Technical writing can be improved so much by interacting with those who are actually using your instructions.
- Do your customers understand the directions?
- Do they still have questions?
- Are you approaching their question the way they would be looking for an answer?
- Can you explain better?
- Where do they get stuck?
- What are the most common questions despite the support page that exists?
- Will improving the support page fix the issue or is it indicative of a deeper problem?
Writing support articles and tutorials is incredibly rewarding,… when you get feedback. Here are some ideas for incorporating feedback into your workflow:
- For online documents, add a yes/no survey at the bottom of your page asking if this helped answer their question. When they click No, prompt them to write what other information might have helped. You’ll gain insight into documents that don’t exist but should, search patterns, and customer confusion.
- Get out and teach. If you write beginner articles, go teach some beginning courses. If you write about advanced techniques, do a Google hangout with advanced customers and see what’s still unclear. It doesn’t need to be in a classroom, be creative.
- Try doing some technical support for others. Whenever you encounter a question, keep track of it. If you notice at the end of a day/week that you’re answering the same question over and over, chances are the process needs improved and the documentation is inadequate. Go fix what you can. Even the smallest improvements will help with the number of questions. Check out the incoming email and forum questions to see if you can build a top 10 list of things you need to fix first.
- Build a testing group. Get some friends who have never used your product to try it out while you’re nearby. See where they get stuck. Get a group of active users to be your beta testers. Reward their activity with early feature accessibility and presents. Or, you could even hire a group of testers from Craig’s List. There are a lot of options for making it easier for new customers and keeping power-users happy when you include this kind of testing.
Once you know what needs explained more thoroughly, you can use customer feedback during your writing and editing process.
Another important part to technical writing is being consistent in the way you word and style directions. Having a style guide that you follow will help you immensely.
Here is a generic group of steps:
- In the top menu bar, click FILE > New.
- Add and edit your content.
- Click on File -> Save As in the navigation.
- Name your file and choose the location where it should be saved.
- Start another file by clicking New in the File menu.
- Type something and write some content.
- Up at the top click on File → Save As.
- In the typing box where it says “File Name” give it a title, then click the Save button.
- Quit the application.
Those instructions above make my want to cry.
Do you see the ways that the directions to navigate are all different? (1, 3, 5, 7)
FILE > New
File -> Save As
New in the File menu
File → Save As
Not only are the styles different, but so are the words indicating the method.
In the top menu bar, click…
Click on… in the navigation
by clicking … in the … menu
Up at the top click on …
You can find your own style through:
- Practice – write more!
- Reading – read more! Pick up some instruction books at the book store. Browse through some online product guides. Good documentation is not just about the words, it is everything from the colors, images, instruction style, and thoroughness involved.
- Teaching – see what instruction styles work better than others. Use your teaching opportunities to say your instructions aloud and see if they stick to your audience. If you see blank faces and no comprehension, try wording it a different way and watch for the “aha!” moment when they get it.
- Communicating - talk with coworkers to build your style guide. If you get your coworkers to care about style guides, chances are they may use them as well.
- Iterating – nothing is perfect the first time, but you have to start somewhere. Write it. Improve upon it.
There are lots of times when I want to start writing something and then I feel like I’m getting too wordy. You want your writing to have personality and humor, but does it belong in technical documentation?
I love it when people get to the point. They write as little as possible to convey the directions.
Be clear. Be accurate.
After a very pleasant conversation with a friend and colleague, Michelle, I’ve come to realize the source of my blogging inconsistency may have less to do with the busy schedule as the mom of two toddlers who works full time, but more to do with a missing prompt.
I encourage you all to think about one thing you care passionately about and write about it.
I’ve chosen my prompt and will dedicate future posts to improving technical writing. I won’t be deleting my old posts (even the ones of my fuzzy bunny Monty Python slippers), because the journey to this realization is important to me.
This blogger needs to get to 10,000 questions:
Ask a question here to help them reach their goal.
I want to be hanging out with my coworkers now.