I’ve been trying to understand my own uncomfortable reaction to a lot of discussions about software documentation. To most of them, in fact.
I write documentation for a living, and I find the challenge of writing good docs pretty compelling. So why do I squirm and feel like running away every time someone I follow on Twitter posts a link to another resource about documentation? Why do I try to avoid most of the standard resources in my chosen field of endeavor? I don’t mind telling people what I do, and like many folks who care about good docs, I am in love with the Write The Docs conferences. So what gives?
Part of the answer lies, I think, in the title of this post. It’s also part of the answer to why I was uncomfortable for so long with the idea of even starting a blog (and why I’ve malingered over really getting it going).
As I see it, writing documentation is a thing you do, not a thing you discuss in the abstract. Or if you discuss it outside the context of a particular deliverable, you do so in immediately practical ways: what’s the most appropriate way to call out a particular kind of UI element (or should you even call it out)? How should programmers and writers jointly contribute to Javadoc comments? What are some good ways to organize a programming guide/a user manual/a knowledge base? What does this error in my doc build mean and how can I fix it? What’s the best way to support localization?
These aren’t, obviously, the only sorts of documentation questions people are interested in, or even the only sorts of doc question I care about. But more abstract discussions often very quickly move into generalizations about Documentation As A Self-Evident Truth, and that’s where I think my discomfort starts. This is what I’m calling “fetishizing.” Documentation Matters, doncha know. Good Documentation Can Save The World.
And There Is One Right Way. Thou shalt write according to the dictates of “structured authoring” — a term that continues to bewilder me, even though I work within the constraints of some of its dictates. What does “unstructured” authoring look like? And does anybody really “author” software documentation? (I sure hope not …) Or thou shalt “single-source” — a term whose practical meaning has looked pretty slippery to me over the years. Or use a particular toolset/platform/workflow. Or not. (Just ask a group of folks who write about “agile” …)
Context. Context is what fetishized documentation discussions lack. If your doc content, however it’s organized, however it’s presented, gets the job of helping your users get their jobs done, that’s what matters. Sure, there are ways of thinking about and organizing docs that can help you achieve this goal. But ultimately it’s your product and your users who matter, not the theorizing of folks who are overly invested in whatever the latest doc trend might be. And maybe it’s ultimately that lack of context that makes me uneasy when doc discussions go all abstract. All the carefully chosen stories or examples that prove the abstract point can’t make up for the fact that somebody else’s abstraction does not take your context into account.