Something’s missing from the technical writer’s toolkit: regular expressions. It makes sense why tech writers haven’t embraced regular expressions. No one has really made a case for using regular expressions as a technical writer. And, if a writer has encountered regular expressions before, it’s likely they’re a little scarred from the experience.
Regular expressions are a great tool to have in your toolbelt as a technical writer. They’re not glamorous, but neither are the tasks they’re great at performing. Often as technical writers we have to do repetitive text editing tasks, like removing legacy content from our web help or making sure all our ampersands are encoded in XML files. These aren’t tasks that anyone really enjoys doing and usually we get stuck with them because they’re somewhat related to content.
These tasks are value drainers. They’re mindless and don’t allow us to demonstrate value to our organization. As writers we want to focus our efforts on user experience and producing quality content. These tasks take us away from the valuable, satisfying work that we like to think of as “what we do.”
That’s where regular expressions come in. They’re not a silver bullet by any means, but they’re pretty useful in automating a lot of these repetitive text editing tasks. Regular expressions find patterns in text and that ends up being pretty easy to do when the text is structured. Luckily for us as technical writers, most of the content we work with is structured in some way.
Because we work with structured content, our regular expressions don’t have to do as much work as what developers might be trying to do. The problems we’re solving are typically a lot simpler than the problems developers solve with regular expressions. So, unlike developers, technical writers can get a lot of value from knowing a few common regular expression patterns.
Regular expressions can save a lot of time on daily tasks and one of the big reasons to use them is efficiency. As with learning any other skill, it’ll take time for using regular expressions to be more efficient than doing it manually. Even if the tasks take the same amount of time, only one method is actively building your skillset. The payoff for using regular expressions can be pretty huge.
If you’ve got a daunting project that sounds like it’ll take weeks or months, attending the conference might be worth it just for this presentation. In the past five years, I tackled two huge projects with regular expressions, saving an estimated 4 months of effort. If you’re wondering why regular expressions, that’s why.