Notes are not documentation

Since I speak frequently at SQL Saturday, much of my audience is usually made up of data professionals. So whenever I do my presentation about technical writing or talking to non-technical people, I always ask the following question: do you understand the difference between data and information?

For those of you who don’t understand what I’m saying, let me elaborate. The terms data and information are not, I repeat, not interchangeable. Data refers to the collection of statistics, facts, and figures that are gathered through observation, research, and log captures. Information, on the other hand, is an interpretation of that data. Its creation involves analyzing the data, interpreting it, drawing conclusions from it, and presenting it in a way that can be understood by others. To put it another way, data refers to the raw materials, while information is the “finished” product.

(We could also get into a discussion that talks about how bias is introduced when data is analyzed and interpreted by humans, all of whom have some measure of preconceived bias, no matter how small, about the data they’re researching, but it goes beyond the scope of this article, and I won’t get into that now. That is another topic for another day.)

Once I establish that distinction, that’s when I go into what I believe is an important point about written communication: there is a difference between notes and documentation.

I believe this distinction is critical, and is often overlooked by people trying to write documentation. (One of the biggest things that disparaged one of my previous employers was that they did not understand — or worse, did not care about — that difference.) How many times have you been frustrated whenever you’ve asked for documentation about something, and the person you asked pointed you to something like a loose collection of seemingly-meaningless and disorganized scribbled notes that are kept in a three-ring binder? (Okay, maybe they’re kept digitally these days, not in a binder, but humor me, here.)

Granted, notes are important. They are thoughts in someone’s head that are expressed in written form. They are often important concepts that are jotted down so they can be remembered later. Those notes can come in many forms. How many of the best ideas, for example, started out as notes scribbled on a cocktail napkin?

However, more often than not, notes are only meaningful to the person who wrote them. Notes are mnemonics. They are not conveying information to a wide audience. In all likelihood, most people who read notes will not understand what they mean. Only the person writing the notes (or, if they’re jotted down during a meeting, the people attending the meeting) will understand what the notes are.

Documentation, however, is an interpretation of those notes. Documentation is notes that are presented in a way so that they can be understood by a wider audience. This is what professional communicators, such as technical writers, do. They’re in the business of taking loose data, such as notes, and making it meaningful.

Let me say it again for emphasis: notes are not documentation. To go back to my data and information analogy, data is to information what notes are to documentation. Notes are the raw material, but documentation is what makes the notes meaningful.