Writing good technical documentation, part 3

(Part 2)

(Part 1)

Nathan Bransford, a literary agent, blogged about his difficulty in getting writers to paste their original query into their partial manuscript. Here are the instructions he sends them:

"Thank you for your recent note. Would you mind sending me the first 30 pages in a Word attachment? Please paste your below e-mail in the first page of the Word document. I look forward to getting to know your work."

He estimates that he has about a 75% success rate (not bad!) but would like to improve it. Enthusiastic commenters offer numerous suggestions for rewording the instructions, and at least one of them mentions that it's like technical writing, which of course caught my attention.

Technical writing is full of procedures (or instructions, if you prefer that term). From my perspective working on server products here at Microsoft, the main purpose for the documentation is to help you do something with our product, and quite often the means is a "how to" procedure.

How can you go wrong with procedures? Well, the obvious answers are missing steps, having the wrong steps, using jargon that doesn't match what the user sees, and so forth. But a procedure can be methodical and precise and accurate, yet still not meet the user's need, if it's missing the "why".

I'll use one of my own topics (where I failed on "why") as an example:

Vendors might periodically update a management pack. When a management pack is updated, the version number incrementally increases. You can check the version number of imported management packs in Operations Manager 2007.

To check the version of a management pack...(procedure follows)

Version number can change, you can check it -- but why do you care whether the version number changed or not? What good is that knowledge to you? I haven't given you any idea when you would want to check it or how you should know to check it or what to do with the version number once you have checked it. All of that belongs in "why". (Meanwhile, I've sent myself a note to update that topic.)

Awhile back, in one of those team-building type workshops companies love, we did an exercise where one person had all of the instructions and the other team members had pieces of information. The "leader" had a goal to accomplish that required coordinating all of those pieces of information. Our team was the first to finish, but every member stated that it would have been a lot easier if they had been told what the goal was and why they were doing certain things. (That stuck with me all this time because I was the person who had the goal and failed to share the "why" with the team.)

An adequate procedure tells you "how to". A good procedure tells you "when" and "why" and "then what". Which brings me back to Nathan's post. When I read it, my first thought was that he should tell the writers that he reads their submissions in his Kindle and that is why he needs the query in the partial -- if I understand the why, I'm more inclined to cooperate. Since several commenters made the same suggestion, I refrained from adding to the thread there and hijacked the thought into a post here instead.

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