Technical Writing – The Overlap Between Print and Online Documentation Formats

Technical writing has used the “book” metaphor for a very long time. Basically, we technical writers create “books” made up of individual “pages,” whether they are ever printed or not.

But that metaphor has come under a lot of fire with the rise of the Internet and prevalence of online information. Both technically and semantically it started to make less sense to talk about a “book.” The new concept that serves the need of the age of globalization is the “topic” and not the “book.”

Technically, as more and more documents are distributed electronically and posted as PDF files all over the Internet, the limitations of the “book” format became obvious.

The book metaphor is built on “pages” which do not fit comfortably into the computer screens. PDF pages usually have vertical (Portrait) orientation, whereas the computer screens usually have a horizontal (Landscape) orientation. This causes the bottom half of most PDF pages becoming invisible when viewed online. Users started to scroll up and down to read the pages, especially for multi-column layouts. That’s why a technical writer should be aware of this “bleed,” this overlap between the two media and design his or her documents in a way that would be easy to read both when printed and when viewed on a computer screen.

And from a semantic point of view the old “book” metaphor is brought under pressure as well since the modern user does not have the time to “read a book.” He or she just wants to access the information when needed, and right away. Most of the time the user is looking for information on a specific “topic.” That’s why there is a strong preference to click and directly go to a specific topic rather than download a hundred page PDF “book” and then search for that specific topic inside the book. That’s why topic-based writing is fast becoming a fundamental principle of “single-sourcing,” which we have covered in another article. The technical writers of the future will no doubt be at home with such short topic-based writing and single-screen information layouts.

Simply put, the technical communicator of the future will create and design information with the awareness that the separation between the “print” and “online” formats is a thing of the past since the users of the global age switch back and forth between those formats frequently, without thinking twice.

Pungky Dwiasmoro Hiswardhani

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