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New Technical Writer: First Things To Do On The Project

OVERVIEW You, a non-writer, have just been assigned to write the documentation for a product your company produces or markets. You may be stressed out about the assignment. Fear not! This article will get you started on the path to writing a successful document. QUESTIONS AND NOTES As soon as you get assigned to the documentation project you must begin to take notes and ask questions. The major goal of this early information gathering is to gain access to the sources of information that you will need in order to write your document. TIP: There is always something to do or learn on a Documentation project.

Don't stop working while you are waiting for something else to happen. LEARN PROPER USE OF YOUR WRITING TOOLS Do NOT get immersed in new technology. For most companies and for most documentation projects, investing the money and time to learn a Content Management System or exquisite document writing software are not worth the effort. Documentation writing is often the tail end of a project, and you will have no time to learn new technologies. Instead learn to get the best from your existing word-processing tools.

* Learn about and understand why you should use your word processor's "styles" for formatting your document. * Learn to use your word processor's outlining capability. The outliner automatically assigns styles to the headings in your document. Design your Document using your word processor's outlining capability. * Learn how to use your word processor’s revision system. The revision system is a facility where the author writes a document and then sends it to a reviewer. The reviewer can make revisions to the document, and sends it back to the author who can choose to either accept or reject each revision. Technology comes second. Our goal will be to produce a great document, providing the: * content (the information that your Reader needs or wants) and * effective access to that content. DOCUMENT ALL PEOPLE ON THE PROJECT The people who are working on the project include (there may be others, include them in the list): * Project Manager * Those who will approve the parts of the Document, and who will approve the final Document * Project Team * Contacts * Marketing * Sources of Information * Publisher of Document * Editor * Indexer Keep this information about each member of the product and documentation team: * Full Name * Role in the Product Development * Organization and Position in the Organization * E-mail address * Telephone contact (FAX number) * Office address (if there is a company-wide directory, get the address from there, when you need it) * Their expertise and what they did on the project * Any other relevant information DO IT NOW: LIST THE PLAYERS You can keep the list using a word processor, spreadsheet, or dedicated address-book software and in your e-mail program.

Keep the list up to date. YOUR PATRON Let’s call the person that assigns you the task of writing the document (or a portion of it) your "Patron". This is the person who is responsible for ensuring that the documentation gets produced. There are several things you must ask of your Patron, and you must carefully note the responses. Ultimately, your Patron must provide you with (or put you in contact with someone who can provide you with): * Access to literature about the product Includes marketing, design, concept information, documentation for similar products; in short, anything they will let you read that might be related to the product. Once you get the written documentation, read as much as you possibly can about the product. A goal is to become the expert about the product. * Access to the members of the project team. Not only the names and contact information, but also provide the “clout” to get these people to provide information to you. This is vitally important! This access must include the marketing and design teams.

They can tell you about the potential Users of the product. * Access to the product itself or a mockup of the product. So you can gain some hands-on experience with the product. Access to Users of similar products; access to potential Users of this product (or information about them) If you have been hired by, for example, the Human Resources Department of the company, then Human Resources will have to direct you to the person on the project who is your Patron. Your Patron is not your client. In the business world we speak of our "client." That is usually the person or organization that hires and pays us. It's the one we are working for. However in reality your client is your Reader. It is your responsibility to do the best job for your Reader.

If it's necessary to go against the judgment of your Patron then you must be prepared to convince your Patron of the merits of your way of doing the work. Read all the material you can get about the product and the project . It will prepare you for the interactions you will have later with the project members. Be prepared by knowing as much background information as you can before you have your first information gathering session (meeting). Ask: "What can I read or do in order to get the background on this topic?" Even if you are the developer, there are things you need to learn. One of the most important is concerns the characteristics your potential User. Your early investigations should be aimed at answering these questions: 1. Overall (brief) Description of the Product. What does the product do for the User; How does the product change the way the User currently does things.


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