I’ve created documents and templates in Microsoft® Word® (Word) and Adobe® FrameMaker® (FM). In one case, a supervisor asked me to build an FM template that matched the department’s Word templates in every detail. I completed that work in a few business hours. My next challenge was to support multiple versions of the same documents. I could easily handle that requirement with conditional text in FM, but what about Word?
I maintained five manuals ranging from 200 to 500 pages. I also created and maintained dozens of installation sheets. In addition to our own company, we had four original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) selling our product. The system I documented had over 50 different pieces of equipment associated with it, and each OEM wanted to rename them with their own model numbers.
Added to this complexity was the need to finish each version of each manual and take all of them through agency approval at the same time. Our approval process could easily last for years; therefore, it was essential to build the greatest amount of efficiency into the process as possible. It may seem unfortunate, but we could not use FM. We had to use Word. I knew FM well by this time, but I was the only one in my department with that knowledge and a license. My boss wanted to expand FM use, but he was turned down for additional funding.
Nevertheless, we still had to get the job done. Most technical communicators have watched this scenario unfold throughout their careers. It’s unpleasant, but it’s precisely at this point where our creativity has a chance to reveal itself.
I found one answer in mail merge with its conditional If-Then-Else fields. Mail merge enabled me to match the conditional text functionality in FM. I could drop large chunks of text for one OEM or add completely different language for another. By pressing one button I could automatically and reliably change passages of text and model names across an entire manual when the OEM changed.
I wanted to see if I could do the same thing with images. Eventually, I found several ways to change images by experimenting with the drawing tools in Word, using the IncludeText feature and the Building Blocks Organizer. I also discovered custom document properties, which enabled me to insert various passages of repeated text wherever I needed them.
Note: At first, I found that IncludeText was volatile, but I experimented and found a way to overcome that issue. I’ll discuss my solution in a separate entry.
Using Microsoft Word is not a limitation. The greatest leverage and value you can bring to any job is the flexibility to build a sound documentation practice on a strong theoretical foundation. Using the right tool for the right job is important enough, but it’s nowhere near as important as meeting client needs in a way that builds on previous investments and existing knowledge. Finally, the most powerful tool you can acquire is one you already possess: your imagination.