I was invited to speak as a guest lecturer at the Australian National University last week. The audience was a class of third and fourth year computer science students, and the topic was technical writing. After speaking for somewhere pretty close to an hour, and successfully getting a few laughs in that time, I answered a clutch of questions, and was then drawn into a discussion about engineering methods. The course convener had pointed out that the five-phase model (that I discussed at least briefly in this blog post) that I use is, in itself, a fairly typical engineering process. And of course he’s absolutely correct. It’s a perfectly ordinary process, based on the waterfall model.
It’s called a waterfall model because if you start at the top, the results of the first step are used to move into the second step, just like water flowing down a series of steps into a pool.
The students I was speaking to are at a point in their projects where they need to be producing some documentation. For a bunch of budding engineers this process can be a little daunting, and the question came up about the best way to tackle it. The answer is fairly simple – start the top of the waterfall, and let the current take you. By answering a few questions in the information plan, you can start creating a content specification. Using the chapter headings and source information you developed in the content spec, you can write the document. Once it’s written, you can publish it, once it’s published you can review it, and then you’re ready to start again at the top with the next project.
Technical writing is less of a creative process, and more of a scientific process than just about any other kind of writing (with the possible exclusion of some kinds of academic writing). The creativity only becomes important when you try and turn it from something dry and boring, to something magical.
Anyone with a scientific or engineering mind can create technical documentation, they might not enjoy it, but they are more than capable of creating it. It takes an artist to make it something wonderful, to turn it into something that people actually want to read, and to make it shine. It’s the difference between ‘magic’ and ‘more magic’.
Cross-posted to On Writing, Tech, and Other Loquacities