Thirty-four years ago this week, Douglas Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was released in book form. While the version that I read was a plain old printed book, the actual Hitchhiker’s Guide—the one that Ford Prefect carried with him—was a pretty cool example of 21st-century technical documentation.
At first glance the Guide looked like a regular book. But it featured a sophisticated graphical display and had advanced search-and-retrieval capability. In other words, it probably looked and behaved a lot like a contemporary e-Book reader, except that you could download content from anywhere in the galaxy.
The writers who provided content for the Guide drew on material in a variety of formats: text, graphic, audio, and video. It’s entirely possible that some kind of XML- or DITA-like schema was invoked to organize these components and facilitate their reuse. Surely it’s no coincidence that the coding for XSL transforms so closely resembles Vogon poetry.
Alas, writers for the Guide shared one other thing in common with today’s technical communicators: their content was only as good as the subject-matter experts who provided it and the editors who reviewed it. Were it not for lazy or distracted SMEs, I have no doubt that the entry for Earth would’ve been a little longer than “Harmless.” And every technical writer can empathize with Ford Prefect when he learned that his extensive updates for the second edition had been edited down to “Mostly harmless.”
The craft of technical writing has changed a lot in 34 years. We’ve gone from printed books to online help to interactive multimedia. From typewriters to word processors to structured, topic-based authoring. From static content to dynamic, community-based content—in which members of our audience become our collaborators. In these exciting and fast-changing times, we technical writers will do well if we remember the words engraved on the cover of the original Hitchhiker’s Guide: “Don’t panic.”
Originally published on the SDI blog, 12 October 2009