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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 didn't second-guess me every time I tried to get my writing projects out of the 1950s, but the "down-side" was that, to him, software developers walked on water and documentation developers were glorified secretaries. I was 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.

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 gallies, etc., not to mention avoiding all of the cross-charges.

Unfortunately, our company's typesetting business was the only thing keeping the the "Information Product Development" department going by then. And, since all of the writers had been split out into development groups, the manager had amost nothing else to manage. So he did everything he could to make it seem as if his typesetting department was still critical to the company's future.

"Ben" (not his real name) 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. At the same time, he bought a 600dpi laser printer and started developing an in-house SGML-interpretation software system that would hopefully replace the paper-tape-based system that they has been using. Yes, you read that right - paper tape, as late as the mid-1980s.

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.

I learned that another department in the company (located in another town, so they were slightly insulated) was already using Ventura Publisher with a laser printer. Once their documents were printed on an offset press, they would fool most people. If that group had used the corporate-approved type faces and their team lead had a better eye for kerning, hyphenation, and other aspects of screen layout, they could probably have fooled anyone.

I had a good eye and no objection to using the corporate-approved type face. So I explained to my new 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 Postscript-equipped laser printer (back in those days, Postscript could do things that HCL couldn't).

My manager, in turn, did the "responsible thing" and asked the manager of the "Information Products Division" what he thought about that approach. Of course Ben 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.

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 (a week's wages for me at the time, so you know i was serious).

Over the next few weeks, I figured out how to make Ventura Publisher work exactly like the "Information Product Development" department's half-million dollar 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 to it.

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 into the IPD's typesetting sytem; the systems even used the same tag names (H1, H2, Bt, etc.), except that the delimiters were slightly different.

By then the IPD's non-working home-grown typesetter system was still many months from completion - if it would ever by completed - and any number of writing groups had taken to sending their typesetting to outside contractors. One guy charged $17 a page for the service; he was making several times my salary every year, just because IPD couldn't admit that typesetting was no longer the only way to publish professional-looking documents.

By the way, if you've never sent anything to a real printer - one who uses an offset press, you wouldn't know that the photo process that converts "camera ready" pages to printing "negatives" actually smooths off rough edges. So that, while a photocopy of a document printed on a 300dpi printer still looked like it had been printed on a laser printer, an offset press page that started with the same printer's output was indiscernable from typeset output unless you took a magnifying glass to it. Today, documents are as likely to be "printed" on a photocopier as not, so the difference between 300dpi and 600 or 1200dpi is actually more important than it was in the late 1980s.

At any rate, my early experiments with desktop publishing were quite encouraging. In fact they proved that most of the "white papers" that Ben had written denouncing desktop publishing were based on false assumptions. (I was too "nice" then to assume that Ben had deliberately distorted the truth to protect his overdue project.)

In my youthful idealism, I thought, "Ben just doesn't realize how close these systems can get to the "real thing." So I tried to explain it to him. I suggested that Ben could keep the various writing groups from sending millions outside the corporation every year, simply by bringing Ventura Publisher (or Pagemaker, its only real competition at the time) "in house," and developing templates and procedures that we could use until Ben's "real system" was working. What's not to like about saving the company millions of dollars, while letting Ben keep control over the final product?

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 certain typefaces in all of their publications, and our laser printers didn't have those typefaces built in.

One of my personal failings in those days was that I had trouble "letting it go" when I knew I was right about something and people were lying to me to protect their own agendas. In those days, buying a new digital font was a real investment. But, rather than cave, I spent real, personal money to get the "corporate-approved" typefaces 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. My manager didn't even really know what IPD was, so when he saw how much money I'd be saving him, he went along.

When the new computers arrived, I trained my "report" on Ventura. I also bypassed corporate distribution by having a local printer print and mail out the manuals. This avoided Ben's "blockade" of my work, and saved us a bunch more money.

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 5% 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.

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 reluctantly, all the while 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 he was being forced to resign for some alleged impropriety, and my software was just one of countless "souvenirs" he planned to take with him when he left. Gotta love 'em!

Not that it mattered. 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.

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