How Technical is a Technical Writer? (Answer: It Doesn’t Matter.)

Photo courtesy of Matt Artz on Unsplash

Indeed.com offers a handy definition and guidebook to becoming a technical writer. They define techincal writer as follows: “Technical writers develop documents, user guides and other written materials for technical products and services.”

Not sure I agree. But my disagreement comes from what they write after the definition:

  1. Earn your bachelor’s degree.
  2. Pursue a technical writer certification.
  3. Create a portfolio of samples.
  4. Build up your professional network.
  5. Develop your industry knowledge.

Umm…okay, but also wow. I am on board with #1 because hey, no matter what undergrad degree you obtain, chances are you will take at least a couple of English classes, and at least one of those will be composition-focused. So that’s fair. Next, though – pursue a technical writer certification? Let’s see here…I’ve been working in the field at progressively more senior levels for more than a decade and I do not possess such a thing. Is it perhaps advisable? Okay, yes, but…and this is a significant “but,” it is non-essential. (To be fair the reason I do not have such a cert is that I never worked for a company that would pay for it.) As for #3, a portfolio of samples? One would hope that a good interviewer will be able to ferret out whether you are a capable writer by looking at some college-level essays or asking you to write to a specific prompt. And then? Build up your professional network. Let me tell you, kids, I did this by being a professional. I did not have a network per se until I actually joined the profession of technical writers. As soon as I did that? Blammo – of course I had tons of peers and mentors to choose from. More importantly, I had not only guides in the field of writing but…you guessed it…in technology.

Which brings me to – how technical do you need to be?

I interviewed for my first role as a technical writer having zero real world tech experience. That is to say, I was hoping to work for a company that handled mainframe development. Developing for developers. I knew nothing about mainframe, including how exactly it worked. I ‘fessed up to this in my interview, but also emphasized that I am exceptionally good at self-organizing, I am not afraid to ask questions even if they may make me look foolish (they rarely did), and that I am eager to learn new skills and concepts all the time.

I got the job.

I worked in mainframe software development for quite a few years before moving on. I wouldn’t even have moved on from that company, but I was physically moving my location to a new city, and the position was not remote.

I was not technical.

I later took a position as a proposal writer in the federal government space and knew very little about the automation my company was building, but I had serious chops as a persuasive writer, so again – that is what got me the job. I am a writer, not a developer. I need to learn and understand the technology, not master it.

Now, take all of that in and understand this part – if you can amass technical skill even as a tech writer, you are worth more, and I don’t just mean in dollars. You are a valued asset because you can do things like suggest tweaks to the design, find issues with code functionality, and view the process from a product perspective, not just as end-user. If you have technical capability, you understand what goes in to the product – how the sausage is made, to put it in some vernacular.

Let’s go with that metaphor, in fact – how the sausage is made.

Imagine that you are tasked with writing technical copy, or user manuals, for someone using a new kind of Italian sausage. It’s the kind with the casing and it comes in links, and you need to write about how this can be used “in the field.” There are not installation instructions, but still you are not writing recipes. You are writing the user manual. It’s stuff like “do not remove sausage from its casing,” “cook to an internal temperature of 160,” “refrigerate after opening.” Straighforward, right? Except if you are the original writer of all of this, is it not important to understand that the casing is what holds it all together, the temperature is the safe point at which humans can consume without detrimental effects, and that refrigeration ensures longevity of the product? Of course those are good things to know. You can’t just make that stuff up, arbitrarily deciding on a temperature and whatnot.

You need to have some technical knowledge. But you do not need to know: how the pork is rendered, what farm it comes from, how the machinery operates, what credentials the personnel have who staff the factory, and so on.

In the sausage instance, you would need to be comfortable researching (or asking) abotu safe temperatures and shelf life, but you would not need to be comfortable slaughtering a pig.

Get it?

The takeaway – yes, of course get a degree. Yes, of course develop your knowledge of what you are writing about (you can do this on the job or on your own, but I suggest that job experience outweighs classroom by a long shot). Yes, of course generate some writing samples.

But know this – although you will be an asset if you can code, provide UX, and a host of other technical skills, but at the end of the day, you are a writer. You are a content generator. We all have our area(s) of expertise, and hopefully we are lifelong learners of new skills. Your work will shine brighter than your resume, and your openess will open doors.

Save the true technical knowledge for the SMEs, and learn from them. How technical you are is not tantamount to how well you write technical documentation. Become a strong communicator and all will be well.

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Let Me Ask My Analyst.

Such a phrase from the seventies, right? Am I dating myself? Maybe, but hey, I was just a kid back then. I’m all grown-up now, and gaining insights by the day.

The goal of insights are, just as they were in the seventies, when everyone was seeing the original “analysts,” better decision-making. Not much has changed.

I take that back.

A whole lot has changed. We couldn’t have imagined, (or could we?) back when computations were done by punch-cards, that we’d no longer be shrink-wrapping user manuals, but instead looking to true trends analysis to see what our users want from our writing. Now, we are in the realm of truly seeking what patterns in our content are useful and what can go by the wayside, because we know, for instance, that our users no longer need to be told to enter their credentials upon login. They get it. They are familiar with creating passwords, and the concepts that were once totally unfamiliar are now second nature.

It’s a whole new frontier.

Now we are in a new domain.

Companies ask us not to be writers, actually, but content creators, content strategists. I used to scoff at that title, because anyone could use it. There is no credentialing: a licensed content strategist is a unicorn. And yet, real industries call for those who can produce (and produce well) two types of content: structured and unstructured. Yikes!

Structured content can be found. It has a home, a place, it is text-based in the case of email and office or web-based documentation. Unstructured content may include an archive of videos, or even non-text-based things like images and diagrams. There is a huge volume of this type of content, and yet it falls still under the purview of we, the content creators.

Those of us who used to be called “technical writers” or even “document specialists” or something like that find ourselves of course wrangling much more than documentation, doing much more than writing. So the issue became: how do we know if what we are doing works? Are we impacting our audience?

That’s where analysis comes into play and matters. Really, really matters.

Why spend hour upon hour creating a snazzy video or interactive tutorial if no one will watch or, dare I say, interact?

That’s where content analytics comes in.

Analytics measures. Photo credit: Stephen Dawson.

The whole goal of analytics is for us to know who is reading, watching, learning – and then we can improve upon what we’re building based on those engagements. It does little good to create a video training series, only to discover that users don’t have an internet connection on site to watch YouTube. Similarly, it’s not helpful to write detailed documentation and diagrams for users who prefer to watch 2-3 minute video step-throughs. It’s all about knowing one thing: audience. The essential element, always.

The central theme in Agile development, after all, was learning to understand the customer, so the essential element in designing better content, sensibly, ought to be the same thing. When we hunker down and learn what the customer really wants, we develop not just better software, but better content of all types.

With metrics on our side, our companies can identify just what content has real value, what has less, and what can really be dropped altogether. Historically, academic analysis was held to notions of things like how many times a subject blinked while reading an article. (Ho-hum.) Now, though, we can measure things like click-thhroughs, downloads, pauses during video, hover-helps, and more. How very, very cool.

Multiple screens to choose from. Photo credit: Alexandru Acea on Unsplash.

Historically, content analysis was slow, time-consuming, and it was a frustrating process with limited accuracy. Now, though, we can measure the usefulness of our content almost as fast as we can produce it. Content analytics are now available in a dizzying array of fields, reflecting a vast pool of data. The level of detail is phenomenal. For example, I’ll get feedback on this post within hours, if I want. I’ll create tags and labels to give me data that lets me know if I’ve reached the audience I want, whether I should pay for marketing, whether I might consider posting on social media channels, submitting to professional organizations, editing a bit, and so on. I may do all of those things or none of them. (Full disclosure: usually none, unless one of my kind colleagues points out a grievous error. I write for my own satisfaction and to sharpen my professional chops. Just sayin’)

Believe you me, the domain of conent analysis, in all areas, will grow and grow. Striking the perfect chord between efficiency and quality is not just on the horizon, it is in the room. AI-powered writing and editing, paired with the streamline of knowing we’ve reached the proper balance of placement and need – it’s not hyperbole to say the future is here. It’s just turning to my ‘analyst’ to ask whether I’ve written my content well enough and delivered it properly.

My product teams, my business unit, and my company are all grateful. And my work shows it.

Writing From the Other Side of the Screen

What it Means to be a UX-centric Tech Writer

Image: UX Planet

I have been part of the information design and delivery field for nearly two decades now. In one form or another, I have been handling technical information, whether in software, government, or higher education for the better part of my career. It sure has changed quite a bit since I first mapped out my first website, I can attest to that.

To begin with, technical writers came along as the necessary bridge between subject matter experts and customers or consumers. In my original field of higher education (I taught at an R-1 University for quite a while), we worked on the notion that some people were suited for engineering, development, science, and so forth, and some people were suited to understand and explain it in laymen’s terms. For quite some time, passive voice and distanced-language was the norm.

A paradigm shift occurred when we all realized that technical manuals – installation guides, user documentation, and troubleshooting – were all far more palpable if we just wrote them the same way we would explain the processes themselves. Eureka! “Plain Language” was born. One of the leaders in the charge was teacher and scholar Erwin Steinberg. Steinberg championed many advances in technical and professional writing, and moved the needle considerably in conciseness and clarity. (And yes, indeed, Carnegie Mellon is both where I studied and where I taught, so to say I am an acolyte is an understatement.) Steinberg’s text, written along with William Schutte, “Communication in Business and Industry” is arguably almost as relevant today as it was when it was published more than fifty years ago.

What has changed in the years since that first technical writing undergraduate major was launched is the centricity of the way we write technical text. When technical writing fully hit its stride, not long after the personal computer and internet became a true staple of both home and work, the locus of technical writing shifted from the technical user to the everyday user.

Specializations emerged that are now necessary to our function in everyday business that were unforeseeable before. UX and Instructional designers now must envision and create personas for the users in their fields, and imagine who is on the other side, who is consuming their creations and not just how, but why.

Just as automobile designers, fashion designers, and creators of every type in every field, now those of us at keyboards in the technical realm turned to think of our end users not as savvy experts, but as new consumers with specific desires and needs that must be filled, or who would move on to companies with products that could give them what they want at breakneck speed.

In the early 1990s, a hastily written user guide could balloon into the hundreds of pages if we weren’t careful, and little thought was given to the overall design.

Now that we tend to write by working in an Agile environment, more on board with the development team from the start, and with more input in the scope, we can bring a design thinking mentality to the process. The difference between writing and end-to-end manual and wireframing a useful knowledge base website is vast – and fun!

Thinking like a strict technical writer, we might cover every detail, from turning on the machine to creating and logging in with user credentials, to an entire step-by-step process that users are now wholly familiar with.

Thinking like a UX writer, though, we can liberate ourselves from much of that clutter by recognizing that our clientele know full well how to turn on their machines, they understand what it means to log in, they don’t need words like “navigate,” “click” or “enter.” Those are all useless fluff the same way that passive voice once was. The sooner we move on, the better.

As a strict tech writer, I found that rarely did my colleagues engage in discussions with customers about how to improve or streamline their documentation. I got feedback from peers that were mortified at the thought of interacting with their users. But in a UX writing environment, it’s informative and enjoyable to gather feedback from how our users actually apply our work. Knowing what works, and what doesn’t, what is exciting and what fails, helps to create better and better documentation.

In the new formats we are applying, UX writers often have limited information bandwidth, since many of us work on apps and app messaging. A UX writer could realistically have to craft a message that uses:

  • A 30 Character Headline
  • A 45 Character Body
  • 25 Character Buttons or Tags

With these limitations, UX technical writers must be concise, thoughtful, and creative to get the job done and done well. We have to consider user-types, roles, and information delivery in microcopy without losing messaging.

This is, in part, why companies like SalesForce have turned to humor in their technical copy. There’s little room for elaborate text, so having a bit of fun with graphics or pop-ups along the way eases the tension. Take, for example, the cute little bear they use on their learning platform. Not exactly a serious guy.

If you’re interested in upskilling a bit when it comes to Microcopy, a skill that is fairly essential in a technical UX sense, Udemy has an excellent short course. Surely other providers will follow, but so far this is my preferred resource. (Note: I get no reward, it’s just that I have found Udemy to provide good content in this area thus far. Please leave a comment if you have found other useful tools.)

Any of us who fancy ourselves “Content Strategists,” “Content Designers,” or just user advocates when it comes to text and information delivery will be coming up short if we fail to consider UX a vital part of what we do.

Long gone are the days when we must write a soup-to-nuts technical manual. Gone are the users who do not understand how to log in, how to set up credentials, how to read a page, navigate through menus, and so on. Solid research tells us that toddlers are capable users of iPads and cell phone screens. Today’s teens have no notion of what a rotary dial phone is or could be used for, and little idea of the purpose of a cassette tape, but are fully versed in the multitude of Snapchat filters and can adapt to a new iOS software update with no information in under 24 hours.

That, my friends, is our audience. A thousand-page manual is useless, but a thoughtful troubleshooting guide is golden.

Think about who is on the other side of the screen, what troubles they may encounter, and solve them. IF the interface is well-done, the documentation can (and should) be minimal. The help should be robust, and the instructions few. Provide a backup plan for pain points, and explanations for tricky areas, remembering that the tricky areas spotlight poor design. If we write as UX advocates, we will never be out of work, because our designers will help us design better, and there will always be more users for our greater creativity.

Getting SMART in 2022

Photo by Marcus Winkler on Unsplash

It’s that time of year. A fresh, new start. New Year’s resolutions have been made (and some have already been broken), a crisp new calendar is on our desks, waiting for jotted notes and creative meetings.

It’s the time of year for setting goals. Businesses set their goals for the year, what their bottom line should look like, how to inch out ahead (or sprint, perhaps) of their competition. Things feel new, even as it is the dead of winter here in the US, where I sit to write this.

Many of us are asked to think, and think deeply, about what we hope to do with the next twelve months, even as we reminisce about the months we’ve just left behind.

2021 was not an easy year for many of us, finding our way through many changes – in our work environments, our work styles, our social gatherings and tolerances – much is indeed different. But rather than waxing too poetic, it’s time to get down to brass tacks.

We as technical writers have to set goals for ourselves that outpace those of our developers, our scientists, our teams. There’s more to us than just batting cleanup for the tech teams. We know that. So how do we set goals when so much of what we do depends, wholly, on the work of others?

We do it by relying on the business-tested model of SMART goal setting. Many of us are familiar, but for those who are not, I will briefly elaborate.

SMART goals are thus:

Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.

I daresay that the two most important words in that acronym, at least as far as I am concerned, are Achievable and Time-Bound. As a writer, I know how to be specific, and relevancy is the home base of technical writers. I truly want to focus in on Achievable first.

I talk, from time to time, about law school. Indeed, even at my age (not terrifically young), I’d like to go to law school. I cannot, though, set “Get a law degree” as a SMART goal for 2022. It simply takes too long, and it isn’t achievable. It is something I can achieve in a few years, if I ever get started, sure, but not before I turn the calendar to 2023. So instead, if I want to be serious about it, my goal should be: “Study for and enroll in the LSAT by July, 2022.” That is a specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound goal.

How so?

I stated very clearly what it is – study and enroll. (Okay, I suppose that is two goals rolled into one, but they do go hand-in-hand.) I know how to measure it – my enrollment will be provable with a receipt that I’ve paid for and scheduled the test. It is achievable – there’s no reason I can’t prepare in 6 months, realistically. It is relevant – I need the LSAT in order to reach my larger goal, and it is relevant to my career in that it is continued learning. And it certainly is time-bound, given that my deadline is July.

I probably will not take the LSAT this summer. Or maybe I will. We’ll see.

As a professional technical writer, I can hone in more specifically.

My company is adopting a new technology to assist users by adding in-line help to our customer-facing text. It offers targeted help messages, and on-demand walk-throughs. Not everyone on the technical writing is a superuser of this software, but I think becoming one of the experts would be a great thing for me. So… I’d write a SMART goal something like this:

Support technical content team adoption and understanding of customer experience software by attending two webinars and presenting learning to the team by Q3.

Here’s another:

Implement a team adoption and use plan for new customer experience software by becoming a lead learner/power user of the tool and updating the technical content strategy team monthly in Q3 and Q4 at lunch and learn or content drop-in meetings.

Both of these demonstrate ways that a technical writer can work outside the general product domain, but still provide measurable value, and therefore important goals, as a writer.

What if your primary direction, though, is actually product improvement? Well, then, SMART goals are even smoother to set. Think about the specific thing about your product or service that you think needs more clarity. (Let’s say, a migration guide.) Then determine the part(s) that you can improve most effectively right away. (This part is achievable.) Recognize how you will break it into component parts. (How will you measure your progress?) List why it is meaningful to your team. (Relevancy is all over this part.) And last, set a finish date or intended submission. (This is how you make it time-bound.) Here’s an example for that:

My goal is to revise Sections 1-3 of the User Migration Guide to minimize sentence length and remove broken URLs to improve user experience and decrease page load time. By the end of Q2, I should have the first revision ready for review by SMEs and by the end of Q3, a final version ready to release.

This kind of straightforward documentation thinking is how verbose, “clunky” documentation is streamlined and improved every day. Just bringing it up in a meeting with your manager or team can help to spur conversations about ongoing ways to improve documentation that might otherwise be considered final, and not touched again until the next release boundary. With today’s tools and more consistent documentation updates, users really appreciate the tweaks that we can make, like omitting needless words, and broken link cleanup!

When you think about what you want to do in 2022, don’t limit yourself to a specific area of work. Think about whether you want to learn a new skill (Programming in Python), or add another area of product knowledge to your growing arsenal (check out the latest in APIs or integrations), and see where that leads you. And absolutely remember to toss in a personal goal or two (or three). As for me – Law School is not out of the question, but becoming a yoga instructor is definitely on the goals list.

And to that – Namaste.

Next Gen Writing: Sealed With a KISS

I often hammer away at this thought, but coming to the close of 2021 and heading into another year of technical writing, closing out the first year of a new decade, it seems like it’s time to revisit.

The KISS approach has worked in many other areas of life – Keep It Simple, Stupid.

It’s a bit like the slogan Bill Clinton used to keep in mind: It’s Always the Economy, Stupid. Not that any of us are stupid – quite the opposite, in fact. Many of us are so smart that we naturally assume that those reading our documentation are equally bright. While that may be the case, often our consumers are bright and talented in other areas. Alas.

In technical writing, a few factors drive change and demand a better strategy. We, as writers, call for more user-friendly tools in our writing. Along came Confluence and SharePoint, along came markup, we got to use DITA.

Our managers expected measurably consistent outcomes and cost control in the content we produced. End-users required more user-friendly content. The evolution continues.

Each of these demands is the consequence of expecting easy-to-use methods and tools. Technical writing, the product, is a tool for everyone. What used to be in the rare air is now at everyone’s fingertips in a highly mechanized world. We used to refer to a revolutionary “plain language” style of writing, and now it is merely dubbed “Simplified Technical English,” the demand for which keeps growing.

There is even a dictionary of Simplified Technical English, and it comes with its own acronym, STE, so it looks as if the trend is here to stay. This way of writing improves clarity and quality, but along with those improvements come some difficulties. Any time there is a standard, there are rules. Can we commit those rules to memory as we have grammar and our beloved Strunk & White? Likely, no.

Instead of rote memorization, we look to tools that incorporate STE for us – again, back to those easy-to -use methods to help us out. We want to lessen the cognitive burden, freeing up more so that we can understand the technologies about which we write. Microsoft helps every time it incorporates a spell- or grammar-check into Word, and Grammarly or Acrolinx are to our benefit, to be sure. All of us in the writing game have a love/hate relationship with authoring tools designed by developers, but until we hybridize our own talents, here we remain.

It is key to remember that a great deal of our output is targeted at an international reader. Adopting STE, or Plain Language, is truly beneficial when we localize content. While we should stay far, far away from idiom, trending toward casual writing is in our favor. Using STE as a guide, and truly standardizing our technical writing across all documentation in a given organization is the single best way to ensure that our technical content is to-notch all the way around.

It may seem as though I am beating the proverbial dead horse in this writing, except that end-of-year is precisely when companies are looking to evaluate the cost, quantity, and quality of content produced. Measuring will help improve overall performance and delivery, and will help create harmony among writers and consistency between texts. Why does that matter overall? Because the team that can write with one voice, and that voice is Plain Language, STE, will project to the end user that the company, and its products, are synchronized in performance and quality. And that, my friends, is the penultimate achievement of any writing team.

Best of luck at year-end, and on into 2022 we go.

How Biased Are Your Release Notes?

Your Own Thinking Can Make a Big Difference

I should probably start with a primer on Cognitive Bias before accusing anyone of allowing such biases to impact their release-note writing. That’s only fair.

Photo courtesy of Ryan Hafey on Unsplash.

In a nutshell, Cognitive Biases are those thinking patterns that result from the quick mental errors we make when relying on our own brains’ memories to make decisions. These biases arise when our brains try to simplify our very complex worlds. There are a few types of cognitive bias, too, not just one. There’s Self-serving biasConfirmation biasanchoring biashindsight bias, inattentional bias, and a handful more. It gets pretty complex in our brains, and we’re just trying to sort things out.

These biases are unconscious, meaning we don’t intend to apply them, and yet we do. The good news is, we can take steps to learn new ways of thinking, so as not to mess things up too badly with all of this brain bias. Whew, right?

Now that we’ve established a basic taxonomy, let’s dive in to how cognitive bias may (or may not) be creeping in to things like your technical writing. It’s not just in your release notes; that was just clickbait. But sure, bias can permeate your release notes and nearly any other part of your documentation. (Probably not code snippets, but I won’t split hairs.)

Writers and designers must recognize their own biases so that they can leave them behind when planning. Acknowledging sets of biases helps to shelve the impulse to draft documentation that is shaped by what they already know, assets they bring to the table, or assumptions they make about experience levels.

Let’s start with Self-serving bias. How might this little bug creep its way in to your otherwise beautiful and purposeful prose?

This bias is essentially when we attribute success to our own skills, but failures to outside factors. In our writing, this can appear when we imply that by default, software malfunctions are based in user error. Rather than allowing for a host of other factors, often our writing recommends checklist items that are user-centric rather than system-focused. While it’s true that there are countless ways that users can mess up our well-designed interfaces, there are likewise plenty of points of failure in our programs. Time to ‘fess up.

Confirmation bias can be just as damaging, wherein as writers we craft and process information that merely reinforces what we already believe to be true. While this approach is largely unintended, it often ignores inconsistency in our own writing. We tend to read and review our own documentation as though it is error-free, both from a process perspective and a grammatical-syntactical one. That’s just illogical. And yet, we persist. The need for collaborative peer-review is huge, as even the very best, most detail-oriented writers will make a typo that remains uncaught by grammar software. Humans are the only substitute, and always will be.

We write anchoring bias into our documentation all too often. This bias causes us, frail humans that we are, to rely mostly on the first information we are given, despite follow-up clarification. If we read first that a release was created by a team of ten, but then later learn that it is being developed by a team of seven, we are impressed by the team of seven because they are doing exceptional work. Now, it may be the case that when the ten-member team was working on it, three of them had very little to do. Yet, we anchor our thinking in the number ten, and set our expectations accordingly.

The notion that we “knew it all along” is the primary component of hindsight bias. We didn’t actually know anything, but somehow, we had a hunch, and if the hunch works out, then we confirm the heck out of it and say we saw it coming.

This can happen all too often when we revise our technical writing, jumping to an outcome we “saw coming,” which causes us to edit, overlook, or wipe out steps on the path to getting there. We sometimes become so familiar with the peccadilloes of some processes that we only selectively choose what information to include, and that’s a problem.

Inattentional bias is also known as inattentional “blindness,” and it’s a real doozy when it comes to technical writing, believe it or not. It is the basic failure to notice something that is otherwise fully visible, because you’re too focused on the task at hand. Sound familiar? Indeed. Our writing can get all sorts of messed up when we write a process document, say an installation guide, and don’t pause to note things that can go wrong, exceptions to the rule, and any number of tiny things that can (and indeed might) occur along the way. What to do when an error message pops up? What if login credentials are missing? System timeout? Sure, there are plenty of opportunities for us to drop these into our doc, and many times we do, but I saved this for last because – this will not surprise anyone who knows me – in order to overcome this particular bias, all you need do is become best buddies with your QA person. Legit. I recommend kicking the proverbial tires of your software alongside your QA buddy to see how often you get a “flag on the play.” That will grab you by the lapels and wake you up from the inattention, for real.

Your users will thank you if you learn, acknowledge, and overcome these biases when you write. Is it easy? Not really. Is it necessary? I’d say so. As my Carnegie Mellon mentor told me more than once, and I’ve lived by these words for my whole career: “Nothing is impossible; it just takes time.”

Take time with your writing, and you’ll soon be bias-free.

Are You a User Advocate? You Should Be.

Technical writers wear a lot of hats. That almost goes without saying. And yet, I said it. We are called upon to have “jack of all trades” qualities that stretch into the domains of information design, quality assurance and testing, marketing, and more. There are splashes of business analysis (oftentimes more than splashes), and creativity, lightweight programming, and definitely time management planning.

It takes a natural curiosity and desire to learn to be a successful tech writer, and anyone without significant attention to the details that matter won’t get far. Getting bogged down in minutiae and useless side-work won’t do you any good, but the meat and potatoes – the grammar and syntax, the user understanding – that is where the rubber meets the road.

This is why I call out the question. Are you a user advocate? If you don’t approach all your technical writing as a pathway to advocate for your reader, you are likely missing a great opportunity.

Start with Help Content. Everything from software applications to mobile phone instructions beg for a rich help content guide for users. Without a doubt, users come to the Help when they have a pain point. They are either brand-new, looking to get up and running, or they have hit a snag, and they want to get back at it. There’s no time to waste, so getting the Help right is crucial.

The only way to draft an exceptional Help Content section is to think like your reader, and advocate for her. “What would annoy me most? How can I fix that? What would make me happy? What is the simplest path forward?” When you answer these questions, you write good (even great) Help.

Process Modeling is another area where advocating for your users is what puts you over the top. Remember that there are users out there who thrive on the IKEA diagram style of directions for process, just a simple picture show-and-tell, but there are also those of us who totally cannot follow those drawings and are utterly lost from page one. To advocate for both sets of learning styles, a good tech writer will layer-in a smattering of both, covering the bases visually and linguistically with a seamless pairing.

If conveying information to users in a way that meets their needs means adding flow charts or tables, then model that process from end-to-end and put yourself in your user’s shoes. It works every time.

Rinse and Reuse is a motto I’ve lived by as a user advocate. Many writers and managers call this “single sourcing” but that is just a fancier way to say, “if you wrote it well the first time, don’t write it again.” Walk yourself through the user’s journey, and if there is another place to use your elegantly written prose, do that. Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, it breeds comfort. A user feels heard and recognized when he sees the same comforting words again. He feels knowledgeable. Wise. Learned. So, rinse off your documentation, excerpt it, use it again. Either link back to the original or include a whole page. It’s comfy.

Design like a trainer. User advocacy in technical writing means, in large part, thinking like a teacher. We never want a reader to feel like we are being condescending of course, but we do want to be on the journey with him, teaching him as we go. Incorporating good text design, like a lesson plan, is absolute user advocacy. Good teachers seek to elevate their students to a new level of accomplishment, and good tech writers should seek the same outcome for their readers. Have you noticed how much friendlier installation and process documentation has become? There’s a reason for that. Just as teachers no longer scold kids with a ruler to the hand, tech writers have softened their approach as well. It’s about elevating the experience, not just imparting the information.

Do these fit well and match my outfit?

By and large, if you put yourself in your reader’s shoes and ask yourself, “Do these fit well and match my outfit?” then you have begun the advocacy path to technical writing. More simply put, write like your reader, and speak up for her. You’ll improve your product, your outcome, and you will, at the end of the day, be a much-improved technical writer.

Compelling and Complete: How to Write Smart API Documentation

Photo by Firmbee.com on Unsplash

Connected web services are the meat and potatoes of the application world today, and providers have to work hard to ensure use and adoption.

Developers are looking for APIs that are easy-to-learn and that perform as they expect them to. Well-written documentation do everything from educating users to attracting developers to start new projects with what you offer. But how do you accomplish that well-written documentation? It’s not as simple as a user manual used to be, but not as complex as designing a whole new website, either.

Technical writers and content strategists who understand the purpose and goal of excellent API documentation are few and far between (but growing!) so here are a few suggestions to ensure that the API doc you write is best-in-class.

Tell the story.

Tech doc gets a bad rap for being dry and merely focused on the functional. When you’re working to drive adoption of an API, it’s key to start with the story. Consider how adopters and users plan to interact with your software, what their goals are – also what your goals are for them, and how you want them to approach the tools.

A prime example of some pretty amazing API doc (according to developers who say so) is Twilio.

Twilio landing page

Just look at that thing of beauty. A Confluence-based setup, this doc offers the story right up front. What does it do? “Power its platform for communications.” Bingo. Then, for new users, “What is a REST API, anyway?” Super smart. This approach leaves very little to chance. And by using Confluence as the basis, that handy-dandy left nav is right there, just waiting to be accessed.

Your story doesn’t do much, though, unless you:

Offer a clear start.

Twilio gets this right again. See the first selection after “What is a REST API, anyway?” Right there.

Twilio API Documentation

Twilio offers a base-level explanation, followed by the opportunity to jump right in. Offering code snips, links to a trial account – it’s all right there, easy to spot for new adopters, potential clients, and even users who have been there before by offering the “Twilio Console.” It is so seamlessly integrated that it feels like you are already a client!

Design the architecture for humans.

Here’s where to avoid mechanical, dry, boring documentation. It’s reasonable to expect that lots of folks will interact with your product primarily at the documentation level. Why bore them here?

Twitter’s API doc nails this and then some.

Twitter API documentation

No one who happens upon this page will feel as though they are greeted with robotic, poorly-planned text. This is written for human consumers with real application goals. “Measure Tweet performance: Build a simple tool…” Naturally, everyone will be enticed by the simplicity. And offering a tutorial? Perfect. This is where developers can come to learn what they need and avoid fluff and jargon.

Don’t be anything less than all-inclusive.

It’s flummoxing to arrive at what you hope to be comprehensive documentation only to find that it isn’t! Document everything, document it thoroughly, and document it well. Look, if someone doesn’t need it, they won’t read the extra, but if it’s missing? That’s just deadly.

Look at how smoothly GitHub handles this:

GitHub API documentation sample

Again, a Confluence-based (or inspired, at least) instance, GitHub organizes everything but the kitchen sink in the list of guides in the navigation panel. All of a user’s questions are answered, or referenced, in that panel. Quick start guides? Check. Building / installation? Check. Each of those navigation titles heads to a page with more information, labeled and cross-tabbed. It’s dream doc.

Highlight learning opportunities.

Never miss a chance to teach. Never. The more your users know and understand, the better you are and the fewer help requests you’ll field. Back to Twilio for an excellent sample:

Twilio API documentation

Products: API docs, quickstarts, and tutorials. All right there in the left nav, with a nicely-organized set of tools to learn. Sweet. It would be virtually impossible for someone to NOT find what they need to learn here. Chances are good that by offering both Quick Start guides and tutorials, all that a developer needs to ramp up is right there for the taking.

And finally, perhaps the most important of all:

Update everything, all the time.

Keeping doc up-to-date is a challenge, I know. Resources are stretched thin, writers work on multiple platforms and products. It’s the same old story. But here’s the thing: if your doc is out of date, then the perception is that your product is as well. The literal only way to ensure adoption and use is to stay on top of the docs. Even if you are sure that users are only reading 1/3 of them, it’s still imperative to head back in and troubleshoot, revise, and update consistently.

If you want people to adopt, you must update.

(I think I’ll use that as my next motto!)

Happy API Writing, fellow tech writers. Do it well, and you’ll rarely be thanked. But do it poorly, and you will suffer great pain.

I wish you well on your API journey. It’s sure to take you far.

Everyday Words: Keep It Simple

Otherwise known as “ditch the jargon already.”

I studied writing at Carnegie Mellon University (well, I first studied it in high school and had a teacher who was practically the grand master of Strunk and White, but I’ll get to that later). At CMU, we were indoctrinated into the Erwin Steinberg methodology of Plain Language. Today, that may seem like a simple concept, but I assure you, it wasn’t always that way.

Dr. Steinberg was something of a visionary. There was a time when most, if not all, technical writing was to be drafted in passive voice. It should sound authoritative. Certain. Unfriendly. Passive was the way to go! Professional and technical writing was horrifyingly boring, and that is just the way everyone seemed to like it.

Except they didn’t like it.

Imagine having to read this all day:

“The program will be completed by users only after the messages are received. Emails that have been sent will not be opened upon receipt.”

Are you asleep? I know I am. It’s just awful. And that isn’t even an example full of jargon. Wait for this one:

“Users should redirect their interface from the AWS blockchain system and consider a CMS that works with the UI. It can be discussed in scrum whether the vector graphics will be wired in or whether that is a sandbox item.”

Yeesh. I’m not even sure that makes sense, because I just tossed in all of the jargon that popped into my head. But I assure you, I’ve heard plenty of conversations using that word-spaghetti.

Jargon causes a problem no matter what, because using it runs the risk that your reader won’t understand it. Even seasoned readers don’t know all of the potential terms.

So Erwin Steinberg’s philosophy, the one that he impressed upon the hundreds of students he taught, and the philosophy of legends at Carnegie Mellon was this: write it in plain language.

Presto!

Whether the text you are creating is something you understand quite well or it’s something you are translating for an SME (see what I did there?) – Subject Matter Expert, try to be sure that you simplify. This is not to say that every piece of writing needs to be watered-down. Of course not.

Consider the uses of jargon, and the need for explanation. Moreover, consider the origin. Journalist Allison Linn, writing for the Associated Press, discussed the emergence of the word “solution” in the tech industry. In common parlance, a solution is that which solves something. Easy enough, yes? But in technical jargon, a “solution” is merely a product. Tech companies release solutions.

Marketing took over and created jargon. Along came words like “enterprise,” “experience,” “agility,” “migration,” and a host of others. We now optimize things, we migrate data, and…gasp, we coined the portmanteau “blog” from Web and log, and you have this little project of mine right here.

The difficulty with jargon is that it is used by a subset of people, not the whole group of potential readers.

What Steinberg taught was that messaging, even technical documentation, needed to be accessible. Writers should identify their audiences and write to those. So of course, if the consumers of a given piece of documentation are solely, exclusively tech-familiar end users, and those users will understand the acronym SaaS, then by all means go ahead and toss it in. But by and large, if there is a snowball’s chance that any Tom, Dick, or Mary will get their eyes on the doc, then just write Software as a Service, and follow up with the acronym, willya?

There’s no need to dress up the text. And here’s where my high school English teacher comes in. He loved Strunk and White so much that his mantra was “Omit needless words.” That guy would legitimately write it on every piece of nonfiction prose any student submitted. He taught me the economy of words. He taught me a grave distaste for the word “nice,” demonstrating that it conveyed nothing of value.

Nothing, he said, was “nice.” It could be splendid, lovely, beautiful, tasty, delightful, mediocre, incredible, and a host of other words, but it could not be “nice.” I miss that guy.

The last word on this subject is: edit. Supposedly, (and I scoff at this, but I am pessimistic), Mozart wrote a symphony in a single draft. We are not Mozart. Cut the chaff. Weed out the unnecessary.

Especially if it is jargon.

And After a Hiatus…

I am really (truly) not a fan of those posts that apologize for when writers take a break from their blog and then assure readers that they will do better, be more faithful, write more – you know the drill.

And yet, here I am, apologizing for a lengthy absence. As if I have any readers left here.

The story goes that I moved from Pittsburgh (my bio still says I live there), and started a new job. That job was cool and it kept me busy, and I thought maybe I would just table the whole tech writing thing. I wasn’t really engaging in tech writing any more, so it made sense.

So, I left this little project alone.

Then, COVID-19 came along and I got laid off. Yeah, bummer, right? I focused more on my writing over at Medium (you can follow me there if you’d like, but it’s vastly different writing than it is here). I took some time to finish my as-yet-unpublished book. I’m still looking for an agent and publisher for that gem.

But after I got a new job, I was in proposal writing. Tech writing-adjacent. Sure, I edited and oversaw proposals in my tech life, but I started as a proposals manager for a small shop. Then I moved on to what I thought was a plum gig working for a friend at the company that brought me to Baltimore, then laid me off. Turns out that wasn’t the best gig, because they were undergoing lots of change.

And now, here I am, a proposal manager, but thanks to some strained workplace relationships, I am not really managing a lot of proposals, but I’m editing, moving things around, and digging in to some other work.

I’m hoping to leverage my smarts and talents to stay here and dig in to Confluence management and shoring up their much needed information architecture, but in the meantime, I will dust off my tech chops and head back to this comfy place.

All two or three readers, and anyone new who stumbles here will be treated to some new insights, a fresh look at how writing about technology dovetails with writing technical services proposals. I can’t give away any trade secrets, of course, or they wouldn’t be secrets. But all in all, I think I still have some good writing to share on this, my professional space instead of over at Medium, my personal platform.

So thanks for letting me take a break, and allowing me space to grow. Go grab a pint and let’s see what happens next.