Technical Writing, Documentation, and Training

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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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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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The user interface of an application – even one with a convoluted design – gives users some sense about how to navigate the application. It may be painful, but users can usually muddle through if they have to. APIs, on the other hand, offer no natural affordances or signifiers allowing developers to learn how to use the API. Therefore, good documentation is crucial for any API project.

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For additional information regarding Waterfall/Agile development and how it impacts technical writing, please refer to previous blog posts written by Eric Sedor and Shaun Kelly.

Moving a product out the door to capitalize on market demand is a necessity – it’s simple economics! Consumers demand constant product improvements. This “out with the old, in with the new” mentality has led many successful companies to switch from Waterfall development  to Agile. What does this mean exactly? For the uninitiated, use this simple analogy. Waterfall development can be compared to a marathon. All software features are built in one long process and then errors are fixed. Agile development is more like a series of sprints. Software is released in a series of small iterations. Each release includes a few added features, and errors are corrected along the way rather than at the end. As you can imagine, the switch to Agile development completely shatters the status quo and roles of people associated with the development teams. This led us to wonder: Specifically, how does the switch to Agile impact the role of technical writers?

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Do you know about Wikipedia’s Simple English?

I don’t know about you, but I’m constantly Googling anything and everything and I frequently end up on Wikipedia’s website. One day I was looking at all of the possible languages I could read an entry in and noticed “Simple English” was one of the options. I was reading about something complex and “Simple English” simplified the topic and made it easier to understand (you could say it’s a “red carpet” to the “English” entry).

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Score Free Advertising By Thwarting Bandwidth Thieves

This week we had an opportunity to claim some free advertising space in a somewhat non-traditional way, and I’m going to tell you how we did it.

In case you’re not familiar with the term, hotlinking is when a website other than your own uses images that reside on your servers by linking to them directly. Even if you aren’t concerned about protecting the content, this is still a cause for concern since you give up a little bit of your bandwidth (which you paid for) every time the other website loads that image, without getting anything in return. It’s like if your neighbor powered their toaster by running an extension cord to an outlet in your garage – not much impact on your bill if it happens once, but it sure adds up when they do it over and over every single day.  (The general consensus on the Internet is that this is a Bad Thing.)

So, you ask… how do I turn this into the free advertising that you speak of?

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Do you know about Document Map in Microsoft Word?

Whenever I go through a Word document with clients and they ask where a section is, I always refer them to the Document Map. Frequently, they don’t know what it is. Do you know what it is?

In short, Document Map displays the table of contents on the left side of your screen. This is helpful when searching for sections in a document even if there is a table of contents (less back and forth). You just have to make sure your text has heading styles applied to it correctly.

To find it and use it, follow the steps below.

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Documentation That Breaks The Mold

Excitement and innovation aren’t really words that come to mind when you think of “technical writing,” right?

I didn’t think so.  As interesting as the profession can be, we often find ourselves filling in the same template for the same type of document over and over again. And while it’s important to make clients happy and follow the standard formats, we must always keep sight of our goals – does our documentation serve its purpose? Does it teach? Does it explain? Does it do these things well?

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You can now download the PDFZilla application for free. It’s a great tool for document jockeys, writers, and other info workers who need an easy way to convert PDFs to other editable formats. Of course, as with any PDF conversion tool, your mileage may vary, but it sure beats copy-and-paste!

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This free download will self-destruct on February 5th, so get it while you can.

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Use Your Words!

Precise word choices are one of the hallmarks of a great technical writer. Even if you don’t have much difficulty picking the right words and phrases when expressing your own thoughts, I’m sure you’ve encountered a situation where you ran into problems interpreting a client or SME’s writing/requests/emails. Here’s some links to some of the handy reference tools that I sometimes use to help me interpret a client’s requests or find the perfect word or phrase. Hopefully these will make a difference in your writing in 2011!

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