When tech comm does other teams’ work

Should documentation be expected to do the job of other teams and departments to make up for their shortcomings?

That was the essential question in an interesting conversation I once had with a fellow tech writer. It’s basically a twist on the general idea that you often have to pick two of the three: High quality, speed, low cost.

The writer said she had changed her way of writing user manuals to include fewer screenshots, because some of them were not essential to the described task, and they’re difficult to translate and update.

Less than efficient reuse

Her manager didn’t exactly appreciate her efforts to create similarly useful documentation more efficiently, but objected to the new manual. He asked her to use more screenshots as before, arguing they were necessary for three additional purposes of the manual:

  • Sell the product – though dedicated sales materials are also available.
  • Double as self-study training material – though training is also available.
  • Make up for poor usability where the software isn’t so intuitive in some places.

She is totally capable of creating documentation that can also be used for these purposes. (Apparently, the company didn’t have a content strategy which easily allows to share contents between sales, training and documentation.) But it’s just difficult to do it all when she faces pressure to limit cost and throughput time at the same time.

Possible reactions

During the conversation, my position was that her company can’t reasonably expect her to make documentation more efficient while she continues to make up for other shortcomings. (This ties in with the “Two words every (lone) writer should know“, which are “Later” and “No”.)

Then I thought that maybe her manager doesn’t actually know which tasks an efficient technical writer does best (if you can even generalize that) and what to expect from the sales, marketing and training teams. In this case, it might even be an opportunity to clean up processes beyond just documentation (though this easily gets presumptuous).

Your turn

What do you think? Have you been expected to do things that got in the way of your efficiency and that were really the tasks of other teams? How can we writers deal with that? Any ideas? Please leave a comment.

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Organize bookmarks in folders by task

Make the most of bookmarks by sorting them by tasks.

That’s the lesson I learned after months of trudging along with a looong list of bookmarks. I would add links for later reading, then randomly pick pages to read or otherwise process, and it was not working.

Around New Year’s, I cleaned up the mess, threw out dead links and pages that seemed merely vaguely interesting. The remainder went into separate folders. This has been working really well for me so far: I remember and find bookmarks faster, and I process them faster (which means reading and filing or deleting).

Organize by task, not by content

The trick for me was to create bookmark folders by tasks, not by subject matter or contents! I now have the following bookmark folders:

  • Tech Writing with pages to read and archive useful ones.
  • Blog with pages to write about in this blog.
  • [Project] with pages to work on for articles or presentations, one per project.
  • Portable Freeware with pages of software to try out.
  • Travel with pages of hotels and restaurants to visit.
  • Inspire with pages to get me unstuck from writer’s block.
  • Lookup with pages to look up grammar rules, translations, prices, streets, etc.

Why does this work?

It works for two reasons:

  1. It’s basically following our own professional advice: Create documentation task-based, not based on the stuff you organize, whether it’s a user interface or random web pages.
  2. It’s inspired by GTD (Getting Things Done): Get productive by ensuring you can simply crank widgets as a tech writer.

Bonus tip

Sync your bookmarks across all your machines for even better order and productivity. I use xmarks for Firefox to ensure all my bookmarks are always up to date, regardless of which PC I use. When I’m on someone else’s machine, I can still look up my bookmarks online.

Your turn

How do you organize your tech comm bookmarks? Do folders work? Is there a better way? Please leave a comment.