InfoMama’s Choice

The following story is fictional; any resemblance to actual characters or events is coincidental.


The protagonista of this story (let’s call her InfoMama — IM for short) was born on a sweltering August day some years ago. (The precise date is shrouded in mystery; some say 45 years ago; some say 75. Others say nobody still alive can recall. No matter; it’s clear she wasn’t born yesterday. And that’s a good thing.)

InfoMama started reading at an early age and expanded into writing shortly thereafter. She reveled in ink-fumed ideas — knowledge, imagination, and thought communicated from one mind to another, with elegance, style, and effectiveness, usually via the printed page.
Because she enjoyed math and science, IM signed up for every tech-type course available in her high school. After barreling through trig, calculus, various chemistries, and engineering physics into chemistry and engineering degrees, IM returned to her first love –words on paper. She launched a technical writing career and created her own word for what she did: infowriting.

On the Yellow Brick Infowriting Road

A few years later, InfoMama moved from paper and typewriter to word processing. “Great!” she said. “It’s much easier to correct digital images on screen than physical marks on paper.”

Then words on screen became on-screen replicas of typeset and published pages. Things were still OK. InfoMama was fine with desktop publishing (DTP). DTP gave her a feeling of power; now she could control the final appearance of her words.

Then the Internet gobbled up the world, making online content and web-based presentation at least as important as words on paper in printed publications. “Great fun!” said InfoMama. “I can publish in print and on the web.” She had lots of new infowriting toys to play with, even though her writing toolkit was getting crowded with tech tools: help-authoring software, pdf generators, HTML/CSS editors, and “single-sourcing” tools to coordinate inter-tech-tool cooperation.

Then topic-based writing came into its own, poking its head over the horizon, trailing a train of loosely-connected acronyms and technology buzzwords: XML, XSL, DITA, ANT, DocBook. InfoMama was intrigued, ’cause she did love technology. And now there were even more tech tools and associated skill sets to master. Wow! A techie-wannabe’s jargon-soaked dream. Until she realized …

There’s something wrong with this picture

InfoMama looked at her brave new infowriting world. and found the landscape strangely uninviting.

  • The yellow brick roadside was littered with Dummies’ Guides to all kinds of alphabet soup, trial and evaluation copies of new technology tools, and discarded packaging for old tools obsoleted by the new tools.
  • Cubicles throughout Infowriting Land were filled with documentation specialists, information architects, web designers, specific tool MVPs, technology gurus, content managers, transformation specialists, and certified user interface wizards — but precious few writers.
  • Hiring managers were looking, not for people with writing skills, but for folks with a minimum of x moons of experience manipulating the latest version of the latest tool (usually a version that was introduced x-1 moons ago.)

Skills? or Systems? Nah. Both.

Fortunately, InfoMama didn’t have to make a Sophie’s Choice decision between writing skills and writing systems. She simply has to retore balance to her world by promoting clean, clear writing to an appropriate position alongside content-manipulation systems. InfoMama’s stance is this:

  • Infowriting is not about making your pages “pretty” (though well laid-out page with crisp graphics and plenty of white space are good things).
  • Infowriting is not about maximizing content re-use (though appropriate re-use of content does save money and time without compromising effective communication).
  • Infowriting is not about making your pages compliant with any markup standard (although standards compliance minimizes frustration and rework and unnecessary expense).

InfoMama knows that infowriting is, first and most importantly, about the writing: communication that is accurate, clear, concise, and interesting. In a post on the STC Single-Sourcing Discussion List (requires you to join before entering), Lou Quillio delivered what InfoMama calls the First Things First manifesto:

You’re gonna call yourself a “tech writer”, you’d better be capable of lean, effective prose. First. (emphasis added)
Got some graphics chops? Good. That’s a bonus.
Got some desktop-tool chops? Well, … maybe it’s good for something.
Got some content-management chops? Bonus. Big bonus.
Got some scripting chops? Can parse source? Unh-huh.
Got a real voice, and a plan? Big bonus.
But if you can’t write well and fast and un-selfconsciously about stuff you didn’t understand two days ago, it doesn’t matter.