Principles of Technical Writing

This post provides a look at the "technical writing principles" I've found useful in helping writers to become highly effective and valued as a member of an engineering team.

Be a lifelong learner
To be an effective writer, you have to be a lifelong learner, get motivated enough to learn new domains. Most writers are aware of the aphorism that learning should continue from the cradle to the grave. 
Have a positive attitude
You have to know how to collaborate and be a good judge of people. Additionally, you must be willing to interact with different personalities of the people you are working with. There is an innate skill to draw information out of people or get your work reviewed by the SMEs without aggravating them. The success you experience as a writer depends 100% on your attitude. Sometimes, you may be given an assignment that has nothing to do with user documentation. But you must display a positive attitude towards such requests. 
Quality should be the priority
Your job is to make sure that your work is complete, correct, thoroughly fact-checked, and technically reviewed. Make sure that when you start something, you actually
complete it. If people know they can rely on you to do high-quality work, you will win the trust.
Communicate, Communicate, and Communicate
Writers should strive to be superior communicators, as ineffective communication leads to confusion and reflects poorly on the entire team. The writer will be judged by the quality of his work. For better quality, communication is the key factor:
  • Documentation Plans - Make it clear to all stakeholders' what document outputs to expect at any given point of time in the product life-cycle.
  • Review - Use the Google doc or Adobe Shared Review process to receive feedbacks.
  • Communication via emails/chats/meetings - Keep the stakeholders informed about the progress of your documentation. Use the email meeting to schedule appointment with SMEs, and Product Managers. Ad-hoc chat also works depending on your relationship.
Know your assignment
Like it, or not, writers are 'contractors’ who are hired to provide User Manuals, API documentation, Training Materials, Engineering Blogs, etc. Technical documentation is meant for users of the engineering product. The users may be within the company but external; they may be engineers or layman. Understanding the users will help to improve the quality of the writing and, ultimately, the quality of the product.
Avoid ambiguity
This implies "Never presume" and clarify whenever there is ambiguity. Making speculation about how a product’s features/functionality, schedules, etc. will lead to a variety of issues:
  • Wrong content
  • Incomplete work
  • Bad impression on the documentation team
Writers must avoid ambiguity in the documentation so as not to muddle others.
Inhale and Exhale Content
Writers 'live and breath' content. They consume content, and they create content. Practice your craft to serve the readers. Don't expel raw material but transmute it to provide what the reader most wants.
Trust facts - Question assumptions 
Related to the principle of avoiding ambiguity, writers must never make assumptions. As doing so can have a significant impact on the entire business.
Writers must:
  • Work with the cross-functional team to address issues with requirements, user stories, etc.
  • Clarify schedules/expectations when in doubt.
  • Leverage documentation plan to articulate and set expectations on the documentation.
  • Track/manage outstanding issues until they are resolved.
  • Ensure a thorough document review by engineers and stakeholders.
Think innovation
Regardless of your busy schedule, writers must think out-of-box. Improvement ideas should be socialised, shared and investigated with managers and writers. Small changes can make a huge difference to the organization. Innovation that can benefit the documentation is always welcome.
  • Tweaks to processes, templates, style guide
  • Suggest better tools
  • Use videos where possible
Remember, the companies are always looking for ways to increase efficiency and make the most out of the limited documentation budget.
Embrace restrictions
On the surface it may appear as if style guide does, in fact, restrict the writer; however, if you dig deeper you will discover that style guide helps by improving communications by establishing consistency in all the documents.
Plan wisely
A well thought out and a documented plan is worth its weight in gold. The documentation plan is the primary tool used to set expectations for all the stakeholders. There is a limited budget for documentation, and it is your responsibility to ensure the effectiveness of the plan such that it provides the highest ROI (Return on Investment).
Identify priorities
At the end of the day, the most important Technical Writing principle is "If you do not know - ASK".  Writers are expected to ask questions until they are confident that they have the information needed to write content. Just remember, unanswered questions contribute ambiguity to the content and add risk to the business.
Escape the curse of knowledge - Close the writing loop by getting feedback from the readers. Show the draft to people who are similar to intended audience, and find out whether they can follow it.  Only when we get the feedback, do we discover that what's obvious to us isn't obvious to them. A writer should revise in response to a comment when it comes from more than one reader or when it makes sense to the writer.

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