Top 4 benefits of writing a tech comm blog

Kai’s Tech Writing Blog was one year old last week! It’s been good to me, and the work it takes pays off in several benefits.

If you don’t keep a blog, my benefits below may help you decide whether you want to start one. And if you do have a blog, we can compare notes! 🙂

1. Improve ideas

My blog helps me to come to terms with trends and developments and to test drive new ideas. I usually try to have them thought through well enough, so I can publish something coherent and don’t just think out loud.

2. Connect with the community

My blog’s most important benefit is that I get to meet other tech writers who may have similar concerns, different solutions or interesting insights, whether they appear in posts on other blogs (see my blog roll on the right), in comments beneath my posts or on twitter. I get advice and can learn from smart and experienced people. And I can give back to the community when I can offer my experiences.

3. Picture progress

My blog lets me track my progress as a tech writer, much more so than weekly reports in my company. After several years, I don’t become a better tech writer by completing yet another manual, but rather by mastering a new method or by consolidating experiences into applicable insights. Such advances aren’t always immediately visible in a time sheet. In other words: My blog helps me to report on my development in a more personal, less corporate framework. Oh, and it’s nice to see the tag cloud changing (see Categories to the left)…

4. Write regularly

My blog has been habit-forming. From the start, one year ago, I decided to stick to a regular publication schedule with one or two posts per week. I still find that works best for me.

Writing 400 to 800 words per week, which usually don’t directly relate to my work at the office, has been a very good exercise. It encourages me to keep my eyes open for trends (even though I may take some time to pick them up). And it helps me to express myself clearly in less structured writing than my topics and manuals usually require.

– So that’s what motivates me to write one or two posts a week…

Your turn

If you keep a blog, what do you get out of it? If you’ve wondered about starting one, do you find these benefits reasonable or attractive? Please leave a comment.

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Reading outside the tech writing box

Can reading around improve your technical writing? Many writers recommend to read a lot, but discriminately: Margaret Atwood, P.D. James and A.L. Kennedy do,  Annie Proulx, Zadie Smith and Sarah Waters do too, when the The Guardian asked them for “Ten rules for writing fiction”. But does this apply to technical writing, too?

It took me a while to figure it out, but I think reading “outside the tech writing box” helps my tech writing. By “outside the box”, I mean reading beyond an immediate purpose, so I’m excluding writings about tech writing, such as books or blogs, specifications and style guides.

Technology journalism

Most effective for me is well-researched, well-written technology journalism:

  • It emphasizes stories and the people behind them and reminds me they are more important in my writing than the latest feature bonanza.
  • It helps me to focus on personas and my audience and reminds me where other people in the industry are at – or where they may be headed.
  • And with some luck, it’s fun to read and well argued and remind me to try and be engaging in my writing where appropriate.

The kind of writing I mean can be found in print and online in Wired, Slate and Salon, in the New York Times and the New Yorker, the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Columbia Journalism Review, in other blogs and magazines and newspapers.

If you like books, the annual anthology The Best of Technology Writing 2007, 2008, 2009 collects about two dozen articles each year that are frequently worth your while – especially since the first two volumes can be read online for free.

Let me give you a few examples which I think stand out above the majority of magazine articles and blog posts:

  • Jeff Howe’s “The Rise of Crowdsourcing(Wired,  June 2006) first explained to me how off-shoring and outsourcing got a new twist with crowdsourcing of stock photography (such as seen in this blog), serious R&D and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program.
  • John Seabrook’s “Game Master” (New Yorker, 6 Nov 2006) tells the story of Will Wright, the creator of video games such as Sims and Spore.
  • Emily Nussbaum’s “Say Everything” (New York Magazine, February 2007) showed me how people who are ten years younger than me have a completely different concept of privacy.
  • Dana Goodyear’s “I [Heart] Novels” (New Yorker, 22 Dec 2008) introduced me to cell-phone novels originating in Japan.
  • Clive Thompson’s “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy” (New York Times Magazine, 5 Sep 2008) provides an in-depth look at Facebook and portrays its founder Mark Zuckerberg.

What else?

If you’re focusing on a specific industry, you can probably also find outstanding journalism there which is worth hunting down. I’m in financial and banking software. So trying to find good articles with an expiration date beyond the next quarter has been especially interesting… A good starting point for me was an anthology by Michael Lewis and McSweeney’s called Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity with pieces written between 1987 and 2008.

Beyond that, I find my reading cannot inform my tech writing much. Recently, I really liked Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel for its insights what motivates both travel and art and its concise arguments backed up by well-written examples.

I’m also fond of E.M. Forster’s style and handling of plot and character in A Room with a View. These books, as well as many others, engage me and enrich my life – and remind me that there’s a reading life outside of my job… 😉

What do you think? Can reading help to improve your technical writing? What books, stories or articles have you found inspiring or helpful?

The kick ass curve

How long do your users spend in the “I suck” (or “this product sucks”) zone? Once they’ve crossed the suck threshold, how long does it take before they start to feel like they kick ass?

I don’t know anybody who illustrates the motivational angle of documentation better than Kathy Sierra. Her post “Attenuation and the suck threshold” from October 2005 has one of the most insightful, funniest curve charts I’ve ever seen. It may not apply to everything you’ll ever write, but I recommend it as a fresh perspective.

Does structured writing stifle creativity?

I hear that a lot, but I don’t think that structured writing limits creativity. Look at poetry, look at sonnets. That’s about the most regulated, structured writing you can get – and yet nobody thinks poets are not creative.

Today’s quote of the day is a paraphrase from one of the speakers at last year’s DocTrain West, but I can’t remember who. (If you remember saying this, I’ll be glad to credit you… 🙂 )

The idea stuck with me, because I think it’s a very apt comparison. Just as sonnets impose a certain number of lines and a choice of rhyme schemes, structured writing allows you to mix and match elements in topic types. It redirects the creative challenge to focus on contents.

As Sarah O’Keefe points out in her recent article “XML: The Death of Creativity in Technical Writing?“:

XML kills off the possibility of creativity in one specific area (formatting)… Technical communicators add the most value and have the most opportunity for creativity in crafting sentences, paragraphs, topics, and groups of topics that explain complex concepts to their readers. XML does not interfere with this mission.

What do you think? Does structured writing interfere with your creative impulses?

Content is a service, not a product

A couple of days ago, an intriguing tweet taught me a lesson about content – and the search for its source taught me another lesson about the benefits of twitter. It all started with this:

Content is a service, not a product. For consumers, less a thing they buy, more an experience.

This tweet by Scott Abel on Feb 23, 2010 made sense to me immediately. That day, I wondered how much content I had actually produced, compared to serving existing content to people who need it: I had converted a legacy document to a new template. A colleague had needed a use case which I told him could be found in the release notes. And some existing documentation needed to be made available in a new channel. So my readers needed me to supply content, not to create more of it.

Then I noticed Scott’s tweet RT’ed a less telegraphic tweet by Aptara from Feb 17, 2010. Attached to it was a link…

… which led to a blog post by NewFiction.com from Feb 9, 2010 that ended in a link to its source…

… which was an article by Kevin Keller in Business Week from Feb 7, 2010, “What Murdoch Still Doesn’t Get About the Internet”: Content isn’t a product anymore, it’s a service. Because for consumers, content is less and less a thing they buy and more a thing they experience. It turns out the sentence paraphrased and quoted…

… a blog post by Andrew Savikas from July 13, 2009, “Content is a Service Business”: … what you’re selling as an artist (or an author, or a publisher for that matter) is not content. What you sell is providing something that the customer/reader/fan wants. … media companies are in the service business, not the content business. An update at the end of the post mentioned…

… a talk by Jim Lichtenberg at O’Reilly’s TOC conference on Feb 8, 2008: Book publishing is moving from bringing physical commodities to market, to offering services that delivers content in a variety of modalities based on consumer choice. Jim mentioned as his inspiration…

… the seminal article by Tim O’Reilly, “Publishing Models for Internet Commerce” from June 19, 1995: The actual content is valuable–but far more valuable [in publishing] is the relationship with the people…

I had read O’Reilly’s article years ago, but I couldn’t remember that point as clearly as Scott Abel made it. The phrasing is, of course, different, but most likely, the timing or the context wasn’t right either.

Then I noticed how the very idea proved itself: Here was content that was available and essentially known to me, like the unused coffee-maker at the back of my pantry. But it took Scott’s service to make it valuable as a new and fresh insight that summed up my experiences of that day.

Certainly, Scott didn’t plan to teach me a lesson with his tweet. But the scattershot distribution is part of twitter’s design and success, so my insight is not an isolated accident, but intended. In my case, twitter was effective because the tweet was applicable and good, not because it was a new idea.

What do you value more in twitter and blogs: What’s fast and new or what fits for you?

And, to come full circle, what’s your experience: Do you feel like you create or curate content?

P.S. To read more about good vs. new, check out Scott Berkun’s first article for Business Week, “Good beats innovative nearly every time“.

Two things to know about art and process

Know how to start. And when to stop.

– Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit, p. 207.

In her book, Tharp comes to terms with creative processes. Yet this particular insight applies also to successful processes. (And I don’t mean knowing when you’re deadline is…) It translates directly to Steve McConnell’s power of process: Know to start with some “thrashing”, i.e., unproductive work. And know to stop before trashing and project efforts drown out any productive work you might achieve.

To read up on Steve McConnell’s ideas, see his article “Power of Process“.

I first heard about McConnell and how he’s relevant for tech writers in ITauthor’s blog post “It’s not about writing … it’s about shipping“.

“The Creative Passion” guest post

“How exciting is technical writing, really?” Every once in a while, discussions in blogs or at conferences turn to that question. How technical writing is not really a calling or maybe even boring. I find it fulfilling and engaging in itself. Technical writing is my creative passion…

– The guys at DMN Communications have invited me to write a guest post. Thanks, Scott and Aaron!