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October 5, 2010

Anyone can write

published in STC Intercom, September/October 2010

“Anyone can write.” How many times have you heard that tired cliché? And how did it ascend to a cliché? It’s pretty clear to me that most people are terrible writers. When someone says, “Anyone can write,” they actually mean, “Our writing standards are so low that anyone can meet them.”

In other words, high-quality writing is not needed or valued. “Anyone can write” should really be “Anyone can write well enough for what we need.”

How can you succeed professionally in a world where your primary job skill is not valued? One approach is to challenge the assumption that anyone can write, usually by ripping bad writing to shreds with a lovely red pen. This sometimes works, but more often, it makes everyone defensive.

In today’s world, anyone can write and publish on an equal footing with technical communicators. In fact, someone who uses your organization’s products and blogs about them can easily acquire a bigger audience than the official technical documentation. Evangelizing for writing excellence and therefore content creation as the private domain of trained professionals is probably not going to work.

Instead of arguing that others are not worthy/can’t write/always forget to spell-check, technical communicators need to focus on bringing value to their organizations. This requires a reassessment of the technical communication responsibilities from the top down; that is, strategically. Most technical communicators are accustomed to thinking tactically.

The Tactical Approach

The tactical, or short-term, approach follows these steps: A new product is developed within your organization. You take a look at the product and determine it has 100 different functions. You divide up those functions into topics, write the topics, assemble into help and/or books, maybe create context-sensitive help, and ship. Perhaps you campaign to get more time or more writers because there’s too much to do.

The Strategic Approach

The strategic approach is to let go of the technical communicator as the only—or even best—source of information. Consider where your limited time is best spent. Perhaps it is to provide a roadmap for a complex installation process? Maybe you should focus on explaining the various product modes that seem to be a source of confusion. How about a video for a specific area? In addition to writing content, however, the technical communicator needs to develop a content plan that takes into account the other source of content—the user community. This plan needs to include items such as the following:

  • Will there be user-editable content (typically a wiki)? If so, what information will be in the wiki initially? Will there be article stubs? Will there be content? Will articles be edited? Approved? Promoted?
  • Where can users discuss the product (typically a forum)? How will the forum be organized? What categories are needed? What sort of rights will users have in the forums? Who will moderate the forums? What will be the forum policies?
  • Will you provide a platform for users to comment on your content? For example, will you allow comments on your topics? Will there be an email feedback form? Will comments be published immediately or moderated? Who will moderate? What will be the policy be? How quickly will you incorporate user comments and send out updates?
  • Don’t overlook others within your organization who produce content. Do the software developers provide some documentation? Does the marketing communications team create a review guide? Use these sources as much as possible.

In short, you need a plan to address user-generated content in addition to a plan to create your own content.

If you work with your user community, you can end up with better technical communication than you can working by yourself or with a limited team of professionals. Your content will be better written than the users’ content, but theirs is probably good enough. And you have now positioned yourself as the person who understands how to get content done, even when you don’t have enough resources.