Technical writing and thankless tasks

I think that both Dana Blankenhorn and Marius Coomans will be good for open source, as they both question the concept without worry of offending the legions of open source fans, and seemingly without any axe to grind.

Dana recently questioned the lack of documentation and support associated with open source projects. In particular documentation, writing:

Documentation, I thought, is the Achilles Heel for open source.

It’s baked into the process. Great coders volunteer to write great code, but documentation is a go-to-market process, and when you’re giving stuff away that’s not part of the strategy.

His statement isn’t without merit; when you access many free, open source applications, the first thing you read is something to the effect that “this is free, so don’t expect support”. There’s some justification to this philosophy; it becomes a warning to users that the software they’re using is free; however, they’ll have to hunt around for support on their own, because there’s no one paying the bills for either documentation or support.

Marius agrees with Dana, but takes it a step further. In response to my push to have users be more responsive to those who provide both documentation and support for open source tools, he writes, in comments at his shared weblog:

Shelley, when was the last time you rang the phone company to thank them when you successfully placed a call? Documentation will never be appreciated because most of us only use it as a last alternative, when all else fails. Being a writer is a thankless job, so are garbagemen, car mechanics and loss adjusters. Live with it.


Having focused much of my time this last decade in technical writing, either for books or articles, tips, how-tos, and yes, documentation, I can agree with Marius, in that it seems to be a thankless task, at times. But there’s also something else implicit in his statement, whether it was intended or not: that it isn’t necessarily all writing that is thankless; it’s primarily technical writing that is thankless.

That leads me to wonder: is technical writing, or more specifically writing about technology, valued less than other writing? In other words, if we place the poet, the journalist, the writer of romance or the pundit on one scale, and the writer about technology on the other, will the scales tilt away from the technical writer, every time?

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