technology industry and I would be designing documentation (and I will use that term loosely at this point) for both internal and external use.
This might take into account things like help files, online help; either of them done as Winhelp or HTML help files. It can take the form of internal hard copy documentation, user manuals, and user guides, and can involve developing intranets, intranet information type networks as well as web design.
Michael Wagner: Now you’re also an author, a published author of science fiction or futuristic crime or a blend of the two perhaps?
Richard Millership: I would say so.
Michael Wagner: I mean it must be a very different experience writing for that kind of audience as compared with technical writing?
Richard Millership: Very much so. The novel writing is where you get to have fun. Technical writing is how you get to live. But there are aspects of creativity in technical writing as well, which makes it enjoyable.
It is a compromise of course. One would love to be sitting down all day writing novels. That’s where aspects of document design come in [to save the day]. They can be hard copy designs, online help system designs – whether dealing with things like hyper text markup language or general hyper text full stop – the various methodologies one can employ to communicate concepts can be extremely various and creativity is the name of the game.
Michael Wagner: The IT industry I guess is perhaps unfairly known for not communicating well, so you’d probably have your work cut out for you I imagine translating the thoughts of IT professionals into something that the average person can understand?
Richard Millership: Absolutely, [and in that respect] I actually believe IT’s bad name is entirely earned. They are appalling and [I] found out fairly early on in my career why it was that this was occurring. Fundamentally documentation, certainly within IT, is not taken particularly seriously or [at least] not by everyone. It’s getting better now but in the early days it was very poor. As a technical writer you were generally called in at one minute to midnight and then given 30 seconds to produce the goods. I remember one of my early jobs was to produce an online help system for a fairly complex piece of software and I was given precisely five weeks to churn it out. By the end of it I was saying, ‘well, now I know why help systems [can be] so useless’.
It’s got better. One of my more recent projects was with a team of six writers for four months, so [the resources companies are putting into their documentation are] improving. They’re beginning to see the value and importance of documentation and I think that’s [increasingly being driven via] the power of customer complaint.
Michael Wagner: Do you study help systems, you obviously would?
Richard Millership: Well, you study them in as much as you will look at what other people are doing and analyse different approaches. There are several schools of thought. Some like to follow the Microsoft trend, and that’s generally a pretty safe way to go (you don’t have to write like the Microsoft help writers) but if you design a help system to look [and behave] like that, it’s something that’s familiar to everybody.
Michael Wagner: Is it important or how important is it to understand the user when you’re writing a help system? Obviously that’s fairly important.
Richard Millership: It’s absolutely critical; you must put yourself in the seat of the user.
It’s very easy to fall back on highly technical language, highly specialised language, particularly when communicating [difficult] concepts. But you must always avoid the temptation to do that and bring everything back to its most basic forms, and develop concepts from the ground up.
Michael Wagner: I guess the major difference between technical writing and writing for other mediums is that you must have a complete understanding of the software or the product you’re writing about. Is that a fundamental difference?
Richard Millership: Yes, I would say ideally you have a complete understanding. Occasionally you do run into situations where even the programmers themselves have difficulty describing what something does, but this is a problem just about every technical writer has faced, [and that is] teasing information from the developers. [In many cases] you might as well be trying to pull teeth. It [can be] hard, but that’s all part of the art as well.
Michael Wagner: How do you gather your information for the technical writing? You’ve just mentioned that you interview developers but are there other sources of information?
Richard Millership: It entirely depends on what you’re writing for. If you’re doing general research, and I’m actually in the middle of a project where that is the case, you’ll use hard copy, books, or the Internet for research, but that’s [quite] rare. More often in what I do, you glean your information by asking about a million questions. This is often difficult because people want to get on with their jobs and they really don’t want to talk to you. You’ve got to be nice about it.
Technical writers are often involved at the planning stage when new products and services are being developed. Listen to Hugh Bradlow, managing director of technology, strategy and research at Telstra on whether it is wise to include technical specifications in legislation.
Bronwyn Clark:There’s always been a commitment in telecommunications policy to provide Australians with access to basic telephony from the home, as well as the provision of public phones and emergency services. This is known as the Universal Service Obligation or USO.
Estimates to provide this USO nationally have ranged from 250 million dollars to 1.8 billion dollars per year.
The USO is under constant debate, even to the extent of upgrading the national network to 64 KB now regarded as the global ISDN standard.
However, Australia’s biggest carrier, Telstra, is not convinced that it is wise to include technical specifications in legislation. Hugh Bradlow is Managing Director of Technology, Strategy and Research at Telstra.
Hugh Bradlow:One thing is for sure that to deliver, a 64-K standard service everywhere would be incredibly expensive. It is our objective to try and ensure that we maximise the service we deliver across the country.
But, you know I think the approach of looking at USO obligations as a technology issue is the wrong way to approach it.
What you’ve got to look at is what services do people really want from telecommunications ? Clearly they want telephony services, increasingly they want internet services and at higher and higher speeds continuously, and of course they want broadcast radio and TV services and pay TV services as well in some cases. And the technology required to deliver those different types of services, in different geographies, well there is no one solution to that.
So to legislate a technology solution would not only be enormously expensive and unproductive because it wouldn’t necessarily deliver all the services people wanted, but it would also lock Australia into out-of-date technology cycles and this is a very fast moving world, and really it’s best to let the people who know how to deliver those services, manage the delivery.
Bronwyn Clark:Whatever the actual cost of upgrading the Universal Service to provide a network which maximises service delivery, Trevor Barr believes is money well spent.
Trevor Barr:It would seem to me that if in Australia that if we’re going to go into the on-line culture and we’re not going to invest in an infrastructure for all Australians, that’s actually going to be fundamentally inefficient. That is what’s the point of building these networks if the consumers and the users and the citizens out there don’t have access. And what we’ll do with a highly privatised telecommunications sector is that we’ll present some very big business and class cleavages of information rich and information poor.
So, we actually desperately need to go back to some basics and look at universal access for universal services. And instead of saying, “Oh gee, we’ve got all these uneconomic services and we’ve got to pay for them!” – instead of thinking USO’s as obligations – “Oh gee, it’s going to be very costly!” – we’ve actually got a completely different economy emerging internationally around the net. It’s universal service opportunities – it’s the people through the people’s business opportunities throughout the whole of Australia. But fundamentally the answer is that you actually have to have the network first.
Bronwyn Clark:Alann Horsley agrees that all Australians should have access to the digital standard and at the same cost.
Alann Horsley: For Australia’s benefit overall it is important that our digital network reaches out to the country, absolutely and unequivocal and it’s all possible. I mean, nobody would say that we’ll deliver a metropolitan daily newspaper to the bush at twice the price three days later – I mean, that’d be just unacceptable.
In the case of communication services, it’s equally important to have that universality of opportunity, that that basic phone, a 64 KB digital service, whether it be delivered by the fixed network or by the satellite, ought to be provided at the standard price. And if there is a cross subsidy, it’s worn by the overall universal service levy.
Hugh Bradlow :In an open, competitive environment it’s very hard to do cross-subsidisation, because all you’re doing is exposing your most profitable routes to attack from someone who then doesn’t have the obligation of delivering into the less profitable route. So, it really doesn’t seem to me a viable way of dealing with it.
Bronwyn Clark:Hugh Bradlow from Telstra
Hugh Bradlow:The fact is that the cost of telecommunication services are going down continuously – technology’s improving – and that you get what’s called price elasticity where you of course get more usage of the services as the prices go down. However, that doesn’t mean that it costs the same to deliver all services equally and so some services are definitely more expensive than others. And just as in the same way you don’t expect to buy one airline ticket at the same price wherever you happen to be going in the world, even if the distances are the same, just in the same way you can’t deliver telephony services or telecommunication services on a sort of one size fits all basis.