As someone who has professional technical writing experience, I am often asked to edit or rewrite documents written by other technical professionals such as developers, IT personnel, managers, and so on. The ability to create good functional instructional documents is a skill — just like the ability to write good object-oriented and structured code, to design good database table structures, or to properly articulate a difficult run in a piece of music.
Unfortunately, too many people don’t understand that, which is baffling to me. I’ve seen instances where technicians threw together their poorly organized (and I use that word loosely), badly written notes into a Word document and sent it to a customer, saying “here’s the documentation.” More often than not, technical writers are disrespected, looked down upon, and are often the first ones cut when budget cuts come into play. Too many organization and departments say, “documentation is not a priority.”
The problem is, documentation is and must be a priority.
Not everyone can write. I understand that. By no means do I intend this article to make technical writers out of people; after all, people do this for a living, and a good chunk of my master’s degree revolves around its principles. If an entire degree program focuses on documentation and communication principles, there is no way I can cover it all in a single article. Rather, I’m looking to raise awareness of the documentation skill set and how people can improve the process. My hope is that this article makes life easier for all professionals.
So with that, here are some tips that I’ve established, through many years and projects of painful experience.
Technical documents come in all different flavors, shapes, and sizes. I’ve often asked people the first thing that comes to their mind when I say “technical writing.” I’d guess that, about 95% of the time, they answer either “step-by-step instructions,” “manuals,” or something similar. I’ll often respond: “what about flowcharts, online help, diagrams, org charts, admin guides, user guides, web sites, UX/UI guidelines, ‘blogs, application menus, and so on” (and maybe even a few other things I haven’t thought of).
Know your audience: This may very well be Rule #1 when writing documentation. Above all, you need to know who will be reading your document.
People will have different levels of expertise. They might know some terms, but not know others. The trick is being able to talk to them at their level, while at the same time, not insulting their intelligence.
Don’t tell me how to build the clock! Just tell me what time it is! I once worked for a CTO who was very fond of that quote, but it makes a lot of sense. Far too often, inexperienced “writers” feel like they need to explain every single tidbit of detail when they’re trying to convey an idea. Not only is this unnecessary, it’s counterproductive. Bogging information down with too much detail where it’s not needed makes a document nearly impossible to follow. A good technical document must be able to describe a task in as few words as possible. This is not an easy task (and I’m amazed — and not in a good way — as to how many people think this is not a big deal). Generally, my rule of thumb is, if an instruction cannot be understood or followed quickly and easily (generally within a few seconds, but primarily within a minute), the document has failed.
Having said that, there are times when some documents need to have every detail spelled out (a systems administration guide or reference — which isn’t necessarily meant to be followed quickly — comes to mind). There are exceptions to every rule.
Never, EVER, assume that just because you know a term that your audience will. Much of this goes back to knowing your audience. Often, you need to make assumptions about people who will be reading your document. But will those assumptions ever be 100% accurate? I’ll bet my house that the answer is no. Say, for example, you’re working with a teenaged college intern. Will he or she understand acronyms and terms such as SQL, Artifactory, ETL, XML, BI, content management, UX, PaaS, and so on? That person may know some of the terms, but not necessarily all of them. Even I’ve come across many examples where I didn’t understand a document’s context simply because I didn’t understand the terminology.
Never assume that anything is “obvious.” I created a generic checklist template that included a set of instructions as to how to best utilize it, and I asked my teammates to take a look at it and give me any feedback on it. One comment I got was, “some of the instructions should be obvious. You shouldn’t need to spell it out.”
My response: you’d be surprised. Even I’ve scoffed at the warning on the coffee cup that said “the contents of this cup are hot” or the message on the laundry detergent that said “the gel pack should never be eaten.” However, I’ve seen too many instances where some task was “obvious,” yet the end user found a way to use it incorrectly — often in ways that never occurred to me. Almost anything can be misconstrued, misunderstood, or misused. Something you think might be “obvious” might not be.
Your document needs to make sense. Writing a step-by-step document is like writing a program. It must follow a logical order. Before you tell someone to walk through a door, you must first tell them to open the door. (Yes, I realize this is a painful example of my earlier point of “don’t assume anything is obvious,” but I digress.)
You are providing guidance, NOT holding a conversation! One of my big pet peeves in an instructional document is the use of “conversational” or “social” language. For example: “Please look at these instructions,” “it is okay to perform this step,” “you should be able to run this,” and so on. An instructional document is not a social network. You are not holding a conversation or politely asking someone for a favor; you are telling them how to perform a task. People read instructions in order to perform a task, and they are looking to your document, assuming that the author has some measure of expertise, for guidance.
On the flip side, you also don’t want to be too forceful with your language, unless the task is potentially catastrophic.
How formal should a document be? It depends on the document. For example, does a document require a cover page or an introduction? Consider the following:
- Who is your audience?
- What kind of instructions are you writing?
- How concise does it need to be?
The more questions your document can answer, the better.
Good grammar helps. I am a self-admitted grammar-nazi (if you’ll excuse that politically-incorrect word). I understand the difference between “your” and “you’re.” I cringe every time people end plural nouns with an apostrophe-S. And I believe that anyone who uses the word “irregardless” should be sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor.
Having said that, I understand that not everyone is a good writer. I should also mention that English is my first language, so I’m not as well-versed regarding grammar in other languages (other than maybe German, as I struggle to remember my German classes from back in high school). (My Korean mother is also fond of telling me about how Korean is grammatically perfect — all the rules are followed; there is no “I before E” or anything like that, but I digress.)
So why mention grammar at all? A well-written document should be relatively easy to read. For example, one of my presentations promotes using active, as opposed to passive, voice. Often, I’ll ask my audience why they think that is the case. I’ll often answer that question with another question: which sentence is easier to read? Good grammar goes a long way in addressing that.
While we’re on the subject of easier to read…
Reading is work!* People often fail to realize this when they write. Technical documents, especially instructions, are meant to be followed quickly. My usual rule-of-thumb about a set of instructions is, if it can’t be understood within a few seconds, it has failed. But people keep insisting on including every single detail in an instruction (see my comment above about “not telling me how to build the clock”). If a person has to put effort into understanding what you’re writing, it defeats the purpose of why you’re writing in the first place.
If you think bad writing isn’t a big deal, consider these examples (under “Poor Writing and Liability”).
(*Speaking of “reading is work,” this article is becoming longer than I expected. If you’ve read this far, I’m impressed!)
If you’re using examples, make sure they are relevant to what you’re talking about. I recently edited a document in which the writer talked about a configuration setting. He included a code snippet that illustrated the configuration, which was good. But he also included a snippet that showed how the application logged into the environment — which was not good. What does login code have to do with the configuration? Extraneous examples and illustrations only confuse the reader, not make it clearer.
And speaking of illustrations…
A picture is worth a thousand words… but there IS a wrong way to use them! I learned very early that an illustration, if done properly, can explain a task better than words ever can. The document in question involved inserting an optical data platter into a WORM (Write Once Read Many)** device. The platter had to be inserted in a certain way and a certain side up. As part of the document, I drew an illustration of how the platter should be inserted. The drawing saved me the trouble of writing descriptive text that would have likely confuse the reader.
(**This is what I mean by not assuming readers know terminology. See what I did there?)
However, I also saw an example where an instruction in an Excel spreadsheet told the reader to “look at Figure A.” First, the reader had to click a link to see “Figure A” (it was on a separate tab, and nowhere near the text, which forced the reader to go back and forth, which was extremely distracting). Second, “Figure A” included a icon snippet with a part of it circled. That was it! There was no explanation about what it was, and because it was only a snippet, there was absolutely no point of reference as to its significance. (Think about a Google map zoomed in to the point where all you see is the pin and a street, with no idea as to the location, city, state, or even country.) This was a useless illustration. It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but if they’re not used properly, their worth in words can be zero.
Your document is a reflection of your organization. I think this is especially true if documents are sent to clients or even the general public. Let’s say you’re a customer who gets a hold of a company’s badly-written document. What would you think of that organization? Chances are, you’d probably have a low opinion of the company. Would you want to do business with an organization that produces poor-quality documentation? My guess is, probably not.
These are just some of the frustrations that I (and other writers, I’m sure) have experienced. I could probably continue, but at this point, this article likely violates several of the tenets that I’ve espoused above. In any case, it’s my belief that bad (or no) documentation is a recipe for disaster. Raising awareness of document criticality can go a long way in making for a better organization.