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Monday, May 16, 2005

Thoughts on Web Content Writing and Technical Communication

What is Technical Writing?
The aim of writing is to make people read.
Technical writing bridges the gap between technology and the reader who may or may not be an end user.

Who is a Technical Writer?
A technical writer communicates technology to readers.
Communication is the flow of information from a sender to a receiver with mimnimum loss. A technical writer writes for the target audience to read, understand, and act on the information with minimum loss of information.

What makes Technical Writing different?
The challenge of Technical Writing is to make people read, understand, experiment, and help find answers that they're seeking from the copy written.

What's so special?
Writing for the Web is different from writing for a newspaper or a magazine.
Web content writing, which includes technical writing, content writing, and marketing communications is concise, scannable, usable, and invites people to read more.

For example

Please follow these steps to clear History from Firefox browser.

- Open Firefox browser
- From the Menubar - Go to Tools
- Select Options
- Choose Privacy Tab on the left sidebar
- Select the plus (+) sign on Saved Form Information
- Uncheck the Save information box (remove the tickmark)
- Click on the Clear All Tab
- Click on the OK button
- Press F5 to refresh the Web page

Learn more tips and use Firefox to your advantage. We invite you to take a free trial of Firefox. Download Firefox and rediscover the Web. Experience a faster, better, more secure, and simpler way of surfing the Web. (Size: 4.7 MB, Filetype: .exe)

Web content writing, as shown in the above example, is concise, uses small paragraphs, has scannable information, is usable, and invites the reader to explore more.

Technical communication needs Web writing skills and the ability to gauge and write for different audiences. A User Documentation for learners, a manual for administrators, a FAQ for registered users, a Knowledge Base for a product, a step-by-step installation guide, an article to generate click-throughs, coding guidelines for programmers, SRS for project team members.

A technical writer needs to be a fast learner, an effective communicator, and a liaison person between technology, clients, and design. Technical writing acts as a bridge between the product/ application/ Web site and the end user. A technical writer needs to understand the business along with technology and should be able to write for different audiences. For example, if there's a manual with links to a free product download, a technical writer needs to combine writing and marketing to get users to download the product.

Web Writing needs to be smooth, flowing, and informative. Each word conveys a meaning. By nature, people don't like to read and they read even less on the Internet with different Web sites, images, links, and much more.

As the reading span of attention is less in an online medium people scan a chunk of information, look for a link, and click on it. So any writing for the Web has to be usable. If it is usable, it has chances of being clickable, and if it is clickable, it has chances of generating business by holding user interest.

What's my criteria for Technical Writing?

- Passion for writing is more important than knowledge of softwares
Writing softwares are utilities to improve communication and help with file conversions. What is essential is passion for writing and knowledge of the end user.
Softwares can be learnt. Content comes from the writer.

- Working Software is more important than volume of documentation
Instead of having a five-day two-hour session about understanding a software, I'd prefer to use the less than Beta version and experiment with its features for a week on my own.

- Help Files need effective Searching
Help files are of no use without a perfect search engine to find information.
I'd prefer a set of 10 indexable questions that are found on a Web site (by an internal site search) than links to 50 questions that are not searchable.

- Usability comes first. Comprehensive documentation comes later.
A Web site, product, or an application has to be usable. If it is usable, it is readable.
For example: There's no point in having a FAQ section on a Web site if it doen't have examples, and no links to back to the top of the page. A web site with White Papers to download without a file size and file type is of no use.
Usability precedes writing. Screenshots with step-by-step information are better than long paragraphs.

- Programmer's trust is more important than BD Manager's Guideline (Debatable)
If a manager says this application supports 20 users and the programmer says its capacity is for 15 users and more than 20 users slows the speed of the system, I'll go with the programmer and write this software provides optimum performance for 15 users.

I also believe in these points from Agile Software Development.
(I read these points on Google Blogoscoped)

# Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Example: I've found this works with programmers. Instead of asking them to send an email explaining the features. I'll go to their cubicles, spend half-an-hour and ask them in Hindi about how this works, what it does, and what's so good about it that I should write for the users.

# Working software over comprehensive documentation
Usability first. Writing later.

# Responding to change over following a plan
Example: No point in writing about a product if you feel it is not good. Better tell them, this is not documentation worthy. A writer has to use the product and then write as a user.

What skills do I have to be a Technical writer?

- Passion
- Knowledge of how users read on the Net
- Ability to write with examples that interact with different audiences
- Marketing skills, good research skills, people skills
- Excellent search skills.
# If it is on Google. It is searchable.
- Usability and web design skills
- Web development and coding skills
- Fast learner
- Read a lot.
- Always open to experiment with writing
- Follow a subject verb agreement style for smooth writing
# Chirayu takes the first step and explores a writing opportunity.
# Infosys values its people at $6.4 billion.
# MSN improves its Desktop Search application.
# 'XYZee' introduces data management solution for system consultants.
- Nothing is impossible. I have to start. That's it.
- I believe in myself.
# I've the ability to write Web content, marketing copy, search marketing copy, technical copy, domain-specific technical copy, write and understand code, design web sites, do research, and much more.
- Do it fast. Keep it simple. Get it right the first time.

What do I need to learn?

- Domain-specific technical writing
Example: Telecom, PLM, e-learning

- Technical writing softwares.

Who am I?
I'm a simple guy with big dreams.
I'm a Web writer and an Internet researcher.
I've learnt my writing from Google, using it as an example of design, usability, writing, and web content and searching Google to find anything.

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