Five Keys to Starting a Successful Technical Writing Project
Most tech departments have awful documentation because they don’t take the time to plan it out.
Identify your audience
The first step in starting a successful documentation or written communication project is to identify the audience. Ask yourself, “who are my readers?”
Generalize your intended audience as a group — their role, education level, skill level and experience level with the system.
This helps set your tone and format. Are you writing for a group that supports the system, is educated and technically competent? Or is this a group that uses the system, is not educated and not technically competent?
Figuring this out up front will help tailor the documentation to the specific audience.
Identify your purpose
The second step is to identify the purpose of your communication. Ask yourself, “what do I want my readers to do or accomplish?”
Put yourself inside the head of someone in your intended audience. Think about what you want them to be able to do once they read your communication. This is your communication’s purpose.
Identify your desired outcome
The third step involves blending the first two steps together so you can identify your desired outcome and set the tone. The outcome is different than the purpose. The outcome is what you want to see happen, once your readers do or accomplish the purpose.
Examples of this technical communication process in action
Scenario #1: your organization assigns you a project to write a standard operating procedure for internal technical staff.
Who are your readers? Internal technical staff.
What do you want your readers to do or accomplish? Learn and follow a standard operating procedure to perform a specific task.
What is your desired outcome? To empower the staff with the knowledge of the procedure, ensure uniform standards and make their jobs more efficient.
Scenario #2: your organization assigns you to draft a proposal to a government agency seeking a contractor to perform specific work.
Who are your readers? Government managers and contracting specialists.
What do you want your readers to do or accomplish? Learn about all your company can offer in support of this contract.
What is your desired outcome? Convince the readers to agree with your argument that your company is the best equipped to perform the work at the most optimal cost.
Set the tone
The third step in starting a successful technical communication project is to set the tone.
Here is where we break down the purpose of your project. Technical communications typically have two high-level purposes: information and argument. Sometimes you will only need to communicate information, and other times both information and an argument.
Informational communication is objective. You are not trying to sell anything or argue one method over another. You are simply presenting facts or a method. This can include the presentation of definitions, descriptions or instructions. Our earlier example of a standard operating procedure is informational communication.
Argumentative communication includes objective information, but presents a subjective view to press for one desired outcome over others. For example, a document can present several pieces of objective information, but then argue in favor of one over others.
This can include the evaluation, analyzation and presentation of information that draw conclusions to support one specific outcome over others. Our earlier example of a proposal for a government contract is argumentative communication.
Craft your mission statement
The fourth step is to put all the above information into a written mission statement. This will have your audience, purpose and outcome in one sentence:
We want to instruct our data center technicians in how to configure the operating system on a new server to meet our business needs and security standards.
In this scenario, you would go with an informational tone. You are not trying to sell anything or convince anyone; you are merely informing.
We want to convince the managers and contracting officers of the Department of Labor’s Department of Information Technology and Services to accept our company’s proposal to provide enterprise hardware technical support for their users.
In this case, we would go with an argument. You are not only informing the readers on your company and everything it can offer for the needs of the contract, but you want to convince them that you are the best.
Draft a work plan
The final piece of the puzzle is your draft work plan. This plan should record the title of the project, the mission statement, required personnel, any resources needed, task list, schedule and the budget.
Congratulations! You are ready to begin your technical communication project!