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Adobe Robohelp

Following the NBA Can Make You a Better Technical Writer

May 26, 2009 • general

Kenyon Martin screens for Carmelo Anthony
Kenyon Martin screens for Carmelo Anthony

Even if you aren't watching the NBA playoffs (professional basketball), you'll probably get the point of this post. Watching a pro basketball team, one thing you realize is that each player has a special position and strength, and they play those strengths rather than their weaknesses.

For example, even when Kenyon Martin has an open jump shot 20 feet away, he often doesn't take the shot but instead passes it to his teammates, such as Smith or Kleiza, who are much better shooters. Likewise, although Billups and Kleiza may grab a rebound now and then, you won't see them posting up for the rebound like the other larger players, such as Kenyon Martin or Chris Andersen, the "Bird Man."

Nene and Anthony have incredibly powerful drives from the side and manage to get close to the rim in just a few spins, but they aren't the point guards dribbling the ball. They leave the ball handling at the top for Billups and Smith. Everyone plays their strengths, not their weaknesses. That's how the Nuggets win games.

Even teams with MVP players like Kobe Bryant and Lebron James, who both manage to score from virtually every place on the court, basically have this same strategy: let Kobe and Lebron shoot or drive while the others rebound, screen, or create opportunities for them. Imagine if Kobe stopped shooting the ball and instead took up rebounding, while 7-foot Pau Gasol started playing point guard? Yes, a disaster.

As a technical writer, unless you're a one-person show for a small startup, most likely you have others on your team who have strengths you can leverage. You may have audiovisual experts, graphic designers, jQuery experts, database developers, genius marketers, and more. You can try to play all positions, but you'll ultimately be at a disadvantage if you do. At times you'll be like Shaq playing point guard, or Kobe trying to box out Yao Ming.

I've been trying to play up my strengths more. I'm not a designer, but our organization has a little design shop that we can send projects to. Rather than spending hours trying to design the cover of my manual, only to have it look okay, I asked one of the professional designers to do it.

In branding the online help, I know I could spend all day in Photoshop and Flare, getting the skin to look right. Instead, now that Doc Guy Paul Pehrson joined our team, and knowing that he's a whiz with Flare, I asked him to set up the online help skin with the same branding as the application. Within a few hours, he was finished.

The same philosophy applies to WordPress. I could spend a weekend learning Python to write a migration script to move content from Expression Engine to WordPress, or I could hire a coder with EE migration experience to do it in a few hours.

If there's one thing I've learned from basketball, it's this: play your strengths, minimize your weaknesses. This isn't a principle limited to technical writing or basketball; it applies life in general.

In order to play your strengths, you have to first recognize them. What are you good at? What comes easy for you? What's something you find enjoyable and fulfilling? Once you identify it, look for ways to do more of it.

Similarly, identify your weaknesses. What do you procrastinate? What do you basically suck at? If it's not something you can easily improve with practice, identify others who are better at it. Then spend more time playing your strengths and less time trying doing what you're poor at. And with this strategy, you win.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.