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Written by Paul D. Race for Breakthrough Communications™

Technical Writing in the Iron Age

By the time I landed in another position, I was no longer reporting directly to a "writing manager;" rather I was reporting to the head of the entire software development project. The "up-side" to that was that he wasn't a technophobe like my previous manager. But the "down-side" was that, to him, software developers walked on water and documentation developers were glorified secretaries. At first I was grudgingly allowed to have a beat-up old eight-bit PC that one of the software engineers had "outgrown." Later on, when the engineers all got 32 bit machines, I was given a 16-bit machine that I could actually work on without having to wait several minutes for the screen to refresh every time I moved a paragraph. The irony was that the engineers were doing all their actually work on the mainframe, using their high-end PCs as terminal emulators (except when they played Flight Simulator on them after hours).

For the first several months on the project I was mostly planning our "family of documentation and training projects," since the project was new. But now that I was responsible for the "final output" of the documentation, I started looking seriously at desktop publishing as a way of avoiding countless hours of shuffling documents to the typesetter, reviewing galleys, etc., not to mention avoiding all of the typesetting charges.

Interference From the Entrenched

Soon "Phil" (the writing department manager with almost nobody left to manage) learned that I was trying to talk my new manager into investing two grand into new 32-bit PCs and over-the counter software versus the system his people were still trying to get working right. By then they had brought the cost down to about $40,000 a workstation. But he was afraid that if he couldn't convince people like my boss to invest, it would become painfully obvious just how big a drain on corporate resources he was. So "Phil" proactively deluged all of the managers in the company with "white papers" explaining that "desktop publishing" was a fraud, that it never delivered on its promises, and that it wouldn't last.

About that time the company went from WordStar to WordPerfect, which was easier for clueless wonders, non-writers, and non-typists to use when writing business letters. Still, I could do most of what I needed to do many times faster in Wordstar, so I secretly continued to use that until I was forced to change.

My new department also had a Hewlett Packard LaserJet that had the graphic-processing software installed (some early version of PCL). So I occasionally experimented with trying to make WordStar (and, reluctantly WordPerfect) documents look like our typeset manuals. I could get close, but it was cumbersome.

About that time, "Phil" scheduled a meeting in which he brought all the NCR technical writers he could together to give us matching hats and to explain how valuable his organization was to the rest of us. Over lunch, I learned that another technical writer in the company was already using Ventura Publisher with a laser printer. (He was a one-man department, located in another town, so he was more insulated from "Phil's" interference.) Once their documents were printed on an offset press, they were nearly identical to the typeset equivalents. I realized, since I had more knowledge of typesetting principles, I could get them identical period.

After running all the figures, I explained to my manager that I could probably save him $200,000 or more a year if he would let me buy a faster computer, a desktop publishing system, and a faster laser printer. He, in turn, did the "responsible thing" and asked the manager of the "Information Products Division" what he thought about that approach. Of course "Phil" gave him an earful. The inhouse system wasn't ready yet, but it would be soon, and in the meantime, we were risking the good name of the corporation if we released documentation that didn't look like we had spent a fortune getting it typeset.

Taking the Plunge

At the time I had one "report," and I could tell that the project was going to be huge. Adding typesetting iterations to the work ahead of us would be overwhelming. Finally, I "bit the bullet" and bought a copy of Ventura Publisher with my own money to try it out (several hundred dollars at the time, equivalent to over a thousand in today's dollars).

Over the next few weeks, I figured out how to make Ventura Publisher work exactly like the "Information Product Development" department's $40,000-a seat system, except that the latter was still full of bugs. Like today's HTML, all of the words were stored in a flat "text" file along with tag names like @H1=, @H2=, @BT=, and so on. All images were stored in separate image files and plugged into place as needed by the WYSWIG and printing features. To this day, I prefer this system to the "user-friendly" systems that make the graphic part of the file and require you to remove it and plug it back in whenever you need to make a minor update.

I also learned that "prepping" a file from a text editor, WordStar, or WordPerfect to go into Ventura Publisher was exactly the same as "prepping" the file to go itno the IPD's typesetting sytem, except that the tag names were formatted a little differently.

Trying to Mend Fences

Since my early experience with desktop publishing was so encouraging, I contacted the IPD again. I pretended to believe that they were really going to get their system working at some point in the future. But in the meantime, I suggested that they could keep the various writing groups from sending millions outside the corporation every year, simply by bringing Ventura Publisher "in house," and developing templates and procedures that we could use until the "real system" was working.

In response, I was told that the IPD would refuse to print or distribute anything I ever did on Ventura Publisher, because it would never be "the same" as "the real thing." For one thing, the IPD used Plantin and Gil Sans in all of their publications, and our laser printer "couldn't" print those fonts.

Back to Work

I realize that, to folks born after, say 1975, this is all seems pointless - after all, you can literally publish a book with using only a word processor today. But in the mid-1980s, word processors were only good for writing business letters and recipies. Careers were being made or lost depending on decisions regarding leading-edge desktop publishing and graphics technologies - much like the ways companies in the post-MySpace age have wasted millions and cost jobs by over- or underinvesting in "Social Media" development.

At a personal level, it rubbed me the wrong way to have a fellow in another division insist that I waste millions of company dollars in the short term just to keep him employed for the long term. Especially if doing things his way was going to cause me about a hundred time more work than doing them the way countless other Fortune 500 corporations were going.

In those days, buying a new digital font was a real investment. But I spent real money to get Plantin and Gil Sans from the Monotype corporation.

Then I went to work in earnest, exactly replicating the "official" corporate templates for all kinds of publications. I showed my manager what I had accomplished, then put in a requisition for two 32-bit computers and for reimbursement for the software and fonts I had already bought. When my manager saw how much money I'd be saving him, he went along.

When the new computers arrived, I trained my single "report" on Ventura. "Phil" refused to publish our output, so I bypassed corporate distribution by having a local printer print and mail out the manuals. That saved us a bundle, too, which was probably not the lesson "Phil" hoped I'd get out of the experience.

Being Right

By the time we had done two releases of the software, my single "report" and I had produced just as much documentation as seven of us had produced in the same amount of time on the earlier project. And we did it for about 2% of the total cost (counting salaries and typesetting fees). I was sure that the company would see the value of my contribution and reward me somehow.

AVP "Recognition"

The assistant vice president in charge of our division heard about our success and asked if I would box up my Ventura release disks and send them to him for him to "check out." I complied, hoping that this meant I was on his radar, or on his "good side" at least. What I didn't know at the time was that multiple accusations of sexual harrassment were finally catching up wiht him, and my release disks were just one of countless "souvenirs" he planned to take with him when he left the company. Gotta love 'em!

Not that it mattered much. A few months later, the mainframe that our software project ran on was discontinued, and I was looking for work again.

And that's where Technical Writing in the Dark Ages 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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