Man versus machine | If John Henry was a technical writer

There's no use arguing against the notion that content management systems, automation scripts, and fancy tools can make a technical writer more efficient. Case study after case study drives that point home clearly. However, there will always be times when a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach, powered by sheer effort and rapid decision making, can win the day.

The question is knowing when to use such an approach.

Consider John Henry. The folk tale presents Henry as a steel driver who worked the railroad lines. His strength and pace were legendary; he could tunnel through rock and drive railroad spikes faster than anyone working the rails.

Like the modern technical writer, Henry came face to face with machines that were designed to make his job more efficient. (Or, in his case, irrelevant).

John Henry wouldn't bow to the machines. Convinced that he was faster, he challenged the new steam-powered drilling machine to a race - his mighty hammer against the machine's relentless pace. And, amazingly, he won.

But it killed him.

Technical writers face the same risk when they let pride, denial, or even fear lure them away from automation, content management, and other time-saving technologies.

So why is John Henry's manual approach so appealing?

Not all jobs are a good fit for automation. For example, implementing a content management system can be costly and labor intensive. Writing automation scripts may require assistance from programmers. And, a formalized documentation process can be overkill for small projects that don't fit neatly into a pre-planned workflow.

In some cases, you may be better off just sitting down in front of your keyboard and pounding out some documentation in whatever format feels the most natural.

Before you dive in, here are some guidelines that may help you in deciding whether to trust your established tools and processes, or your intuition and strength-of-will.

Size: How big is the project? Large scale projects, with many pages of documentation or many discrete topics, will benefit most from automation, content management, and a formalized process. The efficiency gains from tools and processes are increased by the sheer scale of the project. Small projects, on the other hand, might not be worth the setup time required for a formalized approach. For example, a small product manual with a limited lifespan would be best considered a one-off project, and not a worthwhile candidate for automation. However, a much larger guide that will require frequent updates might warrant such an up front investment and yield efficiency gains down the road.

Consistency: Does the project involve many similar chunks of content? If so, repetitive tasks can be automated, saving you time. However, if you are working on many bits of content that are relatively different, you won't find much benefit from trying to automate repetitive tasks.

Collaboration: Are you working with a team? If so, a formalized approach will ensure that you are all producing content in a consistent manner and of consistent quality. Using the same tools and processes makes sense for collaborative documentation. For example, if you are working with a team of trainers to write a series of training documents, you may see greater consistency from a formalized and automated process. However, if you are flying solo, you have less reason to worry about structure. Just be sure to take careful notes when flying by the seat of your pants, in case you have to re-visit the project at a later time.

Standardization: Does your output need to fit specific standards, or work in a specific environment? If so, you'll want to follow a process that ensures meeting those standards and use tools that generate standards-compliant output. If the output doesn't matter, you have more freedom to follow your customer-focused intuition.

Winging it isn't always a bad idea. Just be careful. Machines, automation, and technology can make you much more efficient in many situations.

Consider carefully whether a John Henry approach makes sense given the requirements of the project. If so, feel free to swing your mighty hammer with liberty, and win the day.