Technical Writing and the Macintosh

The Invisible Writer

Technical writing is one of those activities that historians of technology have almost completely ignored. In a period in which "the literary turn" has raised the interest level in all kinds of textual production, this lacuna is striking. In accounts of the development of the Macintosh, technical writers figure hardly at all. The conventional wisdom is that documentation had no significant effect on the computer itself. Like some other important but invisible activities-- designing the mouse, manufacturing computers-- technical writing just happens.

But looking at documentation practices in Apple, and the role that technical writers played on the Macintosh project, reveals than the conventional wisdom is wrong. The technical documentation for the Macintosh was written as the system software was being written: consequently, the documentation and development processes were more tightly connected than in most projects, where (as Chris Espinosa put it) documentation is done "after the fact.. almost [as] an effort in investigative journalism." Further, the success of the Macintosh as a platform depended in no small part on lining up companies and developers to write for the system; to do that, they needed to understand how it worked. Inside Macintosh made that possible.


Apple Computer was rightly famous for the quality of its manuals. In fact, it marked the publication of Jef Raskin's Apple II Basic Programming Manual with a press release-- at a time when the company appears to have issued only a handful of press releases a year. Raskin joined Apple as its publications manager in 1977, and also became the head of quality assurance. The two roles overlapped: for Raskin, the ease with which one could write clearly about a piece of software was a measure of how easy it was to use. Documentation and development, if not parallel activities at Apple under Raskin, appear to have overlapped more than at other companies.

The connection between development and documentation was just as pronounced in the early phase of the Macintosh project, when it was under Raskin's direction. The Book of Macintosh, a collection of essays, specifications, and speculations that eventually ran to over 400 pages, explained both the computer's inner workings and its underlying philosophy. After Steve Jobs took over the project, responsibility for documentation passed to Chris Espinosa, who hired a number of writers to work with the rapidly-growing group of software developers. Even in this more formal arrangement, however, documentation and development still fed off each other.

Suggested Path Through the Documents

All the primary documents related to technical writing are listed on a separate page. The best place to begin is with the Interview with Chris Espinosa. Espinosa was manager of documentation for the Macintosh; before the Macintosh, he worked on the Apple II manual, His account of organizing the Macintosh's documentation effort, and the contributions of technical writers to the project, is invaluable.

Two of the writers who worked on different aspects of Macintosh documentation offer their recollections of the project. Caroline Rose, the editor of Inside Macintosh, worked closely with several programmers. She describes that experience in an interview. The Interview with Sandy Miranda provides information on the "Test Drive a Macintosh" program-- which she scripted-- as well background material about technical writing at Apple and Silicon Valley generally.

Jef Raskin was head of publications at Apple before becoming leader of the Macintosh project. In his interview, he offers some interesting reflections on the relationship between technical writing and software development, and the origins of The Book of Macintosh.

David Casseres, Beyond Word Processing: The Online Text System. Apple technical writer David Casseres made the case for the development of a text editing system like that created by Douglas Engelbart's ARC group in the 1960s. Part of The Book of Macintosh, compiled by Jef Raskin.

The work of publishing user group newsletters is not technical writing in the strict sense, but newsletters could be a major source of information about new products, technical problems and solutions, and Macintosh secrets. The Interview with Reese Jones. includes a discussion of how the audio magazine The Absolute Sound influenced the style of the BMUG Newsletter.

Document created on 14 July 2000;