Online profiles and modern CVs

“An employer will look up a candidate’s online profile before hiring them”. I read this the other week, and not only did it make me head straight to Google and punch in my name, it made me think, really? Would an employer actually do this? To be fair it was an American website I was reading, and their affinity for blogging might make it a tad more relevant compared to us Kiwis, although I am blogging right now… but would employers really go there?

I spent a bit of time recently updating my CV (which in writer world means completely changing everything), and I thought of this online profile topic again. Is a modern CV supposed to include an online element? I suppose your email has always been there, but what about if you have work published online, or if you maintained a blog for business purposes. Do they feature? What if you also have a blog that is not for business purposes? You wouldn’t put that in, but according to my quotee your employer will find out about it anyway.

I found an example of CV that couldn’t really mash the two together any better. It’s entirely done in Facebook, references and all. As an employer I don’t know if i’d be impressed or appalled:

What do you think?



July 11, 2011 at 10:42 am 1 comment

Becoming best friends with Subject Matter Experts

A subject matter expert or SME (commonly said ‘smee’) is a person who has expert knowledge on a particular topic. This is normally due to the topic being the job they do or system they use every day. When on project as a technical writer, a SME is your best friend. In fact, SMEs tend to be the ones who will be using what you’re working on when you’re finished, so not only do you have to extract the information from them, you have to present it in a way they like too. You basically have to be their best friend.

Establishing this relationship with SMEs can sometimes be the most challenging part of the project. They’re often still doing their normal job while the project runs, so straight away you’re coming in from an annoying angle. But if you do the work well, and get them involved early, you’ll find it’s far easier.

The best way, both professionally and personally, to get SMEs on board with a project and its aim, is to get them involved as soon as possible. And by involved I mean with the project purpose, direction and expected outcomes, not just with the piece of work they can help with. If they know where their piece fits in the project puzzle they’ll naturally want to have more of an input.

It also helps if you explain your involvement to a SME. Like why you’re there, what you’re doing and how you’re going to do it. A useful approach when explaining this is to have already got stuck into the work and created what I call a ‘skeleton draft’ (or two). Having something to put in front of the SME is always helpful. The drafts make it easy to identify gaps and ask good questions, and show the SME straight away the style of work you are going to produce. If you’ve got time you can also work with the SME to scribble all over it touching up content, removing things that don’t work and highlighting the things that do. Then after a bit of a touch up you not only have a template, your SME has been involved in its creation from the get-go.

When a project changes from an interruption to being interesting, meetings are suddenly accepted and new records are set for turnaround times. Without any work tension you’ll often find that the SME is a really cool person too, while some even have an opinion on sport (a good thing)! I’ll admit that there are occasions where this isn’t foolproof, like if you’re developing something that will remove someone’s job, and that someone is the SME… but ideally, knowing how to do the job well leads to good SME relationships.

Do you have any pointers for building a good relationship with SMEs? Have you worked on any projects where your relationship with them was particularly good, or particularly awful? I’d love to hear your examples.


June 29, 2011 at 10:54 am Leave a comment

Using social networking for documentation

I have recently been reading a fair bit about how social networks are being used for technical communication. It’s a hot topic, and although some companies’ tech writing teams are already joining in conversations with users on Facebook, LinkedIn and their own user forums, how they include this kind of content in their documentation is what they are currently trying to get their heads around.

You may have already heard the term “Web 2.0” thrown around. It is the term that has been associated with websites that allow users to interact and collaborate with each other in a social media kind of dialogue. Or as Wikipedia so clearly puts it, “Web 2.0 is associated with web applications that facilitate participatory information sharing, interoperability, user-centered design, and collaboration on the World Wide Web.” Right…

From personal experience, this type of communication and user-influenced documentation has been seen in the online gaming world for some time.

Customer service-wise when players need help, they go to the game’s official website forums to ask the question. Then, more often than not, it is the other players that answer the question before any of the official game developers get a chance to. This happens regardless of how good the how-to documentation is. I think the thought process is along the lines of “why spend time researching when I can just ask?”

Additionally, as time goes by, these forums begin to replace the how-to documentation. The sea of discussion threads will appear very messy at first, but there will be a search function to tidy it up. Using keywords, you can filter discussions to often find exactly what you are after. And not only that, you can read an entire conversation that has already taken place about the issue or feature. If the conversations are too dated, that is when you may have to refer to the almost redundant how-to documentation. Or alternatively, you could start a new discussion…

Here are some examples I have come across recently of this growing Web 2.0 trend:

Writing procedures in Facebook

2morodocs talks about this very interesting concept. Some of the main advantages I gleaned from this were:
• Format – the Facebook layout bodes well for procedure writing
• Updates/changes – if your product is evolving, you can ensure everyone knows how and why as soon as it does.
• Customer service – as well as being able to provide real-time support (procedures are easy to write), by providing hints and tips you can also provide people with information they need, before they even know they need it.
• Relevance – by including regular features, you keep your product fresh and in peoples’ minds.

Hosting documentation in a wiki
There are two types of wiki, open and closed. Open wikis allow anyone to submit content, most famously demonstrated by Wikipedia, while closed ones only allow employees or specified users to add content. An open wiki can present problems, which mainly stem from managing and hosting the “crowd-sourced” content. Wikipedia does this by keeping the entire website level (there is no hierarchy or website architecture), but hosting business documentation this way is another matter. This is why the majority of businesses using a wiki for documentation (or thinking about doing so) are using a closed version.

I did find an example of an open wiki however, which uses a wiki called Confluence (there are numerous wikis that have been developed – i.e. Wikipedia uses MediaWiki). The company, Atlassian, developed the wiki themselves and this example is the wiki for their software application CROWD:

Including tips via Twitter
Websites can contain a text box that displays a continuously-updated list of tweets. It will recognise recent tweets containing a predefined word and display them. Anyone can write a tip and have it show on the page, which, when added to the homepage of a documentation website, gives it that freshly updated feel.
I found a good example of this while browsing Atlassian’s wikis. Their JIRA wiki has one:

Living documents – getting users involved
Sarah Maddox, a technical writer for Atlassian, gave a presentation recently at the WritersUA 2011 conference. Considering the work they are doing in this social networking field at Atlassian, I thought a link to the run down of what she said might be appropriate:

“At Atlassian, we’ve been using social media in various ways, to make our documentation a living, interactive hub where people can find the answers to their questions, talk to us, talk to each other, and use the documentation as a tool to help each other.”


May 23, 2011 at 9:11 am 2 comments

Defining technical writing

“So what do you do?”
“I’m a writer”
“That’s cool, what do you write about?”
“Oh not like that, I’m a technical writer”
“Oh right, okay. So umm… what’s that?”

This is how the conversation usually starts. The next part varies depending on the most recent projects I’ve done. Sometimes I’m a website developer, other times I’m a trainer, but most of the time I’m just plain confusing. Technical writing just isn’t one of those jobs everyone has heard of. Not surprisingly either, considering I am one and don’t know how to really describe it.

So I did some research and it appears I’m not alone. In business terms, technical writers are traditionally bad at expressing their value. We’re even worse when it comes to defining the product we deliver. Businesses tend to hire us to create documentation because they see it as necessary evil, rather than an opportunity to add value. And ‘adding value’ is exactly what a good technical writer does.

But I can’t simply describe my job as ‘adding value’. That’s even more ambiguous than where I started.

What I mean is that when a user reads some documentation for the first time their experience has a flow on effect. A satisfied user will come back (loyalty). They will talk about it in a good way (promotion). And in work situations will be able to do their job faster (efficiency).

So, to put it simply and not sound too boring, next time I’m in the above conversation I think I’ll just say “I keep a business’s users happy by making things easy to read, easy to find and easy to understand”. If they’re not satisfied with that and ask how, I may have to give them the long-winded version…

Technical writing is about modifying language and structuring information specific to users’ needs. We technical writers are communicators, and we have the ability to work directly with users and subject matter experts not only to extract information, but to learn directly from their perspective. This approach allows us ask the right questions, pinpoint assumptions and above all, tailor the information in a way that will be easiest for users (especially new ones) to understand.

We often take our language skills for granted (I really should stop generalising, but I’m sure I’m not alone here), which is a key element of being a technical writer. We don’t take long to figure out how to put something in words, editing time is minimal, content is clean and consistent, and more often than not we’re so used to typing that we do it at an alarming speed. I know this is starting to sound like a pitch, but I’m still on my ‘adding value’ tangent.

Do we have any other technical writers reading this? How do you describe what you do to friends? Do you actually call yourself a technical writer? Or are you a documentation developer, instructional designer, or something similar? And more importantly, have I completely overlooked the easiest way to answer the “what do you do” question?


May 11, 2011 at 8:36 am 7 comments

Shorten those words! Or just spell them wrong…

Mobile phones started it, online chat continued it, Facebook made it mainstream and Twitter took it to a whole new level. Bashing the English language has become the norm. If you use proper grammar and spell everything out in full nowadays, you’re the weird one!

There’s the common conception that there is a language called “txt speak”. And there is, but not as you know it. Generation Z (are we up to that yet?) use words like ‘lol’ as part of their everyday language… out loud. You’re not up with the play any more if you simply know what OMG stands for. “Txt speak”, if we have to put a label on it, is a continually developing language, and it’s Twitter that is adding the most recent touches to it.

I’m not talking about Twitter’s own language either, that’s another story altogether. In fact, I was recently on and learnt a few things for myself! Aside from the fact that you can add ‘Tw’ to the start of any word to add Twitter to its definition (I think the most amusing one I found was ‘Twurch’, which means providing sermons and scripture over Twitter), there were numerous new acronyms and a plethora of new words. And the prerequisite for word creation seems to be as simple as celebrities using it. Then if it starts getting RTd (re-tweeted) on a regular basis, it’s a word.

Twitter has also normalised the shortening of words like never before. It did start with txting, but not everyone picked up on it. And saying as much as possible while using as few characters as possible couldn’t be more important than when you’re Twittering – y wld u typ 4 ages whn u cn gt ur msg in 1 line?

If you want to remain fluent in “txt speak”, ensure you know the following so you aren’t lost from the word go:

• ICYMI – in case you missed it

• JSYK – just so you know

• IIRC – if I recall correctly

• IMHO – in my humble opinion

• DYK – did you know

• FTR – for the record

And the same applies to signing off. If someone ends a txt, Facebook or Twitter message with HAND, don’t look puzzled, they’re actually being nice. It means “have a nice day”.

What do you think of txt speak? Have you heard any interesting new words or acronyms lately? What do you think of people using the acronyms as part of everyday spoken conversation?


May 3, 2011 at 9:16 pm 6 comments

Why you should hire good writers

In his no-nonsense book about how to succeed in business, Jason Fried devotes an entire chapter to why businesses should hire great writers. The founder and CEO of the successful Web application company 37signals clearly values the skills good writers bring to a job – and it’s not just about their way with words:

“If you are trying to decide among a few people to fill a position, hire the best writer. It doesn’t matter if that person is a marketer, salesperson, designer, programmer, or whatever; their writing skills will pay off.

That’s because being a good writer is about more than writing. Clear writing is a sign of clear thinking. Great writers know how to communicate. They make things easy to understand. They can put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They know what to omit. And those are qualities you want in any candidate.

Writing is making a comeback, all over our society. Look at how much people email and text message now rather than talk on the phone. Look at how much communication happens via instant messaging and blogging. Writing is today’s currency for good ideas.”  Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, Rework: Change The Way You Work Forever


January 21, 2011 at 12:03 am Leave a comment

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