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Community: Tech Writers Should Train on Open Source Projects

May 18, 2005, 23:30 (12 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Marc Perkel)

[ Thanks to Marc Perkel for this article. ]

Here's an idea that I think would work out well. Why don't we get colleges who are training tech writers together with the open source community and have them work together?

"The problem, as you know, is that a lot of open source software is great--but the documentation and user interfaces suck. That's because people are doing this work for free and the documentation and program polishing isn't as much fun as adding new features.

These writers-in-training can be assigned open source projects and work with the developers to create good documentation. It would be part of their training requirements to take the project to documentation perfection. This would not only involve writing the docs, but also working with the developers to request better screen prompts and features that make sense. Often the developers don't understand what the end user needs. And the developer never had to actually learn the software.

Additionally the student(s) could conduct software usability tests where they round up a bunch of new users and sit them down in front of computers and watch them learn the software, encouraging them to verbalize their struggles and frustrations as they work. This feedback could then be used to correct the documentation and polish the software until it gets to the point that new users say, "This is great--it just works!"

After a student takes a project to the "It just works!" stage, they are ready for the job market with the open source project as part of their resumé and a reputation already developed. These people would be mucyh more employable having real world experiences and accomplishments to show. And, they would be developing a broader skill set than just a writing class would teach. They would learn how to interact with developers and end users on a personal level and develop the real world skills needed for getting real work done in the real world.

The developers get a big boost too, in that someone else--a professional writer--will do the documentation and assist the developers in ways that they might otherwise miss. This will free the developers to develop and to be creative knowing that the grunt work is taken care of. Their software will be more accepted and more widely used because it just works, which will attract donations, other developers, and a community around their project. And good free open source software saves many hours of time that benefits everyone in the long run.

Even proprietary software vendors get a boost because they can hire these writers right out of school and they are ready to be productive from day one. This makes them more profitable because good writers who can work with developers to get the product perfected allows support staff to be cut. If the software "Just Works," then you don't need a lot of people to support it.

This is an idea where everyone wins and it makes me wonder what someone has to do to make it happen.

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