Posts tagged ‘Customer interaction’

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?

James

May 11, 2011 at 8:36 am 7 comments

Content Strategists

Why does business writing have such a bad reputation? Not just the policy or procedural stuff either, even the new-age marketing blurbs are stale. The words you see on every second business website like “cost-effective end-to-end solutions” or “value-added services” tell you next to nothing, and what businesses need to remember is that for the trigger-happy internet consumer, the click of a mouse button is all it takes to leave.

To stand out as a business nowadays, especially on the internet, you must be different. And the best way to do that is to be yourself, or at least be as human as possible. Social networking has changed the way people “take in” what they read on the internet by almost allowing them to picture the people entering the content. Websites that are impersonal no longer engage the audience.

This is part of the reason we have seen the emergence of the “Content Strategist”. It’s not the easiest job role to define, but to put it simply it is the planning of content creation, delivery and its governance, which is no longer part of a web-designers role (if it ever was). The notion of content management has been around for a long time; creating, editing, approving, publishing and removing content. Content strategy however, as the name implies, takes a strategic view of this content and examines how the goals of the organisation are served by the content it produces.

The knowledge of how to manipulate search engines is crucial for a content strategist. On the very surface it’s as simple as knowing the words a potential customer would type into a search engine, and placing them on your website (or in a tagline), but it goes much further than that. You can make the most of Google advertisements on these searches, or have your website improve its search “rank” just by having links in the right places.

My initial reaction to finding out about Content Strategists was of relief. Someone had finally blended the technical writers with the marketing team, divisions that never seemed to previously coordinate with each other. Nowadays businesses are challenged to serve up content in increasingly innovative ways, and it is those whose focus has shifted from visually appealing graphics and words to how the content is actually delivered who are really prospering.

Part of the content delivery solution is the way that content is structured. For more information on this see the following links:

Information Mapping

–      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_mapping

–      http://www.infomap.com/

Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA)

–      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darwin_Information_Typing_Architecture

–      http://dita.xml.org/

May 16, 2010 at 10:21 pm 3 comments


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