Friday, June 06, 2014

Technical Writing Before Computers

I met my friend, Joe, in 2003 when I took a job at Raytheon in San Diego to create technical procedures for a new radar system. Joe was assigned to a different system and we occasionally used the same source data, so one or the other of us was in each other's cube borrowing a drawing or a document. You get to know people that way, and that's how I got to know Joe. 

I could tell he was an "older guy," but he took very good care of himself, so there was no guessing his age. He floored me when he said he was 63. I sat down in his guest chair and asked him about his career. He mentioned something about technical writers using yellow legal pads and handing off their work to the typing pool. I thought he was kidding. 

Ten years and several layoffs and job changes between us, we ended up at the same company again but on different programs. This was about the same time I decided to research technical writing before computers. I wanted to see how serious he was about those legal size yellow writing pads, so I invited him to lunch. 

The environment he described was something straight out of Mad Men. When Joe started technical writing in the 1960s, only men were engineers and tech writers. The minimum requirement for a tech writer back then was either a mechanical or electrical engineering bachelor's degree. Women worked in the typing pool. Period. This trend lasted through the 1970s. 

The typing pool consisted of about 25 to 30 "girls" who supported 60 to 70 technical writers. The miniskirt fashions of the time caused management to install "modesty boards" in front of the typists' desks to make it more difficult to look up their skirts. Joe unapologetically said that he always waited for the cutest, dumbest blonde to be free so he could hand off his work to her. And, he purposely wrote a little sloppy in places so she would have a reason to visit with him and ask him questions. When she politely asked what else she could do for him, he would reply, "How about lunch today?" You get the picture. 
Writers had to check out their source engineering drawings from the Check Out Clerk. Requesting a new drawing entailed filling out a form in triplicate and waiting for the clerk to create a printed copy from the original, master drawing. You couldn't stand around and wait; sometimes it took a week to get your source data depending on the priority of your job, where you were in the request queue, and whether the clerk liked you. 

Printed drawings were places in post office sorting-style pukas. The tech writers had to look through several, usually, until they found theirs, and they had to pray that any engineering change documents to the drawing were included. If not, you had to visit the Clerk again. 

The tech writers studied the engineering data and consulted with the engineers for clarification, just like we do today, and they took notes by hand. Then, they wrote out the procedures and descriptive information by hand on legal-size, yellow writing pads. Depending on the style guide requirements for mark-up, they underlined words to be italiced and double-underlined for bold. They had various symbols for indent and other formatting requirements. 

After the typist interpreted it all and created typewritten pages, the packet was given to the editor for his scrutiny, and so the publishing process began. I can only fathom the multitude of paper it must have taken to produce the technical tomes. 

It wasn't until the late 1970s that companies started to adopt typesetting machines. The writers themselves were expected to use these monsters, and many, like Joe, used them with reluctance. They saw it as a waste of time. They could be researching and writing instead of fiddling with these cumbersome contraptions! There were only a few machines to go around, which added to the frustration. But, management liked the cost savings of significantly reducing the typing pool. Even then, the bottom line was king. 

Joe preferred the days of yellow legal pads when he was able to focus in research and writing and nothing else. In a way, I envy him. How great would it be to not have to worry about correctly tagging your content in XML? Just hand off a Word document to someone else for formatting and making it pretty and get back into the drawings. But, that would be one more 401k and medical benefits package the company would need to pay for.