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The Documentation Process
 Updated: 9/26/2009
There are many types of writing.  In this section, I explain most of the types I'm well versed in.  To see a discussion of writing also known as website content development, see Website Development.
These are the writing types I explain here:
  • Technical Writing
  • Marketing Writing
  • Process and Procedure Writing
  • Editing
  • Training
At the very bottom of this page, I've included a discussion about costs.


Technical Writing

Technical writing (or "technical documentation") is writing that focuses on detail and accuracy. When you define specifically what a product is or how it works, you are producing technical documentation.

Many people specialize in technical writing. It is a vast field with seemingly no end to the tools and training required to do it well. Whether the outcome is something that is to be put on paper, in an online help system, or on the web, there is a lot to know about how to do it well.

You have undoubtedly run across many examples of technical writing not done well. The assembly instructions for many things (that swing set or bicycle that says, "some assembly required") are often prime examples. Of course, poorly done user manuals for all those electronics products (like VCRs or digital cameras and the like) are so common that they are the butt of many jokes. These examples are often put together by someone with too much knowledge about the product and not enough knowledge about how to produce clear, concise instructions or explanations.

Perhaps you have also seen technical writing that is done well, that explains unambiguously and anticipates your questions, that is laid out in a logical manner and has information that is easy to find. This type of documentation can actually save time and money, and can increase repeat business. And this type of documentation is usually produced by someone with a background or training in technical writing. Good technical documentation doesn't just happen it is planned and executed with precision.

Good technical documentation reduces confusion and frustration both internally and for customers. When not done well, it can increase the cost of product development and alienate customers. Who doesn't need good technical documentation?

The type of documents considered technical documentation generally include:
  • Product Requirements
  • Software/Hardware Design Documents
  • Instruction Sheets
  • User Manuals
  • Quick Reference Guides
  • Technical Specifications
  • Technical Descriptions
  • Documentation Plans
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Marketing Writing

Marketing writing is designed to inform and persuade. It creates interest and encourages further investigation. Marketing creates an "atmosphere" or "image" around a product or service and relates it to the intended audience. Or marketing can simply be staying in touch with and informing customers.

The language of marketing writing is generally less precise than technical writing. It informs in broader strokes with probably less detail. It focuses on benefits and style rather than on specific instructions.

Of course, you always have a message, and you want to convey the message as clearly as possible. With so many people in such a hurry to absorb so much information (whew!), you don't have very long to grab someone's attention. How to do that most effectively is the domain of marketing writing.

Good marketing writing reaches your audience quickly and conveys a specific message clearly. It creates a positive image about you. Poor marketing writing leaves your customer wondering what the point was, or worse, leaves them not thinking very highly of you. If you're involved in marketing in any way, it pays to do it well!

The type of documents that fall into the marketing category generally include:
  • Ad Copy
  • Product Information Sheets
  • Customer Letters
  • Brochures
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Process and Procedure Writing

Writing processes and procedures is probably the least glamorous of all writing types, but it is one of the most important.

Your business runs on procedures. Your company does things in certain ways. Often, especially with small or start-up businesses, these procedures and processes are handled by a small group of individuals sometimes just one individual. This is cost-effective and easy, but what happens when the people with the procedure knowledge are not available? What happens when personnel change?

One-on-one training works OK when the turnover is planned, but it has a couple of major drawbacks. First, there is no guarantee that all knowledge will get transferred. (Details are easy to forget, especially if they're done only occasionally.)

Second, it's possible there will be no overlap in time for training. What happens if someone leaves unexpectedly voluntarily or involuntarily? You might lose some of the knowledge essential to running your business. The impact can be severe, on both you and your customers.

Process and procedure writing involves documenting the essential information you need to run your business. Even if personnel change (not "if," actually, but "when"), the information required to successfully maintain your business operations is available so there is little disruption. You can use process and procedure documents to train new personnel during turnovers or when you expand.

Sometimes, this type of documentation is created by people doing the jobs they're documenting. The drawbacks here, of course, are that they have to take time away from doing the job to document it, and they may be so close to their jobs that essential explanations are left out. This is not helpful when someone else tries to make sense of this information!

Process and procedure writing is essential for continuity in company operations and for company growth. After all the time and effort you put in to establish the company, isn't it worth making sure it continues to run smoothly?

The type of documents generally considered process and procedure documents include:
  • Employee Reference Manuals
  • Internal Process Documents
  • Procedure Descriptions
  • Internal Training Documents
  • Human Resources Handbooks
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Editing

Have you ever read a book that has an acknowledgement section? Usually the author thanks the editor. Have you ever wondered what for? What exactly an editor does? I'm glad you asked!

The editor occupies an important position between the author and the reader. This means the editor hasn't been involved with the often painful process of creation, which the writer has anguished over. It also means the editor has a stake in making sure the final product is understandable or usable by the reader. This is like having a foot in both camps, so to speak.

An author has to focus on the idea, the plan, the design, the process, the details. The actual structure and words are written, rewritten, and rewritten again so many times that it's often hard to be objective about the result. And sometimes it's hard to see the forest for the trees. This means gaps in consistency or continuity sometimes slip though. The editor approaches the document without all that baggage and can therefore more easily identify problems that need to be corrected.

The reader wants to be informed or entertained. The reader usually doesn't have any loyalty to the material and will only spend so much time getting into it. If it's confusing or boring, it won't be used or read. The editor can see if this is a danger and help the author correct the problem before the document is finalized.

A good editor is a mixture of a consultant, a friend, a teacher, an advisor, and a partner. He or she brings a particular type of expertise to the project without putting a personal stamp on it. The work is the author's and should reflect the author's voice while still accomplishing its purpose. Editors usually toil in unacknowledged obscurity, until possibly mentioned in an author's acknowedgement. A good editor, though, is a welcome addition to any writing project.

Some of the things an editor does include:
  • Copy editing grammar, punctuation, word usage, consistency
  • Form edit paragraph construction, adherence to styles and conventions, continuity
  • Structural edit overall storyline or approach to information, document construction, effectiveness of document design
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Training

Training involves the transfer of knowledge. In order to make the best use of the time available for training, it's helpful to have materials available that both introduce and contain the information to be transferred.

The best training follows a well defined process. First you explain what you're going to say, then you say it, then you explain what you said. That process both prepares the mental ground for accepting the information and reinforces what should have been learned.

Training materials reflect this process. They create a structure for the information that follows the "introduce-say-review" process, and then they fill in that structure with details. Training materials create a focused presentation that conveys the information in a minimum amount of time.

Developing training materials is much like creating other forms of documentation. First you define your audience determine who will be trained and get some understanding of what they already know about the subject. You determine what form the training will take (classroom, individual). Next you work with those who have the knowledge to develop an outline of the training. Then you work to fill in the details in your structure.

This greatly simplifies the process, of course, but it points out that developing training materials is a process. And just as with other types of documentation, asking subject matter experts to develop their own training materials has inherent problems. While they may know the subject thoroughly, they may not always understand the best way to present it so it "sticks." And they may know too much about their subject and wander off the point, providing too many details and taking too much time.

Training represents a large investment in time (and therefore money) for both trainer and students. Isn't it worth investing in proper training materials to ensure everyone gets the most out of this time?

Training materials can be provided in many forms but usually consist of:
  • Training Plan
  • Class Schedules and Training Agendas
  • Presentation Materials
  • Reference Documents
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Costs

Document development is the widest-ranging area of writing work. It can be from development of a flyer or newsletter all the way to a user guide or technical specification. It can be a requirements document for a software project or a documentation plan for a documentation project. Customer letters, employee handbooks, training materials, books, online help files, instruction sheets, quick reference guides, presentations. The gamut.

The work can involve any or all of: content development (just providing the words), document and style design, project planning, verification testing, and more. Whatever you need. I have been involved in very small projects and very large ones. I can work alone, or I can provide assistance to a team already doing a project. Let me know what you need, and we can work out what I can do for you.

Because of the variety of work that might be required, it's hard to provide a price range for this type of work. I encourage you to get in touch with me to discuss what you need. You can send an e-mail to me or fill out a form in Tell Me About Your Project.

Editing can mean just doing a "copy edit" on a document you've already written. This means making sure that spelling, punctuation, and grammar are correct. I also check for proper word usage and consistency. Work of this type can be as little as $10 for a normal letter-size (8.5 x 11") page. If you're designing your own flyers or submitting a business plan, resume, or a paper for class, a copy edit ensures that you make the best impression possible. (Nothing worse than a spelling error or misused word in the middle of a page!) For longer papers or documents, I give a multiple-page discount.

A "form edit" follows closely with a copy edit. It ensures paragraph construction is appropriate (not too many ideas in one paragraph, and ideas not spread between too many paragraphs). It also looks at styles and conventions (parallel headings, instructions following the same form, bullets and numbered steps used appropriately, etc.). Form edit pricing may be folded in with copy editing or may be priced separately, depending on how much work appears to be required.

More extensive editing, or what I call a "structural edit," involves reviewing the overall document's organization to be sure it flows logically. This includes making sure the document has an introduction, a middle, and an end, and ensuring that the correct information is in each of those sections. (You might be surprised how often documents end with what should be the introduction!) The cost for this type of edit depends on both the length and the complexity of the document. Pricing can be as little as $50.

There is often some writing associated with this type of structural editing, since "bridge" or "transition" text is often necessary to tie new or rearranged sections together. In these cases, I am very careful to not lose the original author's voice during the editing process. I strive to bring out what the author intended to say while making what is written still sound like the author. I have been so successful in doing this that, on some projects, the authors were certain the final story was just what they wrote and that I had done very little to it, when in fact I had made extensive edits. I consider this successful editing (though I might have to ask the author to compare the new and old before paying the bill!).

I look forward to hearing from you!
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copyright 2003 Sher Orpen. All rights reserved.

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