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October 6, 2008

The Golden Rule of technical writing

I stumbled upon a list of tips for technical writers, and I was glad to see tip 7:

Understand Your Target Audience. Write and revise your content according to how your target audience thinks and understands things. Getting into their heads–knowing how their minds process information, how they might react, what they feel is important–allows you to customize your content to tailor-fit their needs.

I would put that tip at the top of the list, but that’s a quibble.

Sarah and I mention the topic of audience a lot in our Technical Writing 101 book; I think it is the most important thing for writers to remember as they create content. You can have an elegant XML-based publishing system that generates all sorts of output with the push of a button, but if your information doesn’t address the needs of users, all the work put into the content and into the process itself is wasted.

That waste becomes even more acutely painful when a user abandons your information and finds helpful content on a blog, wiki, or forum. The contributors of that information probably don’t know (or even care) that they followed the Golden Rule of technical documentation: Audience, audience, audience.