The tools are secondary to the message

A few weeks back I was introducing my 10-year old son to the art of computer programming. We were dabbling with an old version of BASIC, which he found both fun and fascinating; he could make games, draw graphics, and process input from the keyboard with just a few commands.

All was going well until my memory failed, and I couldn't remember the syntax for parsing string variables. (They say the memory is the first thing to go.) The help in the compiler / editor wasn't as thorough as I needed and the examples were too abstract to fit our code.

My son waited patiently while I stared blankly at the screen, hoping my synapses would reconnect. They didn't.

Fortunately, I own a heavy printed manual on the particular flavor of BASIC that we were using. I pulled it out and blew off the dust. I flipped to the index, found the section on string variables, and skimmed the chapter. Sure enough, it had detailed examples that clarified the situation. I wrote down the code we needed and my son typed it into the editor. He compiled the program and watched with excitement as it lit up the screen. Success!

What's interesting is that...

  • The answer to our particular question wasn't stored on a help server.
  • I didn't find it via a search engine.
  • It likely wasn't written in XML, or even SGML. (The book was printed in the early 80's).
  • Social media wasn't part of the development process.
  • No help authoring tool was involved in it's creation.
  • It didn't have a mobile CSS attached.

It was just words on paper.

It could have been written on rice paper and written with a quill pen. But it was the right words on paper. The words I needed.

Technology is amazing. In fact, I'm a strong believer in Buckminster Fuller's notions of ephemeralization. However, the flip side of ephemeralization is that as technology becomes more complex, human life should become more simple. As I sit in front of a computer each day writing code to make our publishing processes more efficient, a part of me (the Luddite part) keeps my ambition in check.

"Just words on paper," it says.

So, how does this apply to technical writing?

Just focus on picking the right words; let the technology take care of itself.