Tag: Technical Writing

Always learning

Next week the first of two new recruits joins our team. Both are graduates and whilst neither graduated from a Technical Writing based course they both have a good mix of skills, coming to the position through different routes. It’ll be a challenge for them, and a challenge for us, to integrate them to the team smoothly and successfully. I’m sure they will both do well, but to give them the best chance I’m preparing a few weeks of training for them, in various aspects of the job.

I’m trying to anticipate what they need to know, and when they need to know it, and whilst I’m very wary of letting my own experience get in the way it does mirror what they will be going through as my route into this profession was via an Electronic Engineering course, and I too had no experience in Technical Writing.

Training on our authoring tool (Author-it) is straightforward enough, and we will be mentoring each of the recruits as well so day to day questions we can handle.

We will likely use the IBM book “Developing Quality Technical Information” to provide a grounding in the basics of Technical Writing, along with an eLearning book titled Basics of Technical Writing that we purchased from CherryLeaf a few years ago.

They will have to learn how we do things, our specific processes, and learn how the overall Development team works so they understand where they fit, and they will receive a series of training exercises to complete before they take our product training course. On top of all that they will have a week long company Induction.

I’m a great believer in people learning by doing, so I’m planning a set of small tasks which will be checked and reviewed, and which will ultimately find their way into our documentation set.

Beyond that, I’ll be looking for them to ask questions, try things, make mistakes and learn from them, and then ask more questions. This industry is too varied to try and learn everything at once, and ultimately it’s down to them to decide what areas they want to push into… user experience? content design? API information? Who knows.

I do know it’s a challenge, for everyone involved, and that’s one of the things we, as a company, do best. There is a saying we have about being two feet outside your comfort zone, that’s where you learn best, that’s where you grow and start to understand your capabilities, so we will see how our recruits get on!

For me it’s doubly exciting as this is only the second time I’ve taken on graduates. I learned a lot the last time, both about how to train them and about my own foibles and attitudes to my profession so I’m brushing up my own knowledge to make sure I, and the rest of the team, give them the best change they have. In saying that, the first time I did this I was in my first ‘senior’ position, that was 10 years ago so hopefully by now I’ve gained a little bit more experience!

After all, you learn something new every day.

Have you brought a graduate into your team? Or are you involved in training or mentoring new recruits? If you have any suggestions I’d love to hear them.

Being Social

I’ve written about social media before, and given presentations on Blogging and the wider use of social media as part of our professional toolbox. But that was mostly with a view to how these new technologies could be used to provide a better service to our customers.

So what does social media mean to me, as a professional?

Personally, away from Technical Communications, I’ve been involved and actively using various forms of social media for over a decade. It’s very much something I take for granted and expect to be able to communicate with people in a variety of ways. However, because I’ve been using this stuff for so long, I tend to fall prey to the curse of knowledge and forget that I’ve been through all of the decision points that many people are still approaching for the first time.

An example, which prompted this blog post, came via Twitter today when Marian Routledge asked “Social networking a valuable tool for keeping pace with developments in the world of tech comms or just another time filler?”.

My initial response was “‘another’? Social networking has been about in various forms for 10 years. If you aren’t using it, how else do you keep pace?” as, for me, use of social media is one of the most efficient ways of keeping up with all of the conversations and ideas that bloom and grow in these spaces. If I wasn’t on Twitter, if I didn’t read blogs, if I didn’t monitor RSS feeds from vendors and thought leaders, if I wasn’t on various mailing lists, then I’d have to rely on far more direct and expensive means of getting at that information.

Don’t get me wrong, social media is not a replacement for face-to-face communication, never will be, and so conferences and meetings are still required, but I’d argue that those activities are enhanced through attendee use of social media.

One thing which many people have suggested is that, as accessing information online is so easy, we in danger of filling our time with all this extra information. I’d suggest not, but I know there is a chance that you could, very quickly, become overwhelmed by the amount of data pouring your way.

However, i tend to think of all the RSS feeds I monitor, the people I follow on Twitter, and the numerous blog discussions that I participate in, as one big stream of information. I can dip in and out, safe in the knowledge that if something important passes by unseen, it’ll no doubt come floating past again when someone else mentions it.

Does that stream of information make me better at my job? I think it does. In a way it’s like an extended conference, that buzz, the sharing of common ideas, the conversations between sessions. Being involved in any aspect of social media is exactly that, an extended conversation. There are some key words in that last sentence, and this, if anything, is the take home advice from this blog post.

“Being involved” in social media is a lot different from letting it flow into your inbox and swamping you. If you are involved you will know what conversations you can ignore, and what trends/people you should be following. To be involved you need to remember that social media is, and always has been, a conversation. It’s a two way thing, and the more you contribute to that conversation, the more you’ll get out of it. Comment on blogs, reply to updates on Twitter, publish your own ideas and respond to those who show an interest and you’ll soon find yourself part of the community. It doesn’t have to take a lot of effort, at most it may take 15 minutes a day if you are diligent, but the more you get involved, the faster you’ll be able to process the information coming your way.

At this point I’ll stop waffling and point you towards the latest addition to the growing set of social media resources for Technical Communication professionals. It’s called Technical Writing World and is already shaping up to become a useful place to discuss ideas, share problems and get solutions to the everyday issues we all face.

If you are a technical communications professional, and have still to get involved with social media, then Technical Writing World is a great place to start. It’s small enough to be easily managed, and interactive enough that you’ll be able to converse with technical communicators from all over the globe.

Go on, sign up, say hi and get involved. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say.

What is our value?

a.k.a Knowing when to stop

Hey, here’s a good reason for more technical writers to start blogging, it’ll cut down on the vast amounts of prose, rhetoric and general bile that seems to be clogging up some of the mailing lists to which I am subscribed.

Now, I’ve covered this topic before, but it seems my glib suggestion of “When X replies to a thread you can safely start deleting emails from it?” might actually be of use.

When I first came across such mailing lists I quickly learned just how many pedants and procrastinators our profession has, and whilst I’m keen to be grammatically correct there comes a point where the value of said conversations becomes zero.

As I’ve said before (and been shot down on before), when it comes to the very fine details of grammar the MAJORITY of readers will be unaware. As long as they get the information they require, and it reads well and contains no basic/obvious grammatical errors then so be it.

This is increasingly the case as more people come to view information as a quick fix (thanks internet!), so the amount of time spent agonising on how to punctuate that bulleted list is mostly lost on the reader as all they do is skim the list, get the bit of info they want and then sod off back to the thing they were trying to do.

Initially I wondered if this was an age thing, the younger whippersnappers (I include myself in here) coming into the profession with a differing viewpoint. Technical Writing is no longer the profession of English graduates with an engineering bent, with computer savvy new professionals coming along, fully aware of the internet and the knowledge that printed manuals are a dying example of our profession.

But I don’t think that’s truly the case, and I think the main reason TechWR-L suffers is because it lacks focus. Whilst a lot of hot air is spouted, most of it remains relevant, even if it seems off-topic. Don’t get me wrong whilst I won’t ever join the ranks of the grammerati, I do understand how important word order and phrasing to the reader.

So perhaps the main change that I see is the growing realisation that everything we do has a value, every small interaction we initiate during our working day has a value and, as I continue to understand more and more about this profession, the more I find assigning values to all my workday activities.

When I first found the technical communications mailing lists I was very keen and fairly active as, finally, I had direct access to my peers, I could communicate with people who did the same job and had the same problems, shared the same issues.

Today I find that I get more value from the shared knowledge offered by technical communications blogs, and the conversations that take place there. I’m not sure why there is such a distinct difference but I certainly sense that I get a much higher return on my investment by keeping up with industry blogs and journals than I do having to delete another off-topic thread on a mailing list.

After all, time is money!

(Ohh dear, did I really just say that? Am I really going to finish this post with such a cheesy Gordon Gecko phrase? Ohhh, apparently I am … )

Recently Read

Almost halfway through the year and I’m still finding new technical communications blogs. If you have recently started blogging about this wonderous profession of ours do let me know. On with the last findings.

Web 2.0 and Truth
Sarah O’Keefe presented at the recent X-Pubs conference on Web 2.0 and Truth. It’s an interesting read, including three quick points which speak volumes as to where the future of our profession may lie.

1. Document publishing needs to accelerate.
2. Online documents should allow for comments and discussion.
3. The documentation needs to be explicit about product limitations and workarounds.

14 Widespread Myths about Technical Writing
An intriguing look at our profession, Tom challenges some of the myths about technical writing and comes up with some great responses. The comments are well worth a look as well. This kind of post always seems to attract attention as, by it’s nature, our profession can be very hard to nail down accurately as there as just too many variables. Tom’s approach is one of the best I’ve seen.

Using Personas to Create User Documentation
The worlds of usability, user interface design, and product documentation often overlap and in this article Steve Calde outlines how technical writers can use Personas (often used during product design) to help write better documentation. It’s basically an advanced take on “known your audience”.

Understanding what is important to your audience can help you create task-oriented scenarios that may include using several functions in a particular sequence.

Closed-Loop Publishing Brings the Wisdom of Crowds to Dynamic Documents
I’m always a little wary of these kind of whitepaper/bluesky articles, particularly because they are often written by some with a vested interest in making the topic sound interesting (they want to sell you something). However if you step past the marketing-ese language used there is some interesting points here, another pointer that Web 2.0 is going to (should already be!) shaking up our industry.

Traditionally, publishing processes have been more like a monologue than a discourse, with no formal means to facilitate this two-way exchange. This is finally beginning to change, and it has profound implications for the publishing model we know today.
The rise of dynamic documents offers an interesting parallel for this transformation. What if documents were the basis for — not just information dissemination — but a fully interactive conversation between the content publisher and the content consumer?

That’s all for now. Hope you find these posts as interesting as I did.

Hi there

A quick welcome to anyone visiting from the ISTC Communicator magazine. I feel a little spoiled getting two mentions in subsequent pages (10 & 12 if you are wondering) but I’m not really complaining.

Over the past year or so I’ve definitely got the feeling that the ISTC is changing, and it certainly feels like a more modern and dynamic organisation than it has seemed to be in the past. Perhaps that’s natural, but it’s amazing how little things like a redesign magazine and newsletter, and hopefully a new design for the website, can refocus the energies of those involved.

Anyway, thanks for dropping by, there are plenty of links and opinions to be found in the archives (scroll down a bit, they are on the right), and here are a few of the more popular posts:

Or perhaps you just want to download the RSS feeds.