Ruud Questions: Richard Hamilton (from XML Press)

You wrote Managing Writers: A Real World Guide to Managing Technical Documentation.

How are technical writers different from, say, copywriters?

richard hamilton I started writing this response with the following distinction in mind: Copywriters primarily write promotional material, while technical writers primarily write informational or instructional material.

While I think there is some validity in those definitions that distinction is blurring.

Good copywriters need to be able to deal with technical content, and good technical writers need to be able to write promotional material.

I would expect a copywriter to accentuate the positive and if not eliminate the negative, at least make sure that the strong points are the focus.  Their challenge is to make the product/service attractive to potential buyers without over-promising.

Technical writers have to accentuate reality, even if the reality reveals weaknesses in the product. Their challenge is to describe what the product/service actually does without making reality unappetizing.

In many places the same people are doing both jobs. Technical writers are getting involved with Social Media (see: Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation), and marketers and copywriters realize that their social media presence must include technical content to attract and maintain an audience.

How does that change or impact the way a manager works with a writer?

richard hamiltonNot as much as you might think.

For example, when hiring I might look for more technical background and expertise from technical writers and be more concerned about writing style and visual design in a copywriter. But, I still want good writers, and once hired, I would work with both kinds of writers on a personal level in the same way.

Of course, the differences in the audience and content will lead to management changes, but they are subtle compared with the basic management job, which I see as making sure writers are focused on the right content, for the right audience, on a schedule that will yield a
quality result

Are there any writing tips that port to or apply to blogging?

Be clear,
and accurate
richard hamiltonYes, good writing is good writing.

Be clear, concise, and accurate.

Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" is a good model for both copywriters and technical writers.

Remember that the objective is to communicate a message; for copywriters it's typically a marketing message, for technical writers it's typically a "how-to" message.

Pay attention to the audience and treat them with respect, which means avoiding jargon (marketing or technical) and writing clearly in language that will make sense to them.

Also, after you've been writing, in any venue, for a while, go back and analyze your style for mannerisms, tics, and anything that gets in the
way of your message. If you don't find things that make you cringe, find someone who will read your work and point out the problems; believe me, they will find problems.

You publish books on technical communication, XML and Web 2.0. Is that "just" a money choice or does this read as a list of your passions?

richard hamiltonI need to make a living, so the decision to create XML Press was made with the expectation that it would grow into a viable and profitable  business.

However, I feel most comfortable working with writers on content that I care about and that I can deal with intelligently (both in terms of acquiring and editing publications). Technical communication, XML, and Web 2.0/social media are all topics that would end up on my list of work passions. I would not try to publish a book on something I didn't care about.

I also care about the approach to the material, so you probably won't find us publishing purely theoretical content (unless it's ground breaking and likely to have practical implications). Instead, we're interested in practical publications that help people do their jobs.

You describe yourself as a "less-than-expert webmaster" while I was thinking that as a publisher of tech books you must be the uber-geek. What's up there?

richard hamiltonI think of "Geek-dom" like the world of music. You can be a great guitar player but not be able to read a musical score or play anything on the  piano.

I am a geek when it comes to C programming, XSL programming, and using build tools like shell languages and make. I also know a handful of useful languages to a lesser degree (Java, C++, lisp, awk, perl, php, etc.), and I've played with many others.

I'm less-than-expert in areas like building complex web sites. I have no doubt I could do what is needed to create a complex web site, but it would take more time than I'm willing to spend. When I weighed the time it would take to build a website by hand versus the ease of using a tool
like WordPress, the choice was obvious.

Partly because of your perceived lack in webmaster skills you've set up XML Press using WordPress.

What was your biggest challenge in that project -- and what's your main take-away from it?

richard hamiltonWordPress has worked very well. The challenge will come in probably about a year when the number of publications gets big enough that the  simple structure I've put together with WordPress will need to expand. I don't know if I'll be able to get WordPress to grow to what we'll need;
if so, I'll stick with it, if not, we'll change to something that can.

My main take-away is that as a business owner, time is precious. It was better for me to get a "good-enough" WordPress site than it would have been to create a "better" site without it.

In a comment you "argue that a successful social media strategy must involve your technical communication and support people. They can provide the kind of information customers are looking for, and at the same time help deliver a marketing message"

How does that work for a business? How much can a business give away before it needs to say "well, if you want that solved then you're going to need to pay us"?

it is hard to give
away too much information
richard hamiltonI think it is hard to give away too much information.

People go to social media to learn and to get questions answered. They learn about your company and product both directly, through the information you put out there, and indirectly, through the way you interact in social media, including your openness, your willingness to engage, and the quality of the information you provide.

If the indirect lesson is that you ration and hold back information, readers will think less of your company.

I know there is information that is worth withholding and making people pay for, and if your core business is providing that information, then obviously that makes sense. The consulting companies that do market analysis are a good example of that. But, for a lot of consulting businesses, the basic information is available and public. The value-add is working with customers to apply that information to their needs, or to save the customer the work involved in learning and using the information directly.

For businesses that create a product, or a service that is not purely information, I'd argue that the more information you provide, the better.

For those caught in the economy crush, what's the best way to bootstrap some sort of online income?

richard hamiltonThat's a tough question.

For me, it came down to working with something I know very well, XML, and using it to create useful publications that can be profitable with lower sales volume than "traditional" publishers need. In fact, that's pretty much my business model in a nutshell:).

For others, you've got to figure out what it is that you can do better and more efficiently than others and take advantage of those skills.

Tim  Ferriss's Four-hour Workweek provides some useful ideas, as long as you recognize that simply duplicating his business is not what he's talking about. Rather, he's talking about an approach to business that encourages you to focus on what you can do well, use that as the core of the business, and outsource everything else.

About the Author: Ruud Hein

My paid passion at Search Engine People sees me applying my passions and knowledge to a wide array of problems, ones I usually experience as challenges. People who know me know I love coffee.

Ruud Hein

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