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Write the Docs EU, or Kay goes to a tech writing conference

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Photo from Write the Docs on Flickr

So here’s some­thing dif­fer­ent: I went to a tech­ni­cal writ­ing conference.

To be truth­ful, I didn’t set out to go to a tech­ni­cal writ­ing con­fer­ence: a tech­ni­cal writer friend was going, it was in Budapest where I’d never been, it was the week before the Road­burn fes­ti­val (to which I had tick­ets) and by a strange coin­ci­dence flights from Budapest to Eind­hoven were quite a bar­gain com­pared to flights from Berlin. At first I was just going along to Budapest; I fig­ured I’d spend my morn­ings work­ing, my after­noons wan­der­ing around the city tak­ing pho­tographs and the evenings with my friend (i.e. eat­ing goulash and drink­ing Hun­gar­ian wine in ruin pubs).

Then, I found out about the “friends and fam­ily” ticket, which was a dis­count offer extended to atten­dees to entice their friends and col­leagues to come along, and €40 for two days sud­denly seemed like a good deal: I could use the con­fer­ence wifi, drink the con­fer­ence cof­fee, meet some peo­ple and maybe learn some stuff. And go to the after­par­ties. Which, let’s face it, is kinda what I usu­ally do at con­fer­ences anyway.

It turned out to be an excel­lent deal. Write The Docs EU, run­ning for the first time in Europe, was inter­est­ing — I learned a lot of new stuff, met some fan­tas­tic new peo­ple, and in addi­tion to the free cof­fee and wifi I availed myself of break­fast, out­stand­ing buf­fet lunch and also quite a num­ber of free drinks. Plus GitHub spon­sored drinks on the sec­ond night at a local pub (called, er, Lokal) with a pri­vate room and an open bar. Those crazy GitHub peeps, hey?

So, the con­tent. Some were very spe­cific and tech­ni­cal, and as such not really very use­ful to me, not being a tech­ni­cal writer myself. Oth­ers had more gen­eral appli­ca­tion and I got a lot out of them. The full list of pre­sen­ta­tions (many with slides) is here but some of the ones I par­tic­u­larly enjoyed are:

  • Kelly O’Brien — Engage or Die: Four Tech­niques for Writ­ing Indis­pens­able Docs This was the open­ing ses­sion and prob­a­bly my favourite of the entire con­fer­ence — Kelly’s slides were the per­fect exam­ple for the topic: inter­est­ing, funny, well struc­tured and to the point (not a coin­ci­dence I’m sure).
  • Shwe­tank Dixit — Chal­lenges and approaches taken with the Opera Exten­sion Docs This pre­sen­ta­tion was a refresh­ingly hon­est look at what one per­son can do with a huge task and lim­ited resources. Kudos to Shwetank.
  • Idan Gazit — Advanced Web Typog­ra­phy This was prob­a­bly the least documentation-related topic of the con­fer­ence and also the one most rel­e­vant to me. Idan is a real char­ac­ter, a very inter­est­ing speaker with some good insights into the topic and who are we kid­ding? I could lis­ten to peo­ple talk­ing about typog­ra­phy all day.
  • Eliz­a­beth Ure­llo — Blog­ging as Non-Traditional Sup­port Doc­u­men­ta­tion As a “hap­pi­ness engi­neer” at Automat­tic — so obvi­ously a com­pany that knows how to do blog­ging right — Eliz­a­beth had some inter­est­ing insights into using the more infor­mal medium of the blog (includ­ing com­ments) for work­shop­ping solu­tions to com­mon sup­port issues that may even­tu­ally end up being con­verted to “offi­cial” documentation.
  • Jes­sica Rose — Tone in Doc­u­men­ta­tion “Tone” was one of the recur­ring themes of the con­fer­ence and this pre­sen­ta­tion was rel­e­vant to all areas of writ­ing, not just documentation.
  • David Hooker — What I have taught devel­op­ers about writ­ing David — who works for Prezi, the venue own­ers, and mak­ers of pretty flashy pre­sen­ta­tion soft­ware — started out by insult­ing every­one present then grad­u­ally won us back over by explain­ing how he’d come to appre­ci­ate geeks and giv­ing us plenty of oppor­tu­ni­ties to laugh at ourselves.
  • Swizec Teller — What I learned writ­ing a lousy tech book A great choice for a final pre­sen­ta­tion — Swizec had every­one simul­ta­ne­ously laugh­ing, com­mis­er­at­ing and applaud­ing with his epic tale of blood, sweat, tears and rewrites. This ses­sion also fea­tured the sin­gle best quote of the entire con­fer­ence: “Edi­tors are hor­ri­ble people”.

Did I have any gripes? Per­haps it’s my extended age, but while the Prezi venue looked very funky, sit­ting on blocks for hours at a time was not so much fun, espe­cially when bal­anc­ing a lap­top for tak­ing notes/playing 2048/keeping an eye on Twit­ter. I noticed quite a few peo­ple get­ting up in the cof­fee breaks, stretch­ing and creak­ing and mak­ing old-person noises, and my guess is that chairs or even bet­ter, tables and chairs would have been a more com­fort­able arrange­ment for a lot of people.

But that’s not to detract from what was a very good expe­ri­ence over­all: a lot of great mate­r­ial, sup­ple­mented with a fun Twit­ter back-channel and a ton of very inter­est­ing peo­ple from all over the world. A big thank you to Eric, Troy and the other organ­is­ers for doing a great job.