Collaboration in Tech Writing

I love collaborative writing. I think it is sometimes the best way to achieve excellence in a piece of written work.

I had a great manager at a previous workplace and we worked really well together. We’d come up with a thing that needed doing—I would write 80%, she’d review and take it to 95%, then I could take it all the way home. Or I’d do an outline, say 20%, she’d take it in a new direction to 60%. I’d get the flavor and run with it and we’d both get it over the line.

Learn to let go

It works well when you’re not married to your ideas. When you’re just as happy to discard them because you recognize the superiority of someone else’s. Sure, it’s nice when someone recognizes your idea as great, but without constructive criticism how can you ever improve?

A little while ago I helped a friend write a Wikipedia article. We worked on it independently and when I told him I had a draft ready, he let me know that he had a draft of his own. I sent mine through to him and when he published the final page I could clearly see how well our ideas had complemented each other. Some of his sentences were better than mine, but I had pulled in ideas and added references in areas he hadn’t touched on. Together, we’d fleshed out quite a nice little piece. And it felt really gratifying.

Teamwork is empowering

Working in a team of writers is rewarding. It reminds me of a quilting bee – a group of people working on a project, each bringing their own strengths and working toward a common goal.

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Creative problem solving for tech writers

How much problem solving do you do in your role as a tech writer? I used to do quite a lot. The company I was working at had a start-up mentality and culture. New ideas were encouraged and we usually had little to no budget.

One day the new boss came in and didn’t like our release notes. Apparently they were “too dry and boring”. I took that as a compliment 🙂 It meant we were doing our job—accurately describing the changes in functionality from one version release to the next.

Anyway, we needed to reinvent a lot of things when the new management came in. And that meant we had to think of a lot of new ideas. Which can be hard sometimes.

Tech writers are problem solvers

I never thought of myself as an “ideas man”. But in a short period of time we were re-designing release notes and thinking up new ways to engage with clients to improve our service and value offering.

We had to come up with technical solutions, too, for delivering our content in regional centres.

With no Marketing department at the company, the Tech Comms team had to create launch plans and project comms plan to engage with staff and clients.

So we not only had to improve the look and feel of our content (the word sexy was used), we also had to come up with elegant technical solutions—to reduce maintenance overhead for our team as well as ensure a great experience for users across the globe.

The fun part

Tech writers often work in an orderly and structured way, and can sometimes find creative problem solving difficult.

Here’s my tip: try Zentangle.

Zentangle is a form of meditative doodling. Don’t worry too much about the science but apparently it taps into a part of your brain that helps you zone out, like meditation or yoga. Zentangles are usually quite small – so you don’t have to commit to anything big. It can be addictive and is a really quick way to relax; and at the end you have a piece of artwork!

How-to

Get a bit of paper and a pen. Mark out a shape first (square, circle, whatever) then divide it up and fill in each section with a repetitive design. Sounds simple, but it’s very effective.  And you feel like you’ve made something really cool at the end even though you’ve just been drawing lines and squiggles.

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When you’re doing it, don’t focus on the problem you’re trying to solve, just enjoy the doodling. You’ll feel pretty chilled out afterward and you’ll find that new ideas will come to you pretty easily. You’ll become a natural problem solver!

Go on, I dare you. If you have to think up 5 ideas by tomorrow, give Zentangle a go.

Creativity begets creativity.

Lifelines in writing and knitting

Being able to reclaim work is very important as a writer and a crafter.

If you make a mistake in your knitting, you can tink – that is “knit” backwards. Basically you undo stitches one by one by reversing your actions to get back to a point in time. In tech writing terms, a bit like Ctrl+Z.

More drastically you can frog your knitting, which means you take the stitches off the needles and unravel big time, past the point of your mistake. Kind of like restoring from backup: you’re not really sure where you’re going to end up, and it’s probably further back than you’d like.

The most reliable way to recover from a mistake is to use a lifeline. A lifeline is a strand of yarn that you thread through the stitches on the needle and it acts as a place marker. You can confidently return to a known point in time and the stitches won’t unravel past your lifeline. This is as safe as source control.

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Tech writing lifeline

Source control is a lifeline in tech writing.

In the lace knit scarf I’m working on, the pattern is made up of 8 repeated rows. Every time I reach a perfectly completed set of 8 rows, I move the lifeline up.

In writing, this is akin to using a source control system to regularly check-in files or label a version of completed work.

Just like the second cup of tea is never as good as the first, I can never quite recapture the perfection of a phrase I have written when I have to reconstruct it from memory.

With source control, you don’t have to recall artful phrases from memory or reconstruct lost work.

Know how it works

Most authoring tools these days integrate with source control software. I recommend that you become familiar with the nuts and bolts of how your source control system behaves.

  • Where are the files actually stored?
  • How does branching and versioning work?
  • How can you retrieve an older version?
  • Does it allow multiple checkouts of the same file? If so, test what happens upon checking-in.

Be aware of the flexibility and limitations of your source control software – it might just save your life.

20140608-095859-35939207.jpgFind out more about fixing your knitting mistakes.