Is it possible for Technical Authors to write content more quickly?

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.

Teaching non-readers to read

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:

IMG_2713Dyslexia teaching in Sierra Leone

Dyslexia teaching in Sierra Leone

27 February 2015: Trends in Technical Communication training course

Cherryleaf’s Trends in Technical Communication Course – Advanced Technical Writing Techniques will be held on 27th February 2015.

If you want to discover new approaches to technical writing, this one-day, hands-on advanced workshop is right for you.

You’ll find out how Technical Authors in leading companies are now applying techniques from other disciplines (such as psychology, copywriting, usability and elearning) into the information they create.

The course has been designed to be independent of any particular authoring tool, and to work in both a structured and unstructured authoring environment.

See Trends in Technical Communication Course – Advanced Technical Writing Techniques

The four words that account for 19 minutes of a typical Technical Communicator’s day

Peter Norvig has some interesting statistics on word frequency in the English language. It turns out that four words – the, of, and, to – account for 16.94% of the words we write.

In field of technical communication, Technical Authors typically spend 50% of their time writing and the rest on researching, planning etc. If we adjust for the fact that these four common words are half the length of an average word in English, that means Technical Authors spend an average of 19 minutes every day typing those four words. In a 37.5 hour week, that amounts to 1 hour and 35 mins.

Why “What are good and bad examples of technical writing?” is a difficult question to answer

There’s an interesting discussion thread in the ISTC’s discussion forum regarding good and bad examples of technical writing. Incoming ISTC President Alison Peck has been asked by a researcher for a radio programme if she could provide some examples of technical writing: “well done, badly done and particularly innovative or strange”. As it’s a radio programme, these examples are likely to be read out.

This is not as straightforward to answer as you might think.

Firstly, most technical communicators work under non-disclosure agreements, so the best and worst examples often aren’t for public consumption.

Secondly, a lot of poor examples are from content that has been badly translated into English. They may have been well written originally, but they might have become mangled through the process of localising the content.

Thirdly, as Alison pointed out in her original message in the online forum, reading out very basic instructions out of context is not going to be particularly riveting or easy for the listener to grasp.

Fourthly, although technical communication is about clear communication – clear sentences – the role of technical communication is mostly about addressing the question, can the user do the task?

Minimalism, which most technical communicators use, focuses on:

  1. Adopting an action-oriented approach (to minimise the amount of reading)
  2. Starting immediately on meaningful tasks
  3. Supporting users in recognising errors and recovering from them

That requires more than clear and simple sentences; it requires information design as well. This means any examples ideally should show how well or badly they enable the user to complete the task. That requires an understanding of the task itself, and this makes it difficult to do this in a few seconds on the radio.


What would life be like if there were no instruction manuals you could read?

Illiteracy is, sadly, something that can greatly affect people’s lives. According  to The Literacy Trust, less than one per cent of adults in England can be described as completely illiterate and approximately 16 per cent as “functionally illiterate”.

There are various articles on the Web that indicate how people live with their illiteracy:

  • They depend on people (relatives or the kindness of strangers) to read and explain things for them.
  • They recognise places and the location of things based on colours or shapes.
  • They often have to trust people aren’t scamming them.
  • They generally work within more limited boundaries, keeping to a consistent routine.
  • They often memorise how they completed a task last time.

If we produce a product but do not supply user instructions with it, the user has nothing to read, whether they are literate or not. The user has to fall back on coping mechanisms similar to those used by people with illiteracy. They can function, but they would do much better if they had something to read.

Writing troubleshooting topics

It’s a fair bet that the introduction of the new Troubleshooting information type into the DITA 1.3 technical authoring standard will affect how all Technical Authors write troubleshooting topics, regardless of whether they use DITA or not. That’s because the proposed elements for troubleshooting topics make good sense, and it offers a standardised approach to writing these types of topics.

According to the Oasis DITA standards committee,

Troubleshooting topics provide descriptions of and solutions or workarounds for problem situations that users might encounter. Users refer to troubleshooting information to understand what condition or event generated their problem situation and to find out what they need to do to recover from or work around a problem, or to prevent a recurrence of the problem.

The user would see a topic that looks roughly like this:
Continue reading “Writing troubleshooting topics”

Our next Advanced Technical Writing Techniques course – 24th April 2014

After a short break, our Advanced Technical Writing Techniques training course has returned. We’ve scheduled a public course for Thursday 24th April 2014, in South Kensington, central London.

Past clients include technical communicators from Citrix, GE, IBM UK, Lloyds Banking Group, Sage plc, Schlumberger and Visa International. One delegate commented:

“The way in which customers consume our content is changing, as are the different expectations customers have regarding user assistance and support. Your course provided further insight and ideas regarding how to review and adapt to ensure content is relevant and appealing to our customers.”

This course is ideal for Technical Authors and those developing assistance for users of software.

Discover the advanced new writing styles emerging in technical communication. Don’t get left behind. You can book a place via the webpage Trends in Technical Communication Workshop – Advanced Technical Writing Techniques.