Tag Archives: RTFM

A visit from St. Techwriter

santaApologies to Clement Moore

‘Twas the night before deadline and all through the lab
Not a snack was uneaten — not even a Nab.

The team all were frantic, like bees in a hive —
In just a few hours the site would go live.

The software was bug-free — well, maybe not quite.
But mostly, we figured, it ought to work right.

The UI was kludgy, with widgets and stuff.
But our tech guys said ship it so that was enough.

The specs had been written, then roundly ignored.
To take time to read them no one could afford.

Ready or not, out the product would roll:
Just barely good enough, that was our goal.

When down by the break room arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bench to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew, scared to death:
Gazed into the darkness and drew in my breath.

lambWhen what did my wondering eyeballs espy:
But a white Lamborghini, and that car could fly.

It circled the lot like a bat out of Hades
And landed right next to my boss’s Mercedes.

Its chrome wheels were shiny; its leather seats, red.
TECHDOCS the out-of-state license plate said.

And then when the driver hopped out from inside ‘er,
I knew I was seeing a technical writer.

His eyes they were sunglassed; his goatee was trimmed.
His cheeks they were shallow; his build it was slim.

His droll little mouth was drawn up in a smirk,
And he carried a laptop — he’d come to do work.

A cup of espresso he held to his lips
And as he strode toward me he took little sips.

When his eyes locked on mine I knew in my heart
That our shiny new product was doomed from the start.

His countenance told me — I couldn’t refuse it —
The product won’t sell if nobody can use it.

hollyThen he sat himself down by the Pepsi machine,
And took out his laptop, his bearing serene.

And wrote, like a sprinter come out of the blocks:
User guide. Help pages. API docs.

More rapid than eagles his writing tools came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:

“Now, DITA! Now, oXygen, InDesign, Flare!
Now FrameMaker, RoboHelp, even freeware!”

Then, laying his finger aside of his head,
And giving a nod, to the parking lot fled.

And I heard him exclaim ere he drove out of sight,
RTFM to all, and to all a good night.

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Rethinking RTFM

Poster: Keep Calm and RTFM

I still appreciate the humor behind RTFM. But it’s not the way I actually feel.

RTFM. Read the [bad word] manual.

As in, “I don’t know how to do this.”
“Did you look at the instructions?”
“No.”
“Well [rolling eyes], why don’t you read the….”

RTFM has been a byword among technical communicators for as long as I’ve been hanging out with them. (That’s more than 35 years, by the way.)

RTFM reinforces the idea that documentation is important, an essential part of any product.

But RTFM also betrays exasperation and insecurity. We — as a profession — might sound smug when we say it. But inside we’re thinking, Why don’t people like to read instructions? We see it as a rejection of what we do, and ultimately of us ourselves. It stings.

It’s time to rethink RTFM. Continue reading