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The Perils of DIY Docs

by Brian J. Dooley

All businesses must create documentation, whether simply to ensure procedures are performed correctly, or to provide complete instructions for a critical product. The range is wide, encompassing such items as internal equipment instruction, business or process procedures, user manuals for customers, reference manuals for technicians, and technical reports for management. Common to all documentation, however, is that is designed to be used, and must therefore be easily followed, accurate, and easily read. These may seem simple requirements, but the simplicity is an illusion. Good documentation requires experience, a talent for clarity, knowledge of presentation forms, and techniques for acquiring and assimilating necessary information. All too frequently, this is misunderstood, and the documentation task is left to new recruits, to secretaries, to junior level engineers, or to whoever happens to be available when the need arises.

If your organisation does this, you may be putting the company at risk. The results of bad "DIY" documentation can be devastating.

All of this being the case, why would a company ever think of taking the DIY approach? The primary reason, of course, is that it appears to be easy. After all, in theory, everyone can write—at least in the sense of basic literacy. Secondly, many assume that the only requirement is product or procedural knowledge—which is really only the starting point. Finally, it often seems cheaper to do it on your own—although, in reality, it can be more expensive.

The truth is, technical documentation is a profession, requiring a special combination of experience and expertise. It is backed by a number of organisations and associations including the Society for Technical Communication (STC), and the New Zealand Technical Writers' Association (NZTWA). There is a graduate level diploma program in technical communication at Christchurch Institute of Technology. And there are a number of journals devoted to what is, in reality, an art and a science. To document on your own is like trying to perform your own surgery or writing your own legal briefs. If not done by a professional, then it must be done by an amateur. And the result is, of course, likely to be amateurish.

So, what are your options? Thankfully, you have choices. These are:

Good documentation can aid in your marketing effort, ensure internal procedures are performed efficiently and correctly, protect against litigation, and actually help you to refine tasks by providing an impartial eye for details. An experienced procedures writer is the users' advocate; it is his or her job to ensure that the operations being described can be performed and really work.

You can gain the necessary expertise from companies such as BJ Dooley Technical Information Services—located here in Canterbury, and providing years of experience in all forms of technical writing and documentation. We can assemble project teams of any size to meet your documentation requirements and deadlines. You can reach us at or call 03 314-9920. We're just down the road from Christchurch, in Leithfield Beach. We can provide training, contractors, consultation or complete outsourcing. Visit our Web site at for complete information on our services.

Copyright 2002, Brian J. Dooley

Published in Update, the Official Newsletter of the Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce, March 2002

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