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

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.

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