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

by Tom Johnson on Oct 30, 2013 •
categories: technical-writing

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 San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.

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