IT IS no easy thing to write a book on managing technical writers. For one thing, an author must contend with all the other self-help books for managers. For another, technical writers are not that different from other employees that need to be managed, beyond having a certain amount of creativity, and a very large (silicone) chip on both shoulders. As employees, technical writers have suffered for years from their discipline not being recognized as a bona fide profession. And in spite of the acknowledgement of the US government that technical writers form a distinct profession, the situation has not improved in other parts of the world. That does not leave a US documentation management consultant very much to base his practical guide on.
Despite these obstacles, this primer for documentation managers, by Richard L. Hamilton, is a gem—simply written, solidly constructed, and containing much food for thought for doc managers and tech writers on both sides of the Atlantic. It is also 250 pages long, which means that it says a lot that has been said elsewhere. But it is refreshing to hear it again from the explicit perspective of a documentation manager (and of his side-kick, the technical writer, whose ghostly presence can be felt all through the book).
The first part on the elements of technical writing and on the role of power and influence, -—and indeed the first two chapters on Managing People and Managing Projects—cover well-known ground. Not much that is new can be said about how to lead change and how to build a motivated team. Get a strategy for the first, and get out of the way for the second, is management advice that is both best practice and commonplace.
In addition, the early sections on working with Human Resources and hiring and firing are intimately bound up with US law and business culture. The documentation manager that comes across in these early pages is very American, one that follows procedures, handles his or her own problems, does not make waves, and is a great team player. But he or she also jockeys for position and is obsessed with transcending and having his team of technical writers transcend previous performance. The parts of the book on motivating teams, managing change, the high-seriousness of evaluating an employee’s performance, and the appalling business of grading and ranking employees, may well leave European readers wondering where such a deep seated desire for constant feedback and other people’s approval comes from.
Perhaps this tough individualism is what makes America such a great country for technical writers? And maybe this is why Mr Hamilton almost called his book “Leading Writers” instead of “Managing Writers”. Unfortunately, as the author points out, technical documentation, particularly in Europe, lives at the bottom of the power hierarchy in most organizations.
Many readers working in Europe will find that the most rewarding parts of this book come with the later sections on localizing your documentation, single sourcing, and the chapter on managing technology. Speakers at a recent Content Strategy Forum were of the the opinion that the next big thing in content strategy would be localization issues. From internationalization to localization, from translation to short-term scheduling, the chapter on Localizing your Documentation is a handy reminder of what you need to know. Similarly, the chapter on single sourcing, with its honest conclusion that there is really no one good way to make most content work prefectly in both print and on the web, is something of a reality check.
This book is published in sensitive economic times when many documentation managers and technical writers will need to justify their technology projects or even their very existence. The author’s advice on how to build business cases specifically for documentation teams is sound. His insight that whether a documentation team is considered a centre of profit or of loss is largely a matter of senior management’s perception is encouraging. And his advice on how to walk and talk like a profit centre is timely.
Two other highly rewarding sections deal with the pros and cons of adopting XML technology and with content management. The XML chapter includes a well-balanced appraisal of XML grammars such as DocBook and DITA. The Managing Content chapter reminds us that content has always been the central focus of documentation managers, even if it is the Internet that has drawn wider attention to its importance. All this is not surprising, since Mr Hamilton is a member of the OASIS DocBook Technical Committee, and his XML Press a sponsor of the successful CSForum in 2010.
Mr Hamilton has written a book for everyone: doc manager and tech writer, employer and employee, alike. The other side of Managing Writers—which one might call Writers Being Managed—is implicit throughout. Anyone reading the book may or may not become a better documentation manager or a better technical writer. But to the extent that they gain a better understanding of a typical US documentation manager’s mindset, they will certainly become a better employee. Particularly if they work for a US company.
Managing Writers: A Real World Guide to Managing Technical Documentation
Richard L. Hamilton. 2009. Fort Collins, CO: XML Press. [ISBN 978-0-9822191-0. 266 pages, including glossary, bibliography, and index. US$24.95 (softcover).]