TechWhirl Tech Writer Recap for December 16 2011

This week’s update is supported by Platinum sponsor Madcap & their Ultimate Communications Suite, MadPak |

From the Desk of the Editor

Back when Eric Ray first founded Techwr-l (now officially renamed TechWhirl to help with peanut butter in the mouth pronunciation issue for the uninitiated) one of the guiding principles was that the list was a free resource. Since taking over TechWhirl in April, Al and I have made a lot of changes (we hope for the good!), but that guiding principle still remains, we want to be the best free resource on the internet for technical communicators.

The discussion list has been a valuable resource for a long time, and like other discussion lists, it goes through ups and downs, heated debates and near hibernation.  Questions are asked and answers are generously (every once in a while obnoxiously) given. It’s always been free, open and public.  The level of activity on our list is such that it’s easy to forget that it’s public.  We have a few thousand friends, colleagues and mentors that we’ve never actually met, and still we feel that we can confide in this group and offer advice.  All of this is made possible by the financial support of our sponsors (so very NPR without the now quarterly requests for money).

Lately we’ve been reminded that our community is open and public, and on what we hope is rare occasions, that poses a risk—that our comments can be linked back to us in potentially negative ways.  The archives keep a record of every discussion ever had on the list. And, we don’t exaggerate when we say the technical communication email archives are searched thousands of times each day.  Those searching are there to find those nuggets of information that can answer a question, but sometimes to see who is saying what on a subject.

Other resources do exist where discussion is private, and stays private, and probably the best examples can be found within the Special Interest Groups of STC In exchange for confidential and narrowly focused resources, you become a dues-paying member.  And we believe that technical communicators receive extraordinary benefits when they use the resources of both TechWhirl and STC.

In a world where privacy is becoming the rarest of commodities, professional communicators constantly perform a balancing act.  We generally have a good idea what and how we need to communicate messages for our employers, but sometimes slip and stumble when it comes to communicating messages for ourselves.  I suggest you follow a few simple but sound principles:

  • Think about the consequences before you post, and choose your medium carefully.
  • Never say anything you wouldn’t want your parents, your significant other, your favorite high school teacher, or a jury to hear – even in a private discussion.
  • Like embarrassing baby pictures in the family album, once it’s part of the Internet, it never really disappears.

We hope you’re enjoying reading the letters to the big guy in red, we’ll have a few more for you next week, as well as a TechWhirl podcast so you can have all that audio goodness in time for your holiday parties…And because great information is a gift that keeps on giving, we’ll have more technical communication news, and features to help you start or finish those tech comm projects you have to deal with this holiday season.

Have a great weekend!

– The gang at TechWhirl


In Case You Missed it: This Week  @ TechWhirl

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What You’re Talking About

A quick What you talkin’ ‘bout to our Tech Writers and their discussions in our email discussion group:

  • Kevin McLaughlin showed us how a non-traditional solution can answer the questions he put– “How/where would you handle this documentation problem?”  His problem stems from a nearly endless list of combinations of OS and servers that will and won’t support his computer card product.  His answer, with a little help from some other Whirlers includes proposing an easily updatable, web-based list of the combinations which he hopes will be maintained by customer support.  He also worked on designing a small label for the product, to ensure the “documentation stays with the product.”
  • Monique Semp got the list’s attention when she asked “what doc formats do READERs want ?”  Responses have ranged from what individual Whirlers prefer, to some worthy philosophical debates on the conditions that should dictate the form, to the sensible “ask your customers” and the highly venerated “it depends.”  Many worthwhile questions and answers, tangents and sidebars that point out that sometimes we are cursed with abundance of choices.
  • Leonard Porello presented an interesting comparative analysis when he  asked  “Which is better for simple online help, more or less nesting, more or fewer hyperlinks?” His examples referenced two styles of TOCs for online help (flat and deeply nested), and which is likely to be more helpful to the end user.  How handy the “it depends” answer is, as Whirlers pointed out how usability is improved with each type depending on the complexity of the UI.


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We want to send a very special “thank you” to our sponsors for their support.  {cough} We’re a free resource because they support us.  {cough} Buy their stuff, review their stuff … or we start doing that NPR fundraising drive stuff, and no one wants that to occur. J


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Platinum B: Madcap Software, ComponentOne Software

Gold: Society for Technical Communication (STC), EC Software, Vancouver Island University,

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