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The Right Way and Wrong Way to Teach People WordPress: Notes from a Wordcamp Utah Planning Meeting at Applebees

by Tom Johnson on Apr 11, 2008
categories: blogging technical-writingwordpress

Tonight I attended a WordCamp Utah planning meeting at Applebees with a group of blogging enthusiasts.

Joseph Scott, one of the WordPress developers employed by Automattic, organized the event and is taking charge of the upcoming Wordcamp, which looks like it will be in September to avoid competition with other conferences (Blog World, Open Source, and New Media Expo).

Wordcamp Dallas a Success

By the way, Charles Stricklin of the WordPress Podcast just put on a Wordcamp in Dallas, and you can check out the latest videos on his site to see what Wordcamp is like (also read his notes on how to put on a Wordcamp, Part 1 and Part 2). Personally, I've never been. But I have attended Podcamp.

My Lesson Learned Tonight: Simplicity, Simplicity

Now, on to the point. After discussion about sponsors, sessions, venues, registration, etc., discussion shifted to more casual topics, and I asked Joseph for some advice on the upcoming WordPress session I'm giving at Doc Train.

The title of my presentation is From Novice to Geek: Getting Started with WordPress. "Geek" is a pretty generous term considering that I only have 60 minutes, and I won't have a computer lab.

Joseph said I should focus on the tasks people will most commonly perform on a daily basis. People need to know how to write posts and pages, and how to deal with comments. I don't need to get into how to tweak specific CSS styles, how to modify the loop or alter PHP tag parameters, or do anything advanced.

Lessons from an Immunization Study

In fact, one blogger from Twelve Horses mentioned a study about immunizations. Apparently a researcher found that the less information you give people about immunizations, the more likely they are to show up for immunizations. In contrast, inundate them with info, and they rarely appear.

I don't want to scare people with talk about MySQL databases, PHP scripting, or anything like that. I will keep it simple.

Quick Reference Guides Are Like Chocolate to Users

Joseph said people will also benefit from a handout that contains brief, concise instructions -- for example, the simple steps to writing a post.

It's not necessary to be thorough with info about trackbacks, comments and pings, custom fields, and tags below the post. Or to explain how to timestamp the publication or change the slug (URL) of the post.

He even recommended tools like Windows Live Writer so that people can author in an environment they feel comfortable in.

Keep it S-I-M-P-L-E

Keep it simple, concise, and brief. Don't go into all the detail that is possible. Doing so will only intimidate people and make them hesitant to move forward with blogging.

The same approach could be said of any software application. Users want brief, concise instructions to help them get started. Almost all help documentation should probably have at least two deliverables: the 200 page searchable reference guide, and the 10 page quick start guide.

The Progression of Learning

Once people get the basics down, they start clicking a bit more and exploring the program. They may begin checking out the tabs under Design, and look at the code of the theme files.

But in the first hour, they need the basics. Here's how you log in. Here's how you publish a post. Here's how you insert an image. Here's how you respond to a comment. Here's how you create some categories and pages.

Maybe I'll have a follow up WordPress session for anyone with advanced-type questions. (I'm already holding a podcast meetup, so one on WordPress would just be ad hoc.)

WordPress and the Tech Writer Audience

One blogger advised me that I must know my audience. Some people apparently show up at SXSW conferences thinking they're giving an introduction to a technology, and the audience consists of PHP hackers who want to go straight to the advanced techniques.

But my experience with technical writers is that, while learning technology is their job during the day, it's not often their hobby at home. The less difficult, the better.

WordPress Needs Technical Writers, Not Just Plugin/Theme Developers

While I'm on the topic of WordPress .... you know, I think WordPress could really benefit from the talents of technical writers. There is no WordPress Getting Started Guide that appears on the home page. No online help integrated in the application.

The WordPress Codex, while thorough, is not something the beginner turns to happily. The Codex rivals the complete works of Shakespeare in length. Nobody reads it cover to cover; they search it, and hope it's up to date. And it keeps growing, and growing.

Thoughts on Meetups and the STC

I realized tonight something critical: the blogger's casual dinner format works. Every month the bloggers get together at a nearby restaurant and chat for a couple of hours.

Contrast that with the STC, where we feel we need an official presentation, someone to come in and lecture to everyone for an hour or more. Not enough networking takes place at STC meetings, maybe 10 to 15 minutes.

The STC needs a new model. We don't need more interesting presentation topics delivered on a monthly basis. Everyone has his or her own tools and methods and problems. It's rare that you attend an STC presentation that actually addresses an immediate need you have.

On the other hand, casual networking, such as with the blogger dinner, allows this flexibility. You can exchange info with others who have similar interests. You can get right to the core of any problems or questions you have, and build camaraderie and friendship in a community of other like-minded professionals. Food is the magic ingredient of conversation. We need regular social dinners!

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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