Renaissance Man

Image result for Leonardo da VinciWho among us would not strive to be that most self-actualized of persons, master of many fields, an intellectual powerhouse, knowledge warrior and universal genius known as a Renaissance Man.

A Renaissance man (or woman) is not simply a jack (or jill) of-all-trades. It’s someone who has an outstanding talents in, and great knowledge of, a wide variety of areas. Leonardo da Vinci is the classic example. He was an exceptional artist, scientist, engineer, inventor, and so much more. He was intensely curious and had a tremendous imagination: the ultimate technical communicator. Using his plans, many of his inventions were reconstructed in modern times and performed well.

Technical communicators are not just technical, and we do far more than communicate. A true technical communicator is a Renaissance communicator, as our talents involve many other professions and fields of knowledge.

Renaissance Communicators are:

  • artisans designing, formatting and shaping words and images, as well as sound and motion in instructional videos
  • teachers imparting information to others in a manner so subtle and seamless that our students don’t even realize they’re learning something
  • architects designing and building complex informational structures
  • physicians healing incomplete, incorrect or inaccurate documentation
  • detectives piecing together clues to solve the mystery of the product we document
  • translators and interpreters of the meaningless into the meaningful
  • magicians turning chaos into order and creating guides out of thin air
  • craftspeople building, tweaking, and endlessly tinkering with our data creations
  • cartologists of information mapping the big picture of a product or service
  • code-breakers decoding incomprehensible gobbledygook into meaningful prose
  • archaeologists hunting for buried informational treasures 
  • ambassadors between those who create products and those who use them
  • journalists persistently pushing, prodding and probing our subject matter experts with the tough questions
  • soldiers in the war on error and confusion

We are the true multi-taskers, knowledge workers, and service bureaus that willingly absorb the pain of misinformation, disinformation and no information to create informational works of art.

Not only are we Renaissance Men and Women, our profession itself is undergoing a renaissance, as technical communication processes move toward separating form from content.

It’s a Renaissance, man.

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The Seven Lively Sins

Quick quiz – can you name the seven deadly sins? And no, Dopey and Grumpy do not count.

The seven deadly sins are:

  • wrath
  • greed
  • gluttony
  • pride
  • lust
  • envy

and (my personal favourite)

  • sloth

I would have loved to have been on the committee that chose these sins above all others. (“If you vote for lust, I’ll give you pride and sloth.”) In any case, the final list is as good as any, and remains quite popular, as popular as the sins themselves, unfortunately.

An easy way to remember these sins is to use a “leggs password”. Taking the first letter of each sin and rearranging them, we get LEGGSPW – or “LEGGS PassWord”. Be sure to write that down.

The seven sins, one for each day of the week, were well-documented in the 1995 film, Se7en. It is one of the darkest films I’ve seen, both literally and figuratively. We enter a nightmare world in which an insane serial killer with a God complex murders his victims according to the seven deadly sins. The twist ending is so disturbing that to this day, I still shudder whenever I see a courier truck. (Those of you who’ve experienced this film will know what I mean.)

On a lighter note, they say when life gives you lemons, to make lemonade. Since I’m not a preacher, I won’t attempt to dissuade you from carrying these sins into the world of tech comm. Playing “devil’s advocate”, these sins, if implemented constructively, can actually make you a better communicator. Rather than being deadly sins, they can be quite lively.

Let’s start the sinning…

Greed
The greatest quote about greed is in the film Wall Street, when the ruthless mogul Gordon Gekko makes the following statement: 

Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.

“Greed for knowledge” – amen to that. Greed for knowledge, information, clarity, consistency and simplicity. If you’re not greedy for these things in your work, it will burn in the hell-fire of bad documentation, and that’s a real sin.

Pride
We should all take pride in our work, but not be boastful. We have to humbly and sincerely recognize we technical communicators are just like everyone else – only better. For what other species of humanity is as sensitive to words and meaning as we are? We are the patron saints of clarity, simplicity and functionality.

Gluttony
I admit I’m a glutton – not for food, but for information. I devour newspapers, magazines, books, blogs, websites, signs, posters, and even junk mail. I stuff my mind with it until it’s bursting. It’s alot to digest, but there are lessons to be learned (and great ideas to be stolen) from all of it.

Lust
When you see a beautifully designed quick start guide, a well-organized manual, a perfectly arranged help system, a clear and simple procedure, this should turn you on. If it doesn’t, there’s a malfunction in your informational libido, your user manual mojo, and you must see a Doc doctor immediately.

Sloth
Sloth is such a destructive sin that there’s really no way it can be useful in communication. Its only value is recognizing it in others. Non-writers and lazy writers who produce bad documents are “slothful”. They should anger us into action, empowering us to clean up their messes when called on to do so.

Users can also be slothful, but since they are paying our salaries, we have to be more forgiving. Design your documents so that even the laziest user can get the information they need, quickly, easily, and with minimal effort. They should be able to fly through your document as they lie on their couch, doughnut in one hand and TV remote in the other.

Envy
Envy is the honest way of stating you have a desire for change. To be a great communicator, read the works of great communicators, and ideally meet them. But don’t just admire them – envy them. Then become the type of communicator that others will envy.

Wrath
It’s easy to pour our wrath onto those who think they can write but cannot; on engineers who create error messages such as Error 43 – Big. You have failed.; on marketers who use strange words and phrases like actualize, customer-centric and out-of-the-box thinking; on reviewers who mark up a 400 page draft with just two words: Needs work.

How simple life would be if we could just release our fury onto these people. However, living in a somewhat civil society, we are precluded from most acts of violence. Instead, let us direct our fury, our anger, our wrath towards the documents themselves. Documents are so much easier to change than people.

So let us take these broken and bruised clumps of information, and with all our might and energy, reshape them into clear and meaningful documents.

Let there be no mercy, as we unleash in full force our technical, communicative, organizational and design skills onto our work.

Let us be…wrath.

And may God have mercy upon the soul of the document that we are about to remake in our image.

A few good elements

The ancient Greeks believed that everything in the world was made up of four basic elements: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. This concept was so powerful it lasted even through the Renaissance. Interestingly, the first three elements correspond directly to the three states of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. The fourth element, Fire, corresponds to energy. Given that matter and energy are the two main elements of the universe, the ancient Greeks were not far off in their view of the world.

Aside from the physical aspects of these elements, there is the meta-physical. Earth, being solid, represents stability and tangibility – that which can be touched, seen and known. Water, being liquid, represents change and movement. Air is invisible and therefore less tangible – we cannot see it directly but can see its effects. Air is also the medium required to support Fire, and life itself. Fire is pure energy that can change matter from one state to another. It can thaw ice, converting it to liquid water, then to steam, a gas.

Aspects of these four elements exist in technical communication. Earth is the visible, stable portion of a document – the portion that can be seen and which rarely changes. A printed manual is forever Earth –  never changing until replaced by a newer version.

With more documentation now online, information has shifted in form from Earth to Water – ever flowing, ever changing, and increasingly customized and shaped towards the specific needs of the end user.

Air is the medium through which documentation is delivered. The printed page, the monitor, the smart phone, the tablet – the medium is not the message but is the air in which it lives. Air is also the white space around all words, text and images, allowing the words to breathe. With no medium or no white space, communication would be starved of life.

Fire is the energy that flows through the mind of a technical communicator, allowing them to shape, bend, twist and change the words and images they yield. It is the transformative power that a skilled communication craftsman uses to alter the form and substance of information. For a spectacular of Fire, see the CSS Zen Garden, where stylesheet magicians forge communicative works of art, as swordmakers used to forge metal in fiery furnaces.

Air. Fire. Earth. Water.

Note the words formed by the first letter of each element: AFEW.

All you need is “a few” elements to create a universe of communication.

A Life or Death User Guide

The state of Oregon will soon ban the sale of suicide kits in response to the tragic death of 29 year old Nick Klonoski, a depressed man who killed himself using a kit he ordered through the mail.

These kits cost $60 and contain a plastic bag that fits over the head, a plastic tube for attaching to a tank of helium gas, and detailed instructions.

Although Oregon allows doctors to help terminally ill patients end their lives, it certainly has not legalized suicide for mentally ill individuals. The fact that anyone can easily purchase these kits has spurred the government into action.

This very sad case raises a disturbing thought experiment for information developers:

Imagine you were forced, under threat of death, to develop the user guide for this suicide kit. You are given all the technical specifications and procedural information, but you have permission to write any text you wish. You know that some of the users are not terminally ill, but are instead depressed.

What information would you include in your guide, which is literally a “life and death” document?

Knowing our users, we would include a warning such as:

WARNING! This kit is only intended for people who are terminally ill. If you do not have a physical illness, or think you might be depressed or suicidal, please call 911 or the local suicide prevention number….

Now imagine the same scenario, but this time the manufacturer of the kit must approve your draft. They have told you that you cannot include any type of warning for depressed people. If you do, it will be deleted.

Now what do you write? How do you give a user information without explicitly stating it? Simple – by implicitly stating it, as follows: 

Note: This kit is only intended for patients that have been diagnosed by a doctor as having a painful and terminal illness.

The irony here is that this note could be more effective than the traditional warning. It does not explicitly tell a depressed user what to do. Instead, it subtly suggests that this guide does not apply to them. It plants a seed that could save the user’s life.

Returning to the real world of ordinary documentation, we often have to balance what a user wants to know against:

  • what a user needs to know (even if they don’t want to know it)
  • the requirements of the manufacturer

This nightmare scenario of the suicide kit guide illustrates how difficult it can be to balance these competing needs and wants.

Now, most users ignore documentation, and certainly most depressed people would ignore both the warning and the note. But not all of them will, and if the inclusion of this paragraph saves only one life, it will be worth it.

As the Talmud, the ancient book of Jewish law, states:

“Whoever saves a single life, it is as if he saved an entire universe.”

The Chinese Tent

Image result for Chinese TentWelcome to the Chinese Tent…

Imagine a large tent, and in it, a person who speaks only English. We’ll call this person the respondent. Outside the tent is a person who speaks only Chinese. We’ll call this person the questioner. The questioner writes a message in Chinese and passes it to the respondent through an opening at the front of tent. The respondent receives the message, then using an infinitely complex look-up system, matches the message on the card with a corresponding card containing a response in Chinese. The respondent delivers the pre-written response back to the questioner.

From the perspective of the Chinese questioner, the English respondent has read the message and understood it, demonstrating intelligence. However, has the respondent actually responded intelligently? Remember, the respondent does not understand a word of Chinese – he has simply matched up a pre-defined response to the received message.

This is not intelligence, but an elaborate forgery. The Chinese Tent exposes the folly of thinking that computers can actually be intelligent. Computers can simulate all sorts of reality; this does not make the reality they simulate real.

When a computer runs a virtual stock market exercise and makes millions of virtual dollars, the user does not become wealthy. When a computer runs a weather simulation that has 40 cm of rain falling in one day, the user doesn’t get wet. Yet when a computer simulates intelligence, we all rush to believe it’s actual intelligence, and not a pale imitation.

It all comes down to definitions, something technical communicators are very fussy about. So how do you define intelligence? Here’s one standard dictionary definition:

“the capacity for learning, reasoning, understanding, and similar forms of mental activity; aptitude in grasping truths, relationships, facts, meanings”

The key word here is understanding, which implies consciousness; the knowledge that one exists. This is something that computers simply don’t have. 

However, if you define intelligence as the ability to give a meaningful response to a question, then computers could indeed be intelligent. A recent example of this was Watson, a super-computer developed by IBM. Watson was a contestant on the Jeopardy game show, beat his human opponents and won a million dollars. 

Depending on the definition of intelligence you choose, Watson is intelligent or simply another version of the Chinese Tent. It is able to analyze questions and supply responses, but if you were to ask it how it felt about winning against humans, it would have no response.

What, then, is an “intelligent” document? It is one which understands the information requirements of the user and then seamlessly delivers them. Now, there are help systems that allow a question to be entered and then try to give a relevant response, but these are very complex to set up and have mixed results. A far simpler solution is to create a complete and meaningful index, one which anticipates all the strange and wonderful ways a user might look up a topic.

An index also has the advantage of revealing potential gaps in your content or the index itself.  For example, you may have the following index entries:
records,
  creating
  editing
  deleting
 
files,
  creating
  deleting
 
Where is the entry for editing files? Doh!
 A complete and meaningful index is an intelligent index, and helps to make your document intelligent. Of course, once a user finds the topic they are after, it has to be intelligently written. This means that the topic should answer questions, and not raise them. Questions such as:
  • What is this object, thing or concept?
  • What is it used for? Why would I use it?
  • How do I perform a specific task?
  • What are specific things I need to be aware of?
  • What things or tasks are related?

An effective document, then, is one giant answer book. An intelligent document gives the user the answers they need, without the user even realizing the effort they made to find them.

A fat man, a madman, and a runaway train

Related imageImagine this scenario: a runaway train is hurtling towards five people tied down to a railway track by a madman. You can pull a switch to divert the train onto another track where another person is tied down, killing the one person, but saving five.

Should you throw the switch? Most people will say yes, reasoning that it is better for one innocent person to die than five.

Now imagine this scenario: The same train approaches the five trapped people. This time, you are standing next to a fat man on a bridge over the tracks. If you push the man onto the tracks, his massive weight will stop the train but will kill him. However, the other five people will again be saved. So, do you give him a push?

Most people will say no, because even though the end result is the same (the man will be killed), the killing will be direct and deliberate. In the first scenario, killing the man is an indirect effect of pulling the switch.

You can vary this scenario endlessly. What if the fat man was also the mad man? What if the one person tied up was your spouse, parent or sibling? What if the five men were all convicted murderers who had escaped?

All of these scenarios are part of the trolley problem. There is an entire science devote to ethical and psychological issues called experimental philosophy, or X-Phi and even Trolleyology. Experimental philosophy uses data gathered through surveys of hypothetical moral scenarios. It’s a scientific attempt to draw conclusions on how people reach moral decisions. In doing so, X-Phi is a strange brew of science, psychology and philosophy.

X-Phi is not just a serious of extended thought experiments: it has very practical applications. For example, the recent financial meltdown was caused by many people making various choices and judgments. These people included not only the lenders and administrators of high risk loans, but the recipients of these loans, and the various government agencies involved in regulating the loans. All these people made what in hindsight are appallingly bad choices. However, at the time, these choices may have seemed quite reasonable. By studying the factors that lead people to make bad choices, the hope is they won’t make them again.

Technical communicators are often faced with ethical dilemmas as a result of conflicting needs and wants. These include:

  • the need to give the user all the information they require and want and
  • the need to withhold information that is not required, and which could overwhelm or confuse the user
  • the desire to work in harmony with the people who are developing the product being documented and
  • the need to be an end-user advocate which can involve suggesting product changes that may take considerable effort to implement
  • the desire to work well with other writers on a team and
  • the need to ensure the documentation is of the highest quality through peer reviews, which can involve constructive criticism of another writer’s work, or of your own

These conflicting needs can arise in a variety of ethical dilemmas that a technical communicator could face. Here are few examples to ponder:

You’re having trouble getting the required information about a certain feature from one of the subject matter experts (SMEs). The deadline for the release is fast approaching, and the SME is nowhere to be found. You approach the desk of the SME and see a folder on top with the title of the exact feature you need information about. However, the folder also has a large note, stating: DO NOT REMOVE. Do you borrow the folder, with the intention of giving it back as soon as you’re done with it, but knowing that the SME will notice the missing folder?

Now imagine the same scenario, but this time, you know the SME is away, and will therefore not notice the missing folder. Does this affect your decision? What if it was the same folder, but the SME accidentally left it on your desk? The SME won’t know you have the folder, but the folder still has the same note saying that the folder was not to be removed from their desk.

Another scenario: You have co-authored a user guide with another writer. Each of you have done exactly half the work. However, your manager believes you are the sole author, and praises you for writing such a fantastic document. If the other writer will never learn about this conversation, do you tell your manager you are not the sole writer? What if you knew your manager was deciding which one of you to promote? Would you then tell your manager the truth, again, assuming that the manager would never find out that you were not the sole writer? What if you had done 60% of the work? 75%? 80%? What if the other writer had previously left the company?

The point of these mental exercises is to pinpoint the exact conditions under which we believe a choice becomes immoral. By isolating the factors that influence our choices, we can learn much about the way we think and behave.

And no – I have no intention of stating what I would do in these various situations. In the book of life, the answers aren’t in the back section.

The Sixth Sense

Related imageWe all know (and love) our five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Apparently, these senses are not enough. Science, psychology, and the arts have been on the hunt for a sixth sense since the time people knew they had senses.

Candidates for a sixth sense include:

  • intuition
  • emotion
  • intelligence
  • extra-sensory perception (ESP)
  • equilibrioception – the ability to balance

As a technical person, one of the candidates that I find particularly interesting is a device called, (what else?), the SixthSense.

The SixthSense is prototype information device you can wear. It consists of a computer, a pocket projector, a mirror, and a camera. The projector projects visual information onto any surface. The user wears colored markers on their fingertips. The camera recognizes and tracks the user’s hand gestures, kind of like in the film Minority Report.

There are many cool things that you can do with this device just by using your hands to virtually “draw” various shapes:

  • “draw” a magnifying glass to launch a map application
  • “draw” virtual shapes onto any surface
  • “draw” a frame to launch the camera
  • “draw” the ‘@’ symbol to check your email
  • “draw” a circle on your wrist to project a watch onto it
  • use hand gestures to flick through photos you’ve taken

Most importantly, SixthSense can detect different types of physical objects and then project additional, meaningful information onto them.

Examples include projecting:

  • live video news or dynamic news updates onto a newspaper
  • current airline departure information onto an airline ticket.
  • nutritional information and recipes onto food packages you are looking at the supermarket
  • book reviews onto a book
  • a person’s favourite websites onto the person’s shirt (yes, it really can do that!)

This device is a glimpse of a future world awash in meta-information. It is currently a prototype, and not freely available. However, the documentation we create is. For this, there are valuable lessons.

First – all technical communicators do have a sixth sense – the sense of information. And not just any information, but clear and meaningful information. We know, or can find out, what the user needs to know. We know how to give that information to the user. The only thing we don’t know is what what we don’t know. But we know that we don’t know what we don’t know, you know?

To find out what we don’t know, we speak with the people who do know. These are the other people involved with the product you are documenting. Particularly important are the people who are working with the users who actually use the product. These are the salesmen, product analysts, business analysts and others who have direct contact with the end users.

Second – our documentation should be as helpful as a SixthSense device. It should:

  • “know” the user
  • know what the user needs to know
  • give them the information they need to know
  • tell them how to get more or different information
  • withhold information they do not need to know

Do you agree? If not, I’m not worried.

You’ll come to your senses…

Krazy Karl Rabeder

Related imageKarl Rabeder is an Austrian millionaire. Or at least he was. He’s giving away his entire $5 million fortune to charity.

“My idea is to have nothing left. Absolutely nothing,” he said. “Money is counterproductive –it prevents happiness.”

Karl continues: “For a long time I believed that more wealth and luxury automatically meant more happiness,” he said. “I come from a very poor family where the rules were to work more to achieve more material things, and I applied this for many years.”

Later in life, his views changed. “More and more I heard the words, ‘Stop what you are doing now — all this luxury and consumerism — and start your real life’,” he said. “I had the feeling I was working as a slave for things that I did not wish for or need…I was just listening to the voice of my heart and soul.”

So, he has moved out of his mansion into a small hut. I wonder Mrs. Rabeder thinks of her new home.

If Karl’s move is successful, he should write a user guide describing the process: The Millionaire’s Guide to Living Poor. It could cover such topics as:

  • Filth is Your Friend
  • How To Eat Almost Anything
  • Got Mud and Straw? Let’s Start Building A Home!
  • Saying Goodbye to Your 55″ TV
  • Convincing Your Family that Poverty Builds Character (yeah, right)

I sympathize with Karl. Feeling sad sometimes is completely normal. I’m just not sure the solution is to become a hobo.

We’re often challenged by our docs. A draft review comes back, and it ain’t pretty. That doesn’t mean we have failed; on the contrary. The only thing worse than a draft full of revisions is a draft with none. Mistakes and omissions are important; from them we grow into better technical communicators.

It’s also important to remember that the end user never sees all the changes, heated discussions, endless debates and other nonsense that occurs when a document is being developed. All they see is the final product. They don’t know, nor do they care, about how it got there, just that it’s good now.

Think about it – do you care about all the errors that were made before you got your hands on a product you were using? Whether it’s a TV, a chair or a pair of shoes, all you care about is that the errors were resolved. Especially if you own a Toyota.

So, if work’s getting you down, don’t quit, and don’t move into a hut. Savour the challenges. For when you hammer steel, it becomes harder.

We’re here, we’re synesthesic, get used to it

Image result for synesthesiaSynesthesia is the ultimate mashup. It’s a neurological condition in which a person experiences the data of one sense with another – a sort of warped virtual reality.

Examples of synesthesia are:

  • seeing numbers and letters as colours: for example, where most people see the following text as black: ABC 123, a synesthesic might see it as: ABC 123
  • perceiving numbers, letters, days of the week and months as emotions or personalities: for example: 1 as “strong”, H as “envious”, Tuesday as “sad” and July as “jealous”
  • seeing sounds: a loud noise such as dog barking or fireworks exploding might cause the person to see certain shapes or patterns
  • perceiving time periods as locations in space: for example: Monday appears “further away” than Wednesday
  • “tasting” certain words or letters: for example, most tastes like toast, and leg tastes like egg

Scientists aren’t fully sure what causes synthesia, but agree it’s probably some sort of neurological malfunction in which the sensory wires in the brain get crossed. It may affect as many as one in 23 people.

Blessing or Curse?

At first glance, synthesia might seem like a curse. After all, who would want the distraction of “hearing” colours or “seeing” sounds? In fact, it may be a blessing. Some synthesics are very creative and have produced unique drawings and other artwork that illustrate the remarkable way they experience the world.

Synthesia, Tech Comm Style

An effective technical communicator is partially synesthetic. We simply would not be able to do our jobs well if we perceived information the same way normal people do.

Specifically, technical communicators are hyper-sensitive to vague, missing, misspelled, confusing, incomplete and poorly organized information. We perceive it as jarring, illogical, uncomfortable and painful. We can call this condition technical communication synthesia, or TCS.

TCS Examples

The following examples help illustrate TCS. In each one, you’ll see three statements:

  • Actual text – the actual text that might appear in a document or software application
  • Normal perceptionhow a normal (non-TCS) person perceives the text
  • TCS perceptionhow a person with TCS perceives the text
  • Actual text The record is updated.
  • Normal perceptionGreat! The record is updated. My work is done!
  • TCS perception The record is updated?! Who or what updated the record? The user or the computer? The objective voice is evil.
  • Actual text Welcom too the Synex Usser Giude .
  • Normal perceptionHmm, something doesn’t quite smell right…
  • TCS perception The horror; the horror…
  • Actual text The Sort command sorts your data.
  • Normal perceptionGee, who would have thought it did that?
  • TCS perceptionCircular references are evil! Change this to: Use the Sort command to arrange your data alphabetically or numerically.
  • Actual textThe program will remember your settings.
  • Normal perceptionAwesome! I can just set it and forget it!
  • TCS perceptionRemember? How can program remember?! Anthromorphization is evil!
  • Actual textError 43 – Incompatible file format.
  • Normal perceptionDamn! Where’s the tech support number?!
  • TCS perceptionWhere is the problem? What is the solution? And who cares what the error number is?
  • Actual textAbort the process.
  • Normal perceptionYikes! I’d better stop the process.
  • TCS perceptionAbort is a word more loaded than an H-bomb. Change to: Stop the process.
  • Actual textIt’s important to back up your files.
  • Normal perception – That’s nice to know….uh, what’s a “back-up”?
  • TCS perception – What is a back up? Why is it important? How do you perform one? Which files do you back up? How often should you perform one?
  • Actual textDo you want to enter more records? [OK] [Cancel]
  • Normal perception – Yes, I do, so I’d better click OK .
  • TCS perception – Ouch! Why can’t developers label buttons properly?! Change the buttons to a simple [Yes] and [No].
  • Actual textTurn off your computer. Be sure you have saved your work first.
  • Normal perceptionOK, I’ve turned off my computer Now what? Make sure I’ve saved my work first?! Doh!
  • TCS perceptionMight as well say: Cut the red wire to detonate the bomb. Change to: Save your work, then turn off your computer.
  • Actual textTo print a document, make sure you have opened the document you want to print, the printer is on, there is paper in the paper tray, and that the printer has enough ink, then press Print and select the correct printer, paper size, orientation, the pages you want to print and the number of copies, then click OK.
  • Normal perceptionYou had me at “To print“. Then you lost me. I am sad.
  • TCS perceptionCould that sentence be any longer? Rewrite to:
To print a document:
  1. Ensure the printer is on.
  2. Check that there is paper in the paper tray.
  3. Check the ink level of the printer.
  4. Open the document you want to print.
  5. Click the Print button.
  6. Select the paper size and orientation.
  7. Select the pages you want to print and the number of copies.
  8. Click OK to print.

Note: TCS is incurable, thankfully.

Synecdoche, Technical Writer

Image result for Synecdoche, New YorkThink being a tech writer is difficult? Try being a screenwriter. Unlike technical writers, most screenwriters will never make a successful living. Most of them work other jobs to pay the bills. The vast majority of scripts never get produced. As with actors, dancers, musicians, and other arts professionals, most screenwriters are doomed to a life of obscurity. But there is one screenwriter who is not only widely successful, but is one of the most talented and original writers in modern times.

Charlie Kaufman is the writer and director of the film Synecdoche, New York, and was also the writer on two of my favourite films: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich. These movies wonderfully use the medium of film to explore the very nature of reality and existence.

You Are My Sunshine

In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Joel Barrish, heartbroken over the breakup with his girlfriend, undergoes a procedure to erase all memories of her. (His girlfriend had previously erased all memories of him.) As Joel is sleeping, we see his memories become mangled and eventually destroyed. It is the closest thing you’ll see to the filming of a dream.

In the other film, Being John Malkovich, John Cusack plays a puppeteer who takes a menial office job in an unusual building – the work floor is wedged between two others. Behind one of the office walls, he discovers a tunnel that is a magical portal into the mind of actor John Malkovitch. A portal visit lasts about 15 minutes, after which the visitor is spewed out onto a filthy ditch near the New Jersey turnpike.

Synecdoche: The Whole and its Parts

In Synecdoche, New York, which I have not yet seen, Kaufman makes his directorial debut, in addition to being the writer. The plot involves a struggling theatre director who stages an extraordinary play by creating an intricate replica of New York City inside a gigantic warehouse. He hires actors to play himself and the other people in his life. These actors interact with their real-life counterparts, blurring the line between the director’s real and “staged” lives.

Life, Defined

Kaufman’s films are fascinating because they artistically document the questions all users (in this case, all people) have, including:

  • What does it mean to exist?
  • What is life? Is it just a collection of memories?
  • Do we really have free will, or are we simply actors following a script?
  • What is perceived? What is real? Is there a difference?

Model Documents

Like screenwriters, technical communicators also model reality.

First, we create guides that describe how to use something. We model our guides directly on the thing (the reality) that we are documenting.

Second, by modeling our documents this way, we are creating a model of a tutor or teacher. This can be vividly seen in interactive online training, which responds to and progresses based on the choices the student makes in the course.

Reality – What a Concept

However, there is a third, deeper level that some documentation can follow as it models reality. Just as Kaufman’s films blur the line between the real and the perceived, certain documentation blurs the line between the documentation and the object being documented.

The simplest example of this is a hyperlink. Before there were hyperlinks, when you needed to refer the reader to another source, you gave the name of the source and page number, for example: see page one of The New York Times. Then the hapless reader actually had to go out and find the damn document. Now you can simply say: click here. See the difference? The text of the step is the same as the step itself.

Virtual Control

A more complex example can be found in other software. For example, in the Windows online help, there is a topic that describes the Control Panel and how to open it. But it also contains a link that when clicked, actually opens the Control Panel. Now the question becomes: is this link documenting the Control Panel or is it actually the Control Panel?

We can go even further and ask: what exactly is the difference between the reality of the Control Panel, indeed, of all software, and the reality of the online documentation that describes it? They all exist only within the computer. Is one more “real” than the other? If you were to show both to someone who had never seen or heard of computers, they would be unable to tell the difference. Ultimately, they are all electromagnetic charges on a spinning metallic platter.

In essence, we are objectifying the Control Panel, our Windows files and folders, the various icons, and other elements of the operating system. How is this any different than objectifying people?

Synecdoche, North York

If Charlie Kaufman were ever to write a movie about a technical writer, the plot would be as follows:

Jacob is a struggling technical writer. He has trouble finding and keeping jobs, because he just does not fit in. He also struggles to relate to other people, finding that they are not as easy to follow as the documentation he writes.

In an attempt to gain control of his life, he begins to document every aspect of it. At first, he writes only on the computer, but these documents are too “soft” for him – he needs something real. He begins printing out everything he writes.

Soon, his entire apartment is awash in papers. The walls, furniture, floors, even his dog are drowning in an ever-growing sea of documents. In a dream sequence, Jacob imagines the entire world covered with explanatory notes.

In a vain effort to regain control of his mind, Jacob begins scouring the Internet for answers. In his search, he stumbles upon a blog written by a technical writer living in the former city of North York. To his amazement, he finds an article written about him, when he

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Hey – Andrew. Just what the hell are you doing?

Excuse me? Who are you?

I’m Jacob, you idiot. Where do you get off writing about me like that?

Well, it’s my blog. I can write what I want.

No, you can’t. You make me sound useless and pathetic. Knock it off or I’ll come down there and kick your ass!

Well, that would be a neat trick. You know – you only exist because of me.

Actually, Andrew, the opposite is true. I mean, can you prove that you are not a figment of my imagination?

Uh, OK. I think I’ll stop writing now.

Oh please, don’t stop. You can’t imagine the darkness when you stop. I’m sorry…

I can’t just keep typing forever. I have a life, you know!

I have a life too! Please, I’m begging you! Keep typing!

Nope – I’m stopping now.

You wouldn’t dare. You need me! Without me you’re nothing! Your stupid blog is nothing! You’re going to keep typing until


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