At long last, I have the answer to the question that has baffled technical communicators for years. The question is, of course, what makes a good technical writer. Many answers have been put forward: Technical background; organizational skills, a good eye for detail; inter-personal skils; good with tools; proficiency in writing (notice how far down the list that one came!!); multi-tasking abilities, etc, etc, etc.
Well – I can firmly tell you, dear reader, that the above list is piffle and poppycock. There is one thing –and one thing only ‑ you need to be a distinguished technical writer – and that is this – you need to perfect the ability to loiter.
I shall define loiter for the purposes of this document as the art of “hanging about” or even “lingering aimlessly”. Some people are born with this particular skill – my 7-year-old for example, can loiter over his breakfast for a good two hours. Other people might need to practice in front of a mirror in order to get it right.
But what does this have to do with technical writing, I hear you ask. Well, the secret to quality documentation in a timely manner is having the correct information and I have come to the conclusion after much personal loitering that this information is not offered freely to technical writers. I do not know why this is the case. All I know is that when I “hang about”, I tend to learn fascinating information – such as the new feature which I have currently written 30 pages on isn’t actually going into the current Release. Or the guy I have been waiting for an email from for two weeks actually got fired a month ago. Or the fact that the entire software interface is going to change in a few months.
Now, no doubt there will be some scoffers among you who feel they can get by perfectly well with some good, old-fashioned hovering, as opposed to loitering. I don’t feel I have the right to judge my fellow colleagues – but let me tell you this, in my experience nothing good has ever come of hovering. On the one occasion I tried it, a developer rushed to get me a chair and a cup of tea, and the only thing I learned from that experience is that Israelis don’t understand the concept of brewing.
If you don’t believe me that loitering is the be all and end all of technical writing, I firmly suggest you try it for yourself. I would advise starting slowly until you get the hang of it‑ a bit of loitering in the kitchen, some general lingering around developers’ cubicles, intermittent hanging about near the secretary. After you’ve developed the knack, you can venture out to something bigger – now would be a good time to try some really dirty loitering outside your boss’s office. The most important thing to remember is never to justify your loitering. If someone asks what you are doing, simply explain to them that you are doing your job. It works every time
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