Users’ Advocate: Developing a Theory of the User

Every document is written for a reader, which means that every writer has a theory of the reader -- an idea of who the reader is. In technical communication, the reader is a user (of a product or service). Every technical writer, therefore, has a theory of the user. However the theory of the user manifests, it profoundly affects how the document is written. Continue reading ...

you can't please everyone

Users’ Advocate: You Can’t Please Everyone

My book is currently in the final stages of revision, and I have been very fortunate to have some of the leading lights in tech comm agree to provide feedback on my drafts. So far, no two people have said the same thing about the same passage, not even once. You can't please everyone. Continue reading ...

Users’ Advocate: We Have to Treat the Buyer as a User

Traditionally tech comm has tried to steer clear of marketing and all its works. Many tech writers still seem to have a strong aversion to anything that smacks of marketing, regarding it as either fluff, or outright dishonest. Here’s the problem, though. The buyer is a user too, and what works for the novice user, or for the expert user, does not always work for the buyer. Continue reading ...

Users' Advocate

Users’ Advocate: Where Have All the Users Gone?

As I begin my stewardship of the Users' Advocate column, I think it is important to begin by asking, where have all the users gone? Thirty years ago, tech comm had a more or less captive audience. If users wanted information on your product, they looked at the manual. They didn't have much choice. Today, when the user has a question or encounters a problem with your product, the first thing they do is to Google it. Continue reading ...

Ten Design Principles and When to Violate Them

Dieter Rams, a German industrial designer from the functionalist school, followed a philosophy that will sound familiar when I paraphrase it: “form follows function” and “usability is fitness for purpose.” You know his work if you've used any Braun products released from the 1960s to the 1990s, or if you've used recent Apple products, many of which were inspired by his design principles. Let’s look at what technical communicators can learn from these principles—and when we should consider violating them. Continue reading ...

Writer’s Block: Different Causes Have Different Solutions – Part 2

Practicalities are obstacles you can solve by choosing an appropriate strategy and then gritting your teeth and doing the necessary work. Because they aren’t psychological barriers, they’re much easier to get past because all you need to do is force yourself to follow the appropriate steps, possibly with help from friends and colleagues. You don’t always need your muse to be able to write: some aspects of writing, such as developing a timeline or plot outline, are fairly mechanical. Since you’re the only one who will see them, they don’t have to be perfect. Continue reading ...

Writer’s block: Different Causes Have Different Solutions – Part 1

Writing should be exciting and pleasurable, and most of the time it is. But if you’re a dedicated professional who earns your living from writing, writing is also a job, and even the most exciting job sometimes grows boring or frustrating or stressful. When that happens, you may find yourself “blocked”: unable to write, and not sure why. That’s particularly true for technical communicators like me, who also enjoy writing fiction in those rare free moments between paying work. ( Continue reading ...

Create Technical Writing Consistency While You Write—Or Add it Later

One of the primary tasks any writer or editor must perform is to impose consistency on a manuscript. Consistency is particularly important for technical writers, because it makes the task of writing easier: if you don’t have to develop a new solution each time you face the same problem, you can simply find a solution that works for all occurrences of that problem and use it thereafter. From the technical writer’s perspective, it’s best if you try to build in that consistency right from the start, because it can save you a lot of time both in your initial draft and in your subsequent revisions. Continue reading ...

Save Time by Mastering the Basics: Efficient Movement within a File

We technical communicators aren’t so different from the rest of the world: we tend to reach a comfortable plateau in our skills, and so long as we’re meeting our deadlines reasonably efficiently using those skills, we tend to lack the motivation to pay close attention to what we’ve been doing and look for improvements. But what if I told you that you could potentially save 15 minutes per day without doing anything more arduous than mastering three new keyboard shortcuts? Continue reading ...