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Documentation Workbook Series. Step 3 Presenting Information (Technical Writing)

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This booklet is part of Step 3 Presenting of the five-step documentation process (Step 1 – Capturing Information, Step 2 – Structuring Information, Step 3 – Presenting Information, Step 4 –Communicating Information, Step 5 – Storing and Maintaining Information). This booklet provides some basic tips, techniques, approaches and exercises for understanding and practicing effective technical writing.

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Documentation Workbook Series. Step 3 Presenting Information (Technical Writing)

  1. 1. SUPERCHARGING YOUR DOCUMENTATION 1 TECHNICAL WRITING By Adrienne Bellehumeur www.leadersinbusinessanalysis.com This booklet is part of Step 3 Presenting of the five-step documentation process (Step 1 – Capturing Information, Step 2 – Structuring Information, Step 3 – Presenting Information, Step 4 –Communicating Information, Step 5 – Storing and Maintaining Information). This booklet provides some basic tips, techniques, approaches and exercises for understanding and practicing effective technical writing. WORKBOOK SERIES 3
  2. 2. 1 | P a g e CHALLENGE Crash Course in Technical Writing Effective technical writing is key to ensuring that your documentation is understandable, usable and ultimately adds value. Once you have understood how to Capture the relevant information you need (Step 1) and then Structure your documentation (Step 2), it is time to ensure that your audience understands it. Effective technical writing is key to ensuring that your documentation is understandable, usable and ultimately adds value. Effective documentation shares the same fundamentals as corporate communications, demanding conscious effort to get the message across to readers. Unfortunately, most documenters make the common – and inexcusable – assumption that no one is actually going to read their document. Why bother documenting if no one is going to read it anyway? Don’t you have something better to do? The Two Key Concepts of Technical Writing: Clarity + Engagement You have probably been out of school for some time and are therefore caught up in the grind of work. With so many documents and emails being exchanged, it is easy to become complacent about your writing skills. There are many rules of grammar which this booklet does not cover; you are recommended to consult another source if you are interested in brushing up. This booklet does, however, emphasize the two most important concepts when it comes to improving your technical writing: (1) Clarity and (2) Engagement. PERSONAL INSIGHT Being a good writer is critical to your career success.
  3. 3. 2 | P a g e CLEAR CONCEPTS FOR EFFECTIVE WRITING Clarity: Your reader must be able to understand your document easily and immediately. Make every word and visual aid have a function, and leave out unnecessary elaboration. Business writing is practical – you aren’t writing poetry or a thriller novel. + Engagement: Your reader must want to read your document. Writing must be engaging in order to be successful. You need to convey conviction in order to drive momentum: you are speaking from the voice of the expert. KEY POINTS  Get to the Point — Quickly You want the reader to understand your topic as quickly as possible. You must have the reader’s end goal in mind at all times.  Simplify Your Language Make your text short and snappy by simplifying your grammar and vocabulary. Shorten sentences by cutting out as much punctuation as you can without affecting the readability of the sentence. Use fewer commas, more periods, and no semicolons at all, if possible.  Structure the Document When structuring your article, its sub-sections, and each sentence, imagine an inverted pyramid — put all the important information at the top, followed by supporting details. Always put the most important information in the main clause of each sentence. This technique helps a reader quickly find the information he or she needs.
  4. 4. 3 | P a g e QUICK TIPS: For Improving Technical Writing Use these quick tips for effective results: (1) Cut Down Your Use of the Passive Voice The passive voice is a plague on effective documentation. It reduces its clarity, consistency, and the efficiency and tightness of the writing. The passive voice is writing in which the subject of the sentence denotes the recipient of the action rather than the performer. For example, “the server was installed” represents the passive voice while “the technician installed the server” represents the active voice. The passive voice is also an easier, sloppier way of writing – so, it is very easy to fall into the trap of using it too much. 3instances when you need to use the passive voice in your writing: (1) When the actor is unknown or irrelevant (2) When you are talking about a general truth or (3) When you want to emphasize the person or thing acted on Excessive Use of the Passive Voice is detrimental to documentation, especially to process-related documents where it is essential to understand which people or systems are performing the actions. The good news is that this is easy to fix. Under your Grammar function in Microsoft Word, you can click on the “Passive Sentences” option and Word will automatically check for passive sentences for you.   Do not use: “The server was installed.”  Do use: “The Technician installed the server.”
  5. 5. 4 | P a g e (2) Use Punchy Titles, Bullets and Key Points Your audience wants to exert as little energy as possible when reading your work. They’ll just “skim” your document looking for the key points. So, make things easy for them. Headers, bullets and key points, often combined with effective visuals, are as important as the text. Some readers only read headers and bullets, and might even make a decision about your work based on reading only the Table of Contents. When assessing your document, it’s helpful to communicate the entire gist of your work within the headers, bullets and key points alone. Be sure to bold or highlight the key messages in your document so that your reader doesn’t have to go looking for them. Test out this technique with a co-worker. Can your reader understand your key messages through the headers, bullets, table of contents, and the bolded points alone? If they can understand most of what you are saying, then you have succeeded in making your document clear and easy to read. If not, invent more descriptive titles and bolded points and then try the test again. Do not use the Heading: “Interface Conclusions”  Do use the Heading: “Review of Critical Financial Interfaces: Results & Conclusions.” (3) Tame Your Acronyms and Buzz Words There is nothing more confusing than walking onto a project or into a new organization and being unable to understand a document because it is full of acronyms and buzz words. Acronyms and buzz words do not make you sound smarter. In most cases, they actually annoy your reader by hindering his or her ability to grasp your key messages. Avoid using them or define them upfront. In many cases, you should define acronyms and frequently used words in a thorough Glossary at the beginning of your document or as part of your documentation library.
  6. 6. 5 | P a g e Do not use: “The CSR gives all CCF’s to the TL at the end of the day.”  Do use: “The Customer Service Representative (CSR) gives all customer complaint Forms (CCF’s) to the Team lead at the end of the day.” (4) Remove Deadwood Any word or phrase that does not add value will lessen the impact of your documentation. Take it out. Look out for excessive use of these words… o At this point in time o however o due to the fact that o that is o moreover o as well as o furthermore o and so (5) Use Clear Wording Be careful with the words you choose. Use plain, concise wording and steer clear of verbose language. Here are commonly used words that have simpler alternatives. Replace:  Consolidate with Combine  Pursue with Follow  Utilize with Use  Endeavor with Try  Commence with Start  Peruse with Check
  7. 7. 6 | P a g e EXERCISE: Look Out for the Passive Voice Get a partner, preferably a co-worker, who is also interested in improving his or her Technical Writing skills. Now that you have learned to watch out for excessive use of the passive voice, let’s see how much you are using it in your current writing. You can do this exercise on your own or working with a partner (or co-worker). This exercise will help you to understand how you are currently using the passive voice. It will also give insight into how to improve your use of both passive and active voices. STEPS: (1) Pick a document that you are working on. (2) Turn on the “Passive Sentences” function in Microsoft Word. (3) Count how many times that you used the passive voice. (4) With your partner, discuss your results.  Where should you be using the active voice instead of the passive voice?  Where is your use of the passive voice appropriate? (5) Create a new separate document and rewrite the original document to change your passive sentences into the active voice where appropriate. (6) Read the original document and the revised documents out loud to your partner.
  8. 8. 7 | P a g e THINGS TO CONSIDER… Which document is clearer to understand? Where did the active voice improve the clarity of your document? Where was it difficult to get rid of the passive voice? Explain Why? Where was the use of the passive voice appropriate or necessary?
  9. 9. 8 | P a g e Writing Tip – THE 7±2 Rule The human mind can remember 7±2 related items in short-term memory at one time. This is also why there are seven dwarfs, nine members of the Brady Bunch, and "seven strangers" on MTV's The Real World. When you put together a procedure, try to limit it to a maximum of seven or nine steps. If you have a very long procedure, break it into tasks. Each task has a maximum of seven or nine steps. ADDITIONAL ONLINE RESOURCES: Technical Writing http://idratherbewriting.com/ http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/ http://www.bartleby.com/141/ http://www.sensei.ie/communication/8-essential-online-resources-for-technical-writers/ https://technicalwritingtoolbox.com/technical-writing-resource/ http://www.writing.utoronto.ca/advice/general/essay-topics

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