Technical Writing, Documentation, and Training

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Expert tips, advice, opinions, and viewpoints.

If, after examining and analyzing a problem, I find the best solution, I recommend and, at times, fight for that solution. This approach seems so self-evidently correct that I’m shocked to find myself even writing it.

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Single sourcing, according to the ubiquitous Wikipedia, is a “content management method which allows the same source content to be used across different forms of media and more than one time.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Single_source_publishing). The benefits are obvious: the maintenance and editing of the source content have only to be done in one place at one time, thus making the editing process more efficient (quicker) and less prone to error. Most technical writers have become single source evangelists because we don’t want to spend our time editing the same piece of content in exactly the same way in several different places. It’s boring, it’s inefficient, and it’s expensive. Root canal surgery (with the right anesthesia) would be preferable.
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T.S. Eliot dedicated the “The Waste Land,” arguably one of the most important poems written in the 20th century, to Ezra Pound for his timely edits. According to Richard Ellman, Pound persuaded Eliot to remove several poems that Eliot had inserted between the stanzas of “The Waste Land.” As Pound said, “the longest poem in the English langwidge [sic]. Don’t try to bust all records by prolonging it three pages further.” (From “The First Waste Land.” In Eliot in His Time: Essays on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of The Waste Land.” Princeton, Princeton UP, 1973.)
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As technical writing consultants, our job is to advise and recommend. Of course, that advice and those recommendations cover lots of different aspects of the entire process. Obviously, we review the material and try to organize the information so we can present it in the most effective, most efficient way possible. Rarely, if ever, do we receive much push-back from our clients on this part of the process. After all, that’s why they hired us.

 

And while writing and organizing content remains one of the more important parts of our work, we also believe that we have some insight into what tools to use make that efficient presentation of material possible.  Unfortunately, our clients don’t always agree.

Here are some examples.

A company approached us with a problem. It produced a piece of hardware that it sold with optional modules. The company wanted to ship a manual that covered only the modules that were purchased, not all of the modules offered. The problem the company was having was that it had created the manual in Word and either it had to manually manipulate the document each time it made a sale – delete the sections for the modules that weren’t purchased and renumber the chapters and pagination – or send a manual with all of the features and text for all of the modules. Which always creates problems – “Why can’t I get this machine to do what it shows in Chapter 8?” Answer: “Because you didn’t buy the module described in Chapter 8!”

We suggested we import the contents of their manual into FrameMaker and use FrameMaker’s conditional text feature to mark the text that belongs to each module. In this way, we could mark whole chapters that related to individual modules, as well as words and paragraphs – in feature lists, for example, in the introductory sections of the manual – so the resulting document would reflect only those modules that were purchased. A brilliant solution, we thought, and so did the client. Happy client; happy consultant.

A different company talked to us about documenting a large enterprise software package that also offered different, optional modules. After discussing the application with the SMEs and reviewing the existing documentation (our due diligence), we concluded that the final document would be very large – it was a VERY large enterprise software application that did many things – with lots of graphics and screen shots and would not do well in Word. Furthermore, the client admitted that its clients didn’t always buy all of the modules and so would want the ability to offer a manual that only included the modules purchased.

Fresh off the previous consulting engagement in which we were able to address the hardware manufacturer’s similar problem, we proposed using FrameMaker and marking the sections describing each module as conditional text. Then, the company could produce a “customized” document for each of its sales. Not only would we solve the “purchased module” problem, we argued, but we could assure the client that FrameMaker would handle the large size of the document much better than Word because that was what FrameMaker was designed to do and Word was not.

Our contact at the company agreed with us but found little support with her management. Why? Management wanted to be sure it could revise the document without having to hire a FrameMaker “expert” and so wanted it done in Word. What about the optional module problem? “We’ll deal with it internally,” they said. Since in our line of work, the customer is always right, we wrote the manual in Word and regretted every minute we spent on it, knowing the resulting material was inadequate. Alas.

I’ve yet to hear of someone instructing a plumber as to what kind of wrench to use to fix a leaking faucet or tell a carpenter what type of blade to use to cut a piece of wood, or, as I’ve said before, told a developer what language to use to code an application. We hire experts and rely on them to advise and recommend the best way to solve a problem. Technical writers are the experts. Listen to their recommendations.

Good writing is clear and precise. Good technical writing, to borrow a phrase from the young people, is totally clear and precise. Let’s be real: most people don’t bother reading technical documentation until they’re stuck and don’t know how to proceed. Enter this? Press that? “What do I do now?” Unfortunately for those sorry folks, their foray into the user manual or online help is often not a good experience. The reason: the explanation is not clear and/or precise. Such is the state of my chosen profession.
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According to Wikipedia, a subject matter expert (SME) is a person “who is an authority in a particular area or topic.” When a company engages a technical writer, in addition to working with the actual product he or she is documenting, the writer must rely on the SME as the source of all knowledge, the one person who can explain how the system works and, perhaps more importantly, why it works that way.

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Recently, a prospect called us about a training guide he needed written for a new enterprise application his company had recently purchased and was trying to implement. Unfortunately, he had already paid the company that developed the application to create training materials but found, once he had a chance to review the materials, that they were not only impenetrable and useless from a user’s point of view but mostly incorrect as well. A complete waste of money. Alas.

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Objectivity tends to be one of the core values of technical fields. The fundamental laws of physics dictate the properties of microprocessors, and chemistry defines the properties of the materials we use. These methods make up the API, determining how that application behaves and what it is capable of doing. The way that people interact with technology, however, is anything but objective. They bring a lifetime’s worth of experiences that guide their behavior and frame their expectations for both what the technology will do for them and how it will perform its duty.

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Technical Writing for the Cloud

By: Eric Sedor
Eric Sedor, a frequent contributor to the Shoap Technical Reader, is a senior software engineer at MongoLab, a cloud-based database provider located in San Francisco. Eric cut his technical writing teeth at Shoap Technical Services before returning to his true passion, software engineering.

The Cloud encapsulates the idea of a distributed system built of formable, destructible, re-creatable components. Even the data within cloud systems is redundant and spread out, capable of being restored in parts to specific points in time, if necessary. Cloud systems even overlap one another.
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Wikipedia defines single sourcing as “a content management method which allows the same source content to be used across different forms of media and more than one time. The labor-intensive and expensive work of editing need only be carried out once, on only one document. This reduces the potential for error, as corrections are only made one time in the source document.” A decent, I think, explanation of what this mysterious approach to documentation is all about.
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