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Written by Paul D. Race for Breakthrough Communications™

Technical Writing in the Bronze Age

The project I was on died, more or less. That's to say that the name of the project survived and the funding was transferred to another division that promised they'd waste less money - in part because the new "model" was based on a hitherto financially successful model hacked together on a shoestring by one of our competitors. We got the competitor's expertise by hiring him outright and buying the rights to his code. For his part, in addition to earning real money from the transaction, the new guy had a bigger budget than he had ever had in his life. So he set about expanding his platform until it was nearly as bloated as the home-grown one had been.

When the project title changed departments, so did I. At that point, I became the uncompensated supervisor of six other writers. I say "uncompensated," because I didn't get the promotion that usually goes with such a bump in responsibility. Under my leadership - such as it was - we made every target date, reduced errors, improved standardization, and generally made my new manager's life easier. And every anniversary date, my manager would congratulate me on my success and promise me that promotion if things went that well next year. And the year after that, and the year after that, as it turned out.

Still, by techical writing standards, we were starting to enter the dawn of "civilization.: We each received primitive "personal computers" that cost as much as a good used car. To save money on software, the company used P-system, an operating system that had been developed to support the Pascal programming language. Since no word processing software had been developed for P-system, we used the P-system text editor to input everything, including the tag names for each paragraph.

At the time, I kept in touch with technical writers in other companies, and I saw the tools they were using. The first IBM personal computers had come out, and they supported programs like WordStar that would have saved us countless hours a week just on inputting the text, even if we still had to send it to the typesetters for the "fancy" copy. When I told our manager (the third FE-turned technical writing manager I had worked for) what my friends were doing in other departments and companies, he accused me of lying to him and refused to speak to me about it.

Not long after, we got our first "laser printer," a text-only printer based on a Canon chassis. Again, I saw what folks in other departments were doing with HP printers that used exactly the same Canon chassis but also had image-processing software built in. I brought samples of professional-looking pages - formatting, graphics, and all - to my manager and explained how much money we'd save in typesetting alone if we just adopted the same tools all the other departments and companies were using.

A few years later, I realized one reason why the manager was so reluctant to get us the tools we needed - the company accountants were more-or-less allergic to capital investments. You could spend a half a million dollars a year on internal typesetting charges, as long as you accumulated the charges $50 at a time. But if you tried to buy a $500 laser printer or a $100 software package, the request had to go all the way to your division's vice president. The nominal capital investments I was requesting would have pushed our productivity "through the roof" by 80's standards. But developing a culture of rejection saved the accountants having to depreciate those investments over a five year period, so it "worked for them." Too bad that it cost the company tens of millions that I'm aware of on typesetting costs alone.

Back in 1984, though, "desktop publishing" and "computer graphics" were in their infancy. When I brought my manager proof that you really could use PCs and laser printers to produce "camera-ready" pages, he accused me of "making stuff up."

One of the funniest things (in retrospect) that ever occurred to me in that department was the day the manager called me into a private meeting to complain about the way I was administrating the project. He had two documents in front of him - one I had written, and one that one of my "reports" had written.

Mine defined a ridiculously complicated process for installing our multi-million-dollar mainframe system, importing up to a million pre-existing user accounts, and testing the result before going live. It was well-organized, concise, straightforward, and written at an eight grade level (never assume that computer engineers or service people actually read at a higher level than that, no matter how many years of math and computer science courses they've taken). On top of that, earlier versions of the same document had already been used successfully in two beta sites.

"Fred's" document described how to enter a customer name and address into the system. It was verbose, full of polysyllabic synonyms for one-syllable words the rest of us were using, full of passive voice, and unnecessarily convoluted. In those days, so called "reading level tests" existed, but this was the kind of thing that broke the model, since nobody really has thirty years of education. Fred's document, frankly, gave the impression that you'd need a rocket scientist to enter customer information into the system.

I had talked to "Fred" about his obtuse writing style, but he was retired from the military on a full pension, he didn't really didn't need the job, and he had let my manager know that every time I tried to get him to write like a professional instead of a college sophomore trying to sound impressive.

So my first response to being called into a meeting was that the manager had finally noticed Fred's verbose abominations and was wondering why I hadn't busted the guy's chops by now.

To my surprise, the manager asked me why I was documenting all the "easy" tasks and making Fred document all the hard ones. I explained that, ordinarily most people would consider installing a multi-million-dollar computer system harder than entering customer information.

"That can't be," he said, "Look all this." And he ran his finger down Fred's page, in awe of all the apparently complex content. It took several minutes for me to get him to admit that the installation document might have been harder to write and to get right, than the customer information screen page, which only required getting a printout of the screen and stating the obvious: "Enter the customer's last name in the 'Last Name' field." (As a side note, that's the sort of sentence that once inspired Tina the technical writer in Dilbert to add, "But if you're too dumb to know that, userboy, you shouldn't be using this system anyway!")

My manager still wasn't satisfied, though - there was something about our conflicting writing styles that still bothered him. Finally he admitted that I "might" be right about taking the hard jobs myself and giving Fred the easy ones. "But," he added, "When I read Fred's stuff it just sounds more like technical writing!" Sadly, I knew just what he meant.

After a while it became clear that, in spite of our writing team's string of successes, the bigger project was running "out of steam," and worse - out of funding. It was time to move on.

To his credit, that manager helped me find a better position in another department.

And that's where Technical Writing in the Iron Age comes in. Click here to go to the next chapter.

Whether you're at the start of your career, in the middle, or at the end, I'll be glad to hear from you, especially if you have a "great moment in technical writing" - or several - to report.

Looking forward to your suggestions, additions, criticisms, and anything else you care to send me, I remain,

Paul Race

Breakthrough Communications

P.S. Enjoy your hobbies. And be sure to enjoy any time you have with your family in the coming weeks.

Note: Breakthrough Communications™, Family Garden Trains™, Garden Train Store™, Big Christmas Trains™, BIG Indoor Trains™, BIG Train Store™, and Trains-N-Towns™ are trademarks of Breakthrough Communications ( All information, data, text, and illustrations on this web site are Copyright (c) 1995, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 by Paul D. Race. Reuse or republication without prior written permission is specifically forbidden.

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