Technical Writing, Documentation, and Training

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When clients tell me that they can write their own user manuals because, after all, they say, they already know how to write, I’m reminded of a quip from an old friend, frustrated by his software developers’ inability to complete a payment application on time: “Why does it take so long? It’s just typing.” Sadly, I sometimes think, people think the same about technical writing: It’s just typing. Which got me thinking: What does a good technical writer have to know to be a good, dare I say, great technical writer?

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These days, business speak surrounds us. It doesn’t discriminate against company size or position status. College interns and CEOs alike find themselves dropping buzz words in conversation. But to what end? When is enough, enough? The next time you want to move forward, deliver, or buy-in by all means go for it. But don’t expect people to know what you’re talking about. The more time your employees spend guessing the meaning behind your jargon, the less productive they are. Ben Franklin sums it up best:  “Time is money.”

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Technical writers are a rare breed. To be successful in this profession, you have to be patient, know how to communicate, and, last but not least, understand technical concepts. These tough demands have been the inspiration for this article, the third and final, in what we like to call our technical writing “rant topics.” See the first two in the triptych, “What’s Wrong with the Passive Voice” and “Why is Consistency Important.”

So, what makes technical writing such a challenge?    

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It’s not like technical writing isn’t already incredibly boring, so why does it have to be consistent? Such is the typical complaint about what we at Shoap do to earn a living. So how important is consistency?

While we sometimes fantasize about people grabbing one of our documents and cozying up to the fire to spend some quiet hours learning how to use a new piece of hardware or software, the reality is starkly different. As they used to say about Ivory soap, 99.44% of the time the only reason people crack a user guide or click on online help is because they’re stuck: they can’t figure out how to do something that they need to do – and need to do immediately. 

Consistency means you can find information quickly and understand that information when you encounter problems. Let’s see how.

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Why do people use the passive voice? Engineers, scholars and business people alike use the passive voice on a daily basis – probably without even realizing it. So then, why is passive voice frowned upon and what exactly is it?

Simply put, passive voice is a style of writing that makes the object of the sentence the subject of the sentence. Sentences written in passive voice are structured so that the noun who performs the action is not the subject. Confused? Consider this illustration.

Sentence 1: I made a mistake (Active)
Sentence 2: Mistakes were made. (Passive)
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In an earlier article (http://www.shoap.com/rfp-responses-go-technical), we discussed the importance of responding to RFPs with correct, easy to read and understand responses. Several of our readers wondered if there were any tools that could help them address the arduous task of responding to RFPs. This article is for them.

Unquestionably, there are more onerous tasks than responding to a big, fat request for proposal (RFP). Unfortunately, I just can’t think of anything. People who have to do this for a living spend countless (and thankless) hours, ensuring the response is correct and flawless. These responses can go for hundreds of pages, require inputs from various and sundry departments within the organization, and are under tremendous time constraints. It’s stressful just thinking about it. Many companies, however, are facing this nightmare head-on by investing in software that automates the process. Leave the copy/paste method behind.

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After an eighteen year career in technology, I have one thing in common with many of my colleagues: we have children. Eating lunch or grabbing a coffee I am frequently asked “What should my child do to get a job in technology” and “What did you major in?” and “I heard about a computer camp where kids make games. Is this a good idea?”
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I have little recollection of how I decided to become a technical writer. I’m not even sure how I found out that technical writing was a thing people did. I followed some roommates from college to Atlanta from Connecticut in the fall of 1993. I was a pretty good writer and I had always been a “computer nerd.” Today that might conjure up visions of Red Bull fueled hackathons. When I was growing up it meant reading operating system manuals. For fun.
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Paul Clifton is a Ph.D. student in Digital Media at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He has been an on and off technical writer with Shoap Technical Services since 2007 and is currently working in interaction and user experience design at Intel.

Recently, I helped my friend update his resume. I’d helped him make a brand new one a few years before, and it had been an extremely painful process, so when he asked me to help update it, I nearly just said no. To my surprise, the draft he sent me proved that he had been paying attention when I had originally explained the rules for making a good resume, why they were the rules, and why following them mattered. His grammar and spelling still weren’t very good, but grammar and spelling are the easy part. Clearly communicating complex information by meeting the expectations of the reader is the hard part, and I was happy to see that he had pretty well taken care of that.
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By the time you enter the 3rd grade, you know what summer is. It’s that time of year when you don’t have to go to school or do homework. Instead, you can just play all day with your friends, go on vacations, watch TV, or anything else you’d like to do. Summer is always a time of relaxation, an unwinding from all the busyness and tension of the school year—even at the age of 7. It’s exactly what summer should be—lazy and carefree. Summer break is a break for a reason, right?
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