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Everything I needed to know about technical writing I learned in preschool...

Oct 30, 2013 • general

the basics

Have you ever considered that technical writing is much, much simpler than we make it out to be? I think I learned the most important principles in preschool:

  • Tell a story.
  • Draw a picture.
  • Make a conversation.
  • Play a game.
  • Go on a visit.

Of course we have grown-up names for these same activities:

  • story = Corporate narrative
  • picture = Visual communication
  • conversation = Vernacular writing style
  • games = Gamification or engagement techniques
  • visit = Contextual inquiry

But really, we can simplify the whole process by getting back to the basics. First, consider the story you're addressing. What problem is the user trying to solve? What scenario are they stuck in? What trouble have they encountered?

When you communicate, don't just throw words at the reader. Illustrate the ideas visually with sketches and other illustrations.

Anticipate questions the user has, and answer those questions. Engage in an imaginary dialogue or conversation with the user.

Invite the user to try out the concept with a real activity, especially in the form of a game. Issue a challenge or a puzzle for the user to solve, something to act on so the user can learn by doing in a fun way.

Finally, either before or after the process, visit users in their environments. Visit the support database (where so much user feedback lives), the search metrics, the forum messages, the sent email. Don't just remain isolated in your cube. Go out and interact either physically or virtually.

When you consider your job as telling stories, drawing pictures, making conversations, playing games, and going on visits, technical writing is a lot more fun. You're not just writing procedural documentation in a cube all day. You're doing the same activities you did in preschool, but in a more grown-up way.


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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.