Topic-based authoring: The undiscovered country

NT Live Hamlet Many software companies, when they start out, provide user documentation as downloadable PDFs or as web pages. As they develop more products and versions, and as they expand into countries that use different English spellings, the amount of documents can grow until it becomes hard to keep all of these documents up to date.

It’s at this point that they tend to call a specialist technical writing company (such as Cherryleaf) to see if they can fix the problem for them. We find they’ve usually had a brief look at a Help Authoring tool, such as Flare or RoboHelp, and can see that it would solve a lot of their problems. However, they’re often not really sure how to use these tools in the best way.

Although topic-based authoring has been around for over twenty years, for many people it’s a completely new concept. It is, to quote from either Hamlet or Star Trek VI, an undiscovered country. Our meetings with them often end up focusing on the benefits of topic-based authoring.

Topic-based writing is an approach where you write a piece of text (or topics) that typically contains a paragraph or two about a single topic. These topics can be combined to create a page in a PDF document, and they can be organised in a sequence to create an online Help system ( See topic-based authoring page in Wikipedia). It’s a modular approach to creating content. The main advantage of this approach is the topics are often reusable; you can save time by reusing topics across different documents, and you can publish the same content to different media. For example, you could use a topic in training courseware, in a user guide and in marketing information.

As each topic is usually about a specific subject, and has an identifiable purpose, it can also help the writer write more clearly. If you need longer articles, you can build these up from the topics you’ve created.

It’s easy for professional Technical Authors to forget sometimes that many people have never come across this approach to writing before.

Getting information from Subject Matter Experts

Flickr photo an interview by illustirInterviews with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are some of the most useful sources for Technical Authors when they are gathering information about a product or procedure. This often involves asking a developer or departmental manager a series of questions focused on the types of questions end users are likely to ask.

Interviewing is one of those dark arts that Technical Authors pick up over time – techniques for getting SMEs to find the time to speak to you and review your drafts, ways to avoid conversations meandering away from what the user will want to know, tools for capturing the interview, and so on.

So what tools should you use?

Coming armed with biscuits (cookies in the USA) is probably the most effective tool! After that, the most useful tool to have is a voice recording device. If you have a smartphone, in effect, you have a digital voice recorder. There are many voice recording apps for both iOS and Android, but the one we like is Recordium.

Recordium

In addition to recording audio, Recordium also enables you annotate the voice recording. You can highlight and tag certain parts of audio recordings (for example: to indicate a new topic or to mark sections that relate to definitions of terms etc), and add attachments to those sections as well. You can use it, in effect, as an audio-orientated note clipping application, similar to Evernote.

Recordium also enables you to vary the playback speed. We’ve found this useful when SMEs are using specialist terminology – you can slow down the recording to check what it was they actually said. Listening at a faster speed is also a useful way of reviewing a recording quickly.

Technical Authors still need to transcribe sections of the interview, so it becomes text. Unfortunately, Text-to-Speech applications still have some way to go. Dragon Dictation is available for Apple devices, and ListNote offers similar functionality for Android. However, even if you are just a two fingered typist, you’re probably better off transcribing the audio yourself.

Are there any other apps you’d recommend? Let us know.

Changing times in technical communication 3 – The long form Help topic

New York Time snow fall article imageOne of the most recent developments in web page design has been the introduction of “long form” web pages. Will we also see the long form approach used in Help, or perhaps start to influence the way some Help pages are designed?

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Our next Advanced Technical Writing Techniques course – 2 December

We’ve scheduled another Advanced Technical Writing Techniques public course – on Monday 2nd December.

Discover the advanced new writing styles emerging in technical communication. Don’t get left behind: past clients include technical communicators from Citrix, IBM UK, Lloyds Banking Group, Sage plc, Schlumberger and Visa International.

To book your place, see Advanced Technical Writing Techniques public course.

This will be the last public course this year.

What’s the best way to deliver distance learning for technical communicators?

You’ll find our latest post for the Society for Technical Communication on its Notebook blog. It’s called What’s the Best Way to Deliver Distance Learning for Technical Communicators?

One of the most frequent questions we’re asked at Cherryleaf is if we can deliver our advanced technical writing techniques course as a distance learning class. We only offer it as a classroom course, which effectively limits us to teaching students who are based in the United Kingdom, Ireland, or mainland Europe. Being able to offer a training course worldwide is tempting, but is it really possible to deliver distance learning when you want to get people to question and rethink the way they do things today?

See: What’s the Best Way to Deliver Distance Learning for Technical Communicators?

Webinar: The changing nature of content

You’re welcome to join us on our upcoming free webinar, “The changing nature of content”, which will be held at 7pm (GMT+1) on 24th April 2013.

In recent years, technical communicators have focused on improving User Assistance through new technologies and systems, with the assumption that the nature of the content the tone of voice, the writing style ­ should remain the same. In this free webinar, sponsored and hosted by Adobe, we’ll investigate whether the tried ­and tested writing methods from past decades still make sense today. We’ll look at the reasons why some organisations are “breaking the rules” with the User Assistance they provide.

The registration details will be posted to the Adobe online events Web page in the next few days.

Next Advanced Technical Writing Techniques Course: 22 April 2013

Trends in Technical Communication Workshop – Advanced Technical Writing TechniquesYou’ll find our next public Trends in Technical Communication Workshop – Advanced Technical Writing Techniques training course is scheduled for Monday 22 April 2013.

We’ve added some more comments from delegates to the page.

“Excellent over-view and will be useful for practical application. Much food for thought – useful for starting ideas on improving (the) existing approach to Help files.”
“Very thought provoking.”
“I just wanted to say ‘thank you!’ for the excellent training session yesterday. I’m putting those principles to work today as I review the UA for one of our websites. The way I write has changed dramatically.”
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