Zombies, Cockroaches, and Technical Writers

Zombie attack instructions by Duncan Hull on flickr.comOf course, there are many differences between zombies and technical writers. Technical writers typically have heartbeats; they also tend to walk with their arms swinging naturally, rather than held out stiffly in front of them. And yet, there is something relentless about good technical writers, the way they refuse to give up when they need information. You don’t remember who put the hipot tester through IQ/OQ/PQ when it was moved to the new line? No problem, I’ll just smile and ask someone else. You think my question about destroying files in SourceSafe is irrelevant to the training session? No problem, I’ll just smile and ask even more politely than the first time. Good technical writers can be as relentless as a zombie – although when we smile, our jaws don’t fall off.

Similarly, cockroaches and technical writers are clearly distinguishable from each other. Even the most introverted technical writers won’t scatter into the baseboards when you turn on the kitchen light; also, despite much debate about how long there have been technical writers (more about that in a minute), it can safely be said that there were no technical writers 320 million years ago. There were, however, cockroaches.

On the other hand, we all know the cockroaches’ secret to success. They’re infinitely adaptable, equally at home in the Arctic and the tropics. If a cockroach crawled through Professor Kirke’s wardrobe and found itself in the Narnian woods, it would not blink an eye. (Yes, I know, cockroaches don’t have eyelids.) It would adapt! By now, if you’re the kid in the front row raising your hand, go ahead and say it: “Just like a good technical writer.” Yes, many of us specialize for years or decades in a specific industry, but a good technical writer can still walk into a Klingon transporter room or King Arthur’s trebuchet workshop, do a few interviews, take a few notes, document the systems, and recommend some improvements.

Relentlessness and adaptability are mostly a matter of personality, and we don’t need to argue about whether that’s nature or nurture. But personality is the true reason why people debate how long there have been technical writers. Our profession is technologically agnostic – not pre-technology, like the cockroach, or anti-technology, like the zombie – and as such, it moves easily through history. Someone will always need us to create a clear, written record of the most important information, based on the somewhat chaotic data that we extract through trial and error, not to mention those relentless interviews (keep smiling!), plumbing the SMEs’ brains…

Hmmm. Brains? Maybe we are zombies, after all.

Dan Goldstein

Dan Goldstein was born and raised in Ithaca, New York, known to its denizens as “ten square miles surrounded by reality.” In tenth grade, Sylvia Mintz taught him everything he knows about writing. Years later (thirtieth grade, approximately), Neil Churgin taught him everything he knows about technical writing. Since 2002, Dan has specialized in Regulatory Affairs and Quality Assurance for medical devices, which is actually a lot of fun.

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