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ATPM 17.04
April 2011




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by Mark Tennent,


There were three of them, we were young, and they looked oh-so-sexy in their silvery gray jackets. We became intimate immediately and slept together every night, and I devoted all my attention to them equally. It was exhausting—especially when my wife joined in and made it a ménage à trois.

That was the way we learned QuarkXPress 3, taking the ring-binder manuals to bed with us. What mattered if occasionally we bashed our heads when we fell asleep while reading, the binders slipping from our grasp to fall heavily on the nearest skull?

It was the same with Freehand, which came in a box the size of a breeze block and almost as heavy. The manuals inside became essential reading, and we even tried putting them under our pillows in the hope the skills would slide into our brains by some form of crazy osmosis. We still turn to them today if we need to write PostScript fills or remember how to use some long-forgotten process. With Illustrator and Photoshop, their manuals may be half a dozen versions out of date, but most instructions stay the same.

Some applications that were—hem hem—given to us for free, had to be learned by trial and error and using the built-in help files. We created our accounts package like that in FileMaker, adapting and anglicizing one of the built-in templates, then learning how to extend it to a full accounts suite. With InDesign 2, we worked with the help file open in the background and referred to it every now and again. Naturally, our days of borrowing software are long over. We now have legal copies.

Come forward some years to find that today’s software has enhanced abilities, achieving so much more than its forebears. But you get the feeling the help available has shrunk by inverse proportions. Many need online access to help forums rather than letting you quickly look in a help file. What there is built into the software is out of date or leaves you with the sense that you missed something important even after rereading it for the tenth time. Worse still, you can’t have the help file open and work in the application at the same time.

Presumably, the technical writers who used to create help manuals have gone the way of hot metal typesetters and letterpress.

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Reader Comments (1)

Ed Rush · April 17, 2011 - 23:12 EST #1
"Presumably, the technical writers who used to create help manuals have gone the way of hot metal typesetters and letterpress." Yes, I have.

As of 10 years ago, we published hardcopy manuals, but our process was designed to use the same writing efforts to produce PDFs that the customers could download. I got caught in the 2001 dot-bomb layoffs, and found that the employment market had narrowed substantially, so I switched careers. In recent years, every tech-writing job I've looked into has mostly involved publishing on the Web, not on paper.

Times change. As a consumer, I miss the days of paper manuals.

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