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Adding hidden value

Originally published in Forward, the Newsletter of the UK STC Chapter, November 2001

From time to time someone wants to measure what it is that a technical writer actually does. It's relatively commonplace to measure the work of a software developer by counting the number of lines of code they have written, and then to judge quality by counting the number of bugs for each thousand lines. Why then should the work of a technical writer not be measured in terms of words and pages and spelling mistakes? I believe that this mechanistic approach risks missing the added value that technical writers can bring to a project.

Often this added value is hidden, because a project or a product may often be better because something has been taken away, rather than added. A little anecdote from my own recent experience illustrates this point very well.

I work for a small software company. Shortly before our most recent software release, I was checking to make sure that everything that the users could see was properly described in the documentation. I checked all the tool bar buttons, all the dialogs, all the menu commands, and everything was covered, except. "View Log File". There, on the "View" menu, was a command I hadn't documented.

I rushed up to our lead developer, and begged him for a quick explanation, so that I could add something to the manual. "What command?" he asked. "It's "View Log File" on the "View" menu", I repeated. "But that's not supposed to be there," he almost shouted at me. "It was for internal testing, it's not supposed to be in the finished product at all! Thanks for spotting that!"

Sure enough, the command was gone by the next day. I hadn't written a single word (although I had wanted to) but all the same I had added significant value to our product. Word-count accountants, take note!

Copyright © STC and David Farbey 2001. All rights reserved. Links to this article, and properly acknowledged quotations from this article which include a link, are welcomed.
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