In our last post, we rounded up the top 10 writing mistakes that annoy us the most at TWi, with overly-complex writing coming in at Number 1. We’re now sharing our top writing tips, as voted by 44 writers in a company-wide survey.
Top Writing Tips
Here is the full Top 10 list, accompanied by some of our staff’s responses to the question, ‘What is your top technical writing tip?’
The Number 1 nugget of wisdom, as voted by our team, is to proofread: ‘It’s always very helpful to get another writer’s eyes on your work. Inevitably, they will spot errors that you missed.’ Proofreading makes for better documentation in the short term. By learning from our mistakes we become better writers in the long term.
2. Be consistent
Our Number 2 tip is to be consistent. Even when a writer is working alone on a project, inconsistencies in style or formatting occur. When more than one writer is involved, inconsistencies are almost a certainty. The solution is to employ a comprehensive style guide that provides clarity on issues such as US versus UK spelling, capitalisation, list structure, and tagging in an authoring tool.
3. Keep it simple
When it comes to writing about technology, one of our writers explains, ‘There is no need for over-complicating the already complicated….’ To present complex material simply, we can write direct instructions, keep our sentences short, use the active voice, and the present tense.
4. Be concise
Cicero could have been addressing a consortium of technical communicators when he wrote, ‘Every word that is unnecessary only pours over the side of a brimming mind.’ Delivering task-focused information reduces the risk of misinterpretation, frustration, or distraction in the reader, and ultimately aids retention.
5. Review your own work
One staff member advises, ‘Edit your own work minutely, and never immediately after writing it – let it sit for a while if possible. Don’t rely on others to pick up on your mistakes. Even though it’s almost impossible, always strive for perfection in that first draft.’ If we continuously review our own work, we can progress more smoothly through other reviews in the production process, for example, a subject matter expert (SME) review, a peer review, or a quality review.
6. Ask questions
A technical writer’s job would be impossible if we didn’t collaborate with SMEs who allow us to pick their brains and translate their expertise into user-friendly documentation. It’s crucial that we ask as many questions as possible when we have access to them: ‘Keep asking questions until you understand what it is you’re writing – your readers will thank you for it.’
7. Structure your work
A solid framework makes it easier for writers to ensure that all relevant points are covered and redundant information is removed. For end users, good structure makes documents easier to navigate. One of our writers puts it this way: ‘Structure is everything. An occasional inelegant sentence can be forgiven if the flow and pacing of information delivery is correct.’
8. Test the product
When we use the product we’re writing about, we familiarise ourselves with the interface and test our own instructions. SMEs are sometimes so familiar with a product that they don’t notice when points aren’t clear. The technical writer is in a much better position to see things through the eyes of an end-user.
9. Know your audience
Knowing whether the target audience for a project is made up of technically proficient software developers or non-technical consumers helps us prioritise important information and identify the level of detail required for the user.
10. Read aloud
Good syntax can be hard to achieve in technical writing because of the need for specialised terminology and detailed instructions. Because problems with syntax are often more obvious to the ear than to the eye, it’s a good idea to read your work aloud. One of our writers puts it like this: ‘When reviewing content, reading it out loud helps to ensure that it has a good natural flow.’
So, do you agree with our top writing tips? Do you have some top writing tips of your own you’d like to share? What are your golden rules to minimise mistakes or improve content quality? Please share your top writing tips in the comments.