A Tech Writer’s Guide to Google’s Season of Docs

This week, Google launches the second Season of Docs (GSoD) program, where technical writers of all levels of experience team up with developers of free and open-source software (FOSS) to improve project documentation — at Google’s expense.

The world of open source applications has a reputation (sometimes earned) for not-so helpful user documentation. It is no accident that UNIX and its children Linux and FreeBSD have been called “user-hostile” by some. Season of Docs aims to change that.

Fifty open source organizations are participating in this year’s GSoD, including the Linux Foundation, WordPress, the Julia programming language and the Global Wordnet Association.  Start exploring the list here.

In 2019, Google funded documentation projects for 39 mentor organizations with at least one documentation improvement project submitted to the Season of Docs program administrators. These ranged from well-known applications like LibreOffice, PostgreSQL, and the Wikimedia Foundation to scientific institutions like the CERN High Energy Physics program and US National Resource for Network Biology to the Open3D API documents. See the complete list of 2019 projects here.

I encourage you to participate in GSoD if you have at least some experience creating software documentation and want to learn more. This experience is especially valuable if you’re interested in open source software. If you’re interested in working for Google, you should also know that one thing Google gets out of this program is the ability to identify promising candidates.

To participate in GSoD: You have to be at least 18 years old, have some technical writing samples to include in your application, be legally able to work in the country you’re living in, and not living in a country on which the United States has imposed an economic embargo.

If you have questions about the program, review the program’s Technical Writer Guide.

Getting Started

Google released the list of approved projects and mentors on Monday May 11. Now it’s time for writers like you to explore them and decide what you’d like to do.

Finding a Project Worth Doing

The list of participating organizations is long. You can apply for up to three projects, but can only be selected for one, so choose carefully! Here’s how you can approach this:

  • Review all the project websites: Who are the users? Can they learn what they need to get started today? Where can you help?
  • If the product runs on your operating system, install it. If you’re interested enough, try setting up another operating system in a virtual machine, and get some experience that way.
  • If the project runs on the internet, try using the service. Is the process logical? Can you suggest a better way to use the system, or at least explain it better?
  • If it’s a large project, the documentation area may identify members of the Doc team. Not everyone will be quite as transparent and open with their processes as the WordPress Documentation team, but perhaps you can make an early connection.
  • Can you identify a greater need than their proposed project?
  • If you select this project, will the next 3-9 months be fun?

Connecting with a project

Every approved project has two administrators and several mentors to guide the writer through the project. Use the contact email addresses to connect with them. As you explore your options, get to know these people. More often than not, your mentors will be developers who should be your allies: they (a) understand the software and how it works, and (b) want to improve the docs so that more people can use the software.

You also want to see if the folks assigned to Season of Docs understand what’s possible in the months that you’ll be working with them. Most projects are approved for a three-month period, though some folks work on “long-running projects” that continue through March 2021. Here’s where both you and your mentors can work on time-estimation skills. Don’t design a Gigantic Project, unless you can define what portion of the Gigantic Project will get done during GSoD. It will be your job to produce a report on what was accomplished during the Season of Docs, so defining what’s possible will lead to greater success.

Preparing your application

So you’ve narrowed your choices of project to no more than three. You’ve gotten to know some of the mentors and members of your project team, and you have at least a basic idea of what documents you’re going to write. Starting June 9, you can start filling out your (single) application form.

Here’s what you need:

The Basics: Name and email address (associated with a Google Account), plus a “display name,” or handle. Not unlike what you’d use on Twitter or other social media, the display name shouldn’t be your real name, but should still be unique. That way, you retain some anonymity with the project people you have perhaps interacted with over the past month. Projects must base their selections based just on what you share in the application.

Your Experience: A description of up to three documentation projects you’ve worked on. These entries don’t have to be recent, but should be ones you’re proud of. If you’ve worked on other open-source documentation projects, that’s probably a plus too. You may also include a resume, a link to a portfolio of your best work, and a cover letter with additional information about you and your experience. These latter bits are optional.

Your Project Proposal(s): This is probably the most critical section of your application. Here is where you show what you’ve learned from the conversations with the organization(s) you’ve decided to work with during GSoD. Google wants a detailed description of your project. Explain exactly what you’re going to do with this organization’s documentation and how you plan to bring your project to a successful conclusion. Take great care in how you write this section: Grammar and spelling count! Everyone will also be looking for how you use language to describe your project; use active voice and minimal jargon (unless you make it absolutely clear that the audience for these docs knows exactly what you mean by “adjusting the veeblefestzer.”

Length of Project: Most GSoD projects run for three months in the fall, but if you and your organization agree that another six months would offer greater benefit to the organization and its users, you can apply for a “long-running project.”

Acceptance of Stipend: Google will pay you a substantial sum at the end of the project, but there are conditions attached that you have to agree to at the time you apply. If you can’t agree to the contract, you can indicate on the application that you’ll perform the project as a volunteer.

Before you submit, ensure that the application is complete, and your project proposals are the best they can be. The application is due July 9, 2020 at 1800 UTC.

The organizations will review applications for the rest of July, and Google will sort out any dual winners the first week of August. Successful applications will be announced on August 16.

Sidebar: Important Dates

The Season of Docs process is reasonably simple, but thorough. Here’s the calendar:

Project Selection DayMay 11
Technical Writer Applications DueJuly 9, 1800 UTC
Organizations Matched with WritersAugust 16
  1. Open Source project organizations who want to participate in GSoD find administrators and mentors to manage the process. They apply to GSoD, sometimes with a list of ideas for possible documentation projects, but those aren’t written in stone. (April 13 – May 4, 2020).
  2. Google selects from the submitted project proposals (May 11).
  3. Writers explore organizations and mentors, aiming to find a fit for your skills and interests. You may share your own ideas for projects with admins and mentors. (May 11 – June 8)
  4. Writers prepare applications, focusing on your experience and what you intend to do with the project. You can apply for up to three projects, but will only work on one thing. (June 9 – July 9)
  5. Organizations review writer applications, looking for appropriate fits, much like Step 3 for the writers. (July 9 – 31)
  6. Google matches writers with projects; announces them on August 16
  7. Writers work with mentors to produce the docs (Standard projects: September 14 – November 30, through March 1, 2021 for long-running projects).
  8. Writers and projects prepare final report on what got done.
  9. Writers get stipend ($6000 in the US and Canada; a proportional number elsewhere around the world).

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