I’ve been on the road speaking at a conference this week, and I’ve been listening to a lot of presentations on technical communication. Many of these were on the importance of having structured, semantic content when you are dealing with large amounts of content that needs to be translated into different languages and published in many different ways. All of these presentations put forward XML-based systems as the solution.
However, XML isn’t the only method for having semantic content. For example, AsciiDoc supports attributes, which can be used to add a semantic descriptions to headings, paragraphs and whole documents. You can use conditions in RoboHelp and Flare to categorise content. You can also store content in a database.
It’s sometimes useful to remember that XML isn’t the only way to semantic content.
“Discover the advanced new writing styles emerging in technical communication by attending Cherryleaf’s popular training course. Don’t get left behind: past clients include technical communicators from Citrix, GE, IBM UK, Lloyds Banking Group, Sage plc, Schlumberger, Tekla and Visa International.”
Randall Munroe’s latest book Thing Explainer will be released tomorrow. In the book, Munroe uses line drawings and only the thousand most common words to provide simple explanations for complicated objects.
It’s good practice to use words that are commonly understood. In some industries, Technical Authors have to write using only a limited list of approved words (a “controlled vocabulary”). For example, there are controlled vocabularies for aircraft maintenance manuals, because some maintenance engineers have a only limited amount of English.
Sometimes, the word “stuff” doesn’t help the reader to understand. So what do you do when readers need to understand the small differences between objects, particularly when they can have a big effect on what happens next?
In order to write clearly, there are times when you need to use more than the thousand most common words. Technical Authors deal with this issue by using concept, terms and references topics. When they need to use words that some users might not understand, Technical Authors provide a link (or cross reference ) to another topic. This other topic provides an explanation or a definition of the word or concept. The topic can contain words, images, diagrams, animations or videos to help the user grasp the meaning.
It’s good to use simple words, but it’s more important to make sure the information is clear.
It might seem like we’ve been quiet recently, but that’s partly because we’ve been working on an academic project that we hope to be announcing towards the end of the year.
As a spin-off from this project, we’re developing new training courses in technical communication. These courses are at a more advanced level than our basic/intermediate courses, and they include more references to academic research.
If you are considering any on-site training for your technical communications team, we can now offer these topics:
What is technical communication?
The business case for technical communication
History of technical writing standards
Usability and user centred design
Project planning and its effect on writing documentation
Researching and scoping documentation
Information design and content organisation
Writing the topics – overview
Presenting different types of information
Index, search and metadata
Single sourcing and reusing content
Researching technical communication – where to go
Governance and maintenance
What skills does a technical communicator need?
Content strategy and technical communication
Trends in technical communication
Publishing and delivering information
Managing the documentation project
We may develop online courses for some of these topics in the future as well.
Approximately 50% of a Technical Author’s day is spent writing. However, when Technical Publications teams look for efficiencies, they tend to focus on the 50% of time spent on non-writing activities, such as researching, reviewing and planning. They assume the content itself cannot be written more quickly. To an extent, they are right, as the querty qwerty keyboard is not an optimal layout.
We’ve been going through a process of transcribing our early e-learning modules, in order to have scripts upon which we can base future course updates. As part of this project, we’ve been using a free application called Plover to help us write the content. With Plover, you have the potential to create content (in Word, RoboHelp, Flare, Oxygen XML etc) at up to 225 words per minute (wpm).
Plover is based on chorded typing. You press more than one key at a time to create words. Chorded typing isn’t new – for example, it was demonstrated in Douglas Engelbart’s famous “The mother of all demos“.
Below is a five minute lightning talk on Plover and some of the emerging hardware:
So far, in my case, I’ve been able to double my typing speed. Realistically, those of us participating in this project at Cherryleaf aim to get to 180 words per minute. The reason for this is that most people speak at 160-180 wpm. At that speed, you are able to transcribe subject matter experts in real time – which means there’s no need to record an interview and then type it up at a later date.
There is a learning curve to this method, but it is based on over 100 years of theory and practice. It is tremendous fun – a bit like learning to use a querty qwerty keyboard for the first time.
Cherryleaf has been working on a project which shows people how to teach non-readers to read. We’ve been working with Elizabeth Ainley, who has written a book, go for it!, which can be used to teach illiterate and/or dyslexic adults.
Elizabeth asked Cherryleaf to help her re-write the existing instructions aimed at the adult coaches who will be using go for it! This involved making the instructions clearer, and clarifying the learning outcomes.
Schoolchildren in Sierra Leone have been the first users of the project. It means a 12 year old child who can read can now teach others. The school is run by Miriam mason-Sesay MBE for the Educaid, who sent Elizabeth these photos of the teaching materials in use: