Top 5 things I like about WritersUA

WritersUA is a very stimulating and inspiring conference! This year’s 19th annual conference draws 360 attendees (speakers included) which makes it the largest tech comm conference I’ve attended so far. Kudos and compliments to Joe Welinske and his whole team who simply “get it right”.

Here are the top 5 things I like about WritersUA:

1. Great program, good pace

An online community on the conference web site allows attendees to connect as much or as little before the conference as they like. The program is paced very well: At 60 minutes, sessions are long enough to be thorough and leave time for questions and discussions. 20-minute breaks between sessions allow for several contacts with attendees and/or exhibitors.

2. Proceedings are available before hand

At first, I was overwhelmed by the package I received at registration, but it makes sense: Looking through the slides allows you to make the best possible decision which session to attend. Even if several presenters have edited their slides after submitting them for print, but the earlier versions are always a good, reliable indication. Initially, I had selected sessions by my general interest in the topics. After reviewing the slides, I changed my schedule for Monday completely. One session looked more basic than I had expected, and the slides are so comprehensive I couldn’t imagine I would miss much (and from what I heard from attendees I didn’t).

3. Sessions that are worth attending – in person

I got the most out of sessions that offered constructive discussions in addition to mere presentations:

  • Rob Houser presented a “community-works-in-progress”, a Pattern Library for User Assistance, where we discussed whether this was something worth having, whether we could imagine contributing to it and how to best go about it. (For more information, follow the link above, see Chuck Martin’s write-up or watch this space for a more elaborate review.)
  • Linda Urban described and analyzed her experiences with Opportunities for Reuse Between User Assistance and Training and invited a discussion which was very enlightening: Even between two such closely related domains, different cultures, organization, budgets and deliverables make it difficult to break down the silos and to collaborate successfully.

4. Comprehensive look at help authoring tools

WritersUA offers a unique combination of first- and second-hand experiences to compare tools in depth.

The exhibition area at WritersUA

  • In the exhibition area, most of the relevant vendors are present among the 14 exhibitors and more than willing to present their products in the best possible light.
  • In a lab, attendees have access to most of the relevant tools at workstations. You can just play around with them or visit at a time when a vendor is at hand to ask questions (though these are not presentations).
  • And during the meals and breaks, you can ask other attendees about their experiences with the tools.

5. Great gathering of passionate, fun tech writers

As early as Saturday afternoon, I met friends from previous conferences and people who’s writing, blogs or tweets I’ve seen online. The various networking opportunities make it easy and fun to strike up a conversation, trade travel stories, share frustrations about clueless managers or absurd processes or quote obscure Doors’ songs.

– So far, WritersUA has been a great example of my Top 5 reasons to attend a tech comm conference. If you’re attending WritersUA or have attended a tech comm conference in the past, feel free to share what you liked best about them in the comments.

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DocTrain West 2009: Linda Urban’s workshop “Topic-Based Authoring: Getting Your Feet Wet”

On March 17, I attended this full-day (7 hours) pre-conference workshop on topic-based authoring (TBA). Linda Urban has been working with topics for about 20 years now. Add her experience in teaching technical writing, and I can imagine few people better qualified to present this topic.

It’s an excellent, well-structured workshop which

  • Provides an overview of TBA, its concepts and its principles
  • Shows what TBA is, what it’s not, and why it’s useful
  • Defines topics and their elements, as well as information types
  • Discussed how to write effective topics
  • Demonstrates best practices to introduce TBA and pitfalls when converting legacy contents
  • Includes many practical exercises, such as identifying, chunking, and connecting topics into coherent documentation

I took away several insights that came from Linda’s practical experience or from the discussions, e.g.,

  • Improve usability when converting legacy contents, don’t convert stuff that nobody uses.
  • When in doubt what to cover in topics, start by documenting the users’ “happy path”.
  • Connecting beats chunking: Completeness and usability of TBA become apparent when you connect your topics.
  • While TBA affords faster reviews, don’t forget to review (or eliminate) older topics.

Several participants actually knew about TBA already: Some had come for a reality check and some because they need to teach TBA to their team. And it seemed everybody got a lot out of it! I think this is a great 101 course workshop since it’s tool-agnostic and focused on the principles and processes.

I understand that this was not an “exclusive engagement”, so if you missed it or need an on-site workshop, contact Linda. (I get nothing for this endorsement, I just think it’s a really good course… 🙂 )