Archive for May 2007

 
 

Musings on X-Pubs

Next week I’m heading down to Reading to attend the X-Pubs conference, where I’m hoping to learn more about both how a solid XML publishing solution is implemented and, ultimately, why I need to bother. OK, I know why I need to bother so I guess I should re-phrase that to “how I justify all the effort involved”.

I’ve done my fair share of research in the past, and have previously implemented an AuthorIT based solution. That worked reasonably well for our needs back then, but I’m with a different company now and the needs have, naturally, changed. I know all about the benefits of single sourcing content (re-use), and why XML is the best choice for storing that content (re-factorability, if that’s a word!) but as yet I’ve still not seen the killer product/solution that makes things:

  1. easy to implement – I’ll accept some pain but most of the solutions I’ve seen have a fairly large knowledge mountain to climb
  2. easy to adapt – I have, currently, very specific needs dictated both by the company and our product, and by my the needs of my team.

Of course no such solution exists, or we’d all be using it, right?

And that’s why I’m attending the X-Pubs conference.

I do believe that single sourcing is THE way to go about things in technical communications, almost (implementation costs aside) without reservation for any size of team and almost without regard for what they are producing. Like here in the UK, which is trapped between imperial and metric measurements, the technical communications industry seems to be a mix of differing output requirements. Some audiences demand printed manuals, some want websites full of searchable content, whilst others are happy with PDFs or online help. And that’s before we start worrying about localisation (localization).

I’m not entirely sure what I’ll discover at the conference, and I’m doing my best to keep an open mind, but I truly believe that the power of single sourcing will remain the refuge of the few until someone comes up with a workable, affordable solution that everyone can use.

I’ll be posting from the conference (possible even “live blogging”), so come back on the 4th June to find out what’s going on.

Do you single source? Or have you consider it in the past but never pursued it, and if so, why not?

Information(ally) Overload(ed)

Note: Been meaning to post this for some weeks now but couldn’t find the right moment… I guess now is as good a time as any.

Cross-posted at Informationally Overloaded, my ‘other’ blog.

The title of this blog was, believe it or not, chosen more carefully than most of you may realise, and far more carefully than I let on. Mind you I do put some thought into this site from time to time, honest, so it may not come as that much of a surprise to some..

This blog has always been, and will remain to be, a place where I can dump my brain. A place I can spew out the various thoughts that assault my mind on a daily basis, regardless of where they come from, what prompted them, or what they contain (within my own set of self-censoring rules, obv.).

Over the past several years, more and more of my life, both social and professional, has been focussed around the internet and, by extension, I’m ‘plugged in’ more than I care to admit, even to myself. The recent state of near-death that my home PC found itself in only confirms my fears; I cannot live without a computer. It’s too ingrained, too heavily embedded in my life, not only does it store information that I would hate to lose, it’s also the focus of most of my thought processes.

Need to know a phone number? Or the location of a hotel? How about converting celsius to fahrenheit? Each question prompts the same response… fire up the PC, hit the internet. Any form of knowledge that I do not currently have is sourced there and I struggle to imagine not having such a resource so close at hand (and yes, I’m careful to verify what I read. Remember kids, not everything on the internet is true!).

Too much stuff

With that kind of mindset, it’s not long before the internet, and the wealth of potential information that it holds, drags you in and loses you in a maze of cognitive tunnels. I used to spend hours just following links, or searching for randomly connected snippets of information that seemed only to prompt further obscure links. My poor brain just couldn’t keep up and I started to wonder if maybe all this information wasn’t a good thing. Maybe I was overloading my brain?

But was I?

More and more these days I look at the title of this blog and think it could mean either one of two things:

  1. I’m overloaded with information and that’s a bad thing, I can’t keep up and this ‘new’ modern lifestyle will cause my brain to melt.
  2. OR

  3. I’m overloaded with information and that’s fine. My brain doesn’t need to store any of it, as long as the information has been registered somewhere I can always look it up at a later date, presuming it’s important enough.

And so, whilst Informationally Overloaded still describes my thought processes, it does so in an entirely different manner.

Information Types

These days, I’m quite happy to let a zillion (that’s 1 with a zillion noughts after it) thoughts smash their way across my synapses, comfortable with the fact that, if a particular nugget of information is important, regardless of what it is about, it will pass my way more than once and will be flagged appropriately by my brain.

That means that I’m developing, or perhaps enhancing, the way my brain handles new information, allowing it to instantly ignore something that doesn’t have, and isn’t likely to have, any value to me. In fact I could, almost, categorise the types of information that assault me on a daily basis by how my brain handles them:

  • Important – this piece of information has passed by several times recently. Store the information for immediate recall.
  • Useful – this piece of information has passed by no more than a couple of times, might be of use. Register some metadata on this piece of information, you may want to locate it in the future.
  • Interesting – this piece of information has little value other than as trivia.

Alas, the last category screws up my taxonomy. My brain has a habit of storing Interesting items whilst instantly discarding anything ‘marked’ Important. Ain’t it always the way…

Regardless of the specifics, the simple fact is that way I think, the way my brain processes information, has changed.

But, is this a good thing?

I think it could be as the more exposure I have to other things, to other ideas, the greater the chance of crossover and the greater the chance of cross-pollinating my thought processes (that sounds all a bit wanky I know but it’s the best way to describe it, honest). I acknowledge that that could lead to either complete and utter gibberish or, perhaps, it could expose me to something new and allow me to make a connection that hasn’t been made before (by me). Either way, it’s something I’ve started to embrace.

Some might say it’s a little like those fairground stalls where you have to pluck a floating duck as it swirls round the stall. The harder you try, the harder it gets, but if you relax, you soon realise you can let a few ducks float past you before picking out the ones with the big prizes.

Ye gads, what an awful analogy. (ye gads? … I have NO idea …)

Of course it does mean that as I now have a reasonable handle on my flow of information and I’m able to make pretty good decisions on what type of information it is, that I’ve started to trying and organise things and assign different types of information to different ‘slots’. Yes, it’s a little anal but hey, that’s my thing. Leave me alone.

A small announcement

So with that in mind, this kind of post is really something which is more closely aligned with my professional work —I create information so need to understand what else it’s competing with— will now be posted on my new blog. I’ve long harboured a desire to have another website that was dedicated to my professional life as I genuinely love the area of technology in which I work. I’ve had a couple of aborted efforts in the past, so this time I’m using what I know (blogging) and not worrying too much about the detail and content. The new blog will become what it will become. It might take off, I might ditch it in a year.

But if I don’t start it now, it’ll never happen.

Without further ado as, frankly, I’m surprised if anyone is still reading this (except Mumsy, checking for spelling errors..) I would like to present one man writes. Yes I’m sticking with the headless man branding for now.

You are all more than welcome to visit, it may be interesting to some, boring to others, and I may cross-post to both in the future (as I am today). It’s kind of exciting to be starting a new blog, even if I’m not entirely sure what it will contain, and I gives me a chance to try blogging “from scratch” again and part of me is just interested in what I’ve learned from my personal blog.

As I say, I’m not entirely sure where it will lead but it’s been a while coming.

Additional reading:

Writing isn’t important

Like most professionals I’m a member of various mailing lists, all of which deal with very similar issues, usually with overlapping people and discussions as well. The field of Technical Communications is wide and varied but there is always one type of query which is guaranteed to get a response… or 50 responses… sometimes more.

They are typically asked innocently enough, and at face value you’d think that most of them can be answered fairly simply and without too much back and forth. But, of course you are discounting one major factor, that holds true in many industries but does seem to be more prevalent in mine. Pedantry.

The vagaries of the English language are well-documented and far-reaching, yet time and again whenever any such question crops up there is an inevitable torrent of replies, most of which offer differing advice. When dealing with such queries, the one consistent recommendation is to pick your own way (of punctuating bulleted lists, or introducing example screenshots) and stick to it, but that is usually lost among the myriad of suggestions and arguments that arise.

Now, the title of this post is misleading because, of course, writing is a huge part of my job and if I couldn’t write properly … well I’d probably be out of a job by now.

However there is a feeling that, whisper it now, most readers aren’t that bothered about HOW we write, just that we write information that is useful and understandable.

You see, whilst a lot of technical writers studied English, more and more people coming into the profession come from a technical background first and foremost. Naturally this doesn’t mean that they can’t write properly but it does mean that the finer nuances and obscure rules of the English language might be lost on them. Or at the very least they might not even KNOW what verb construct they used in a sentence, but they will know that it scans and reads well, and that the user of the documentation will understand it without further explanation.

And yes, I lump myself into this ‘new breed’ of technical writers.

The minute one of those grammar/usage questions is posted on the mailing lists I cringe.

Partly because I know that a lot of terms that I have no knowledge of (nor inclination towards) will be used, and partly because, honestly, I don’t care.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a middle ground to be found. The best information in the world is useless if you can’t understand it, but equally the best information in the world is useless if it’s buried knee-deep in long, warbling, (if beautifully crafted) prose.

Good technical knowledge does not replace good writing. Similarly good writing does not replace technical knowledge but, within the software industry at least, it does seem like the latter takes precedence.

So, ultimately, writing isn’t that important.