Damned if You Document, Damned if You Don’t

My recent post about documentation writing and technical writers was a little off the cuff and quite easy to misinterpret. I suppose the phrase “throw some technical writers at it” didn't help either.

To clarify: I think technical writers are a very valuable part of the software development process. I have worked with some really great ones and I know that collaboration can be good fun and produce excellent results. But it has always been for user level documentation, not API level documentation. The problem I see with API docs is that you nearly have to write the documentation to describe the functionality.

So after thinking about this for a while, and thinking about what makes O'Reilly books so good, I think that the approach to take for API docs is one of a more editorial nature. The developer should write the actual text, given that this is the most efficient way to get the information down, and given the enormous benefit of generating a feedback loop in the developer's mind. But then the technical writer can step in to act as mentor and editor – to enhance the writing skills of the developer and to provide those things that only a professional can: style, grammar and textual flow.

So to repeat: I do not see the technical writer as someone who simply takes a set of bullet points and a demo application and mechanically hacks out a lot of repetitive pages. I do understand the value of technical writing. But my question was: how can we apply this skill to API documentation, which is so close to the code? In the end, it must be through even greater collaboration – the technical writer must be part of the team, not off in a separate department. And the technical writer is not a writer in this role, they are an editor and an educator.

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