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!


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.

photo 1

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.


Unword of the Day

a whole nother
very unique
do the needful
expel the virtues

My husband used to work on a project at a major bank, and he dealt with staff in their many South East Asian offices. Working with lots of people who have English as their second language, he encountered a wide range of unusual language usage.

Being a sensitive soul (and a tech writer in another life, I’m sure) he was often offended by some of the clangers he heard, and would bring them home for me to be shocked about.

Many blog posts have already been written about “irregardless” but that is one of the first he noticed.
“Do the needful” is another favourite, and one he heard the other day was “expel the virtues”.

It’s everywhere

I subscribe to the view that English is a living language and I tend to embrace language inventions that tickle me. I’m all for the reinvention of “because” as a preposition (now because NOUN), and I regularly use fat as the past participle form of fit:

“I tried on the skirt and it fat real good”.

People who are new speakers of English tend to be able to combine pieces in new and interesting ways. In some cases they are just following the language instinct, something Stephen Pinker wrote a whole book about.

The point

It’s not worth losing sleep over. Try to go with the flow and don’t censure people when you think they’ve made a mistake. It may be hard to relinquish the meanings of words like “literally” which has recently had a ‘secondary’ meaning accepted in the dictionary, but this is the way of the future and sometimes I think if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Friendly 404 page

I stumbled across a great 404 page the other day over at GitHub. I’m a Star Wars fan so this really tickled me. It’s got the parallax affect too. Kinda cool.


404 pages don’t scare me anymore. I eyeballed the URL, removed an errant character and the page displayed fine. It’s not always that easy.

Friend or foe?

The GitHub 404  isn’t particularly useful, and Chris Morgan explains why in his case study. He makes a good point that really useful 404 pages are computationally expensive.

There are certain things that good 404 pages do. The page can be generic and still be helpful – this scatter/gather post covers it nicely.

Handmade 404

In my last role, our team had to create a custom 404 page and it was a really interesting exercise.

Our 404 page was not for a website but an internal site accessible only to logged-in users of our software.

We knew the page would display if:

  • the user hit a bad link or typed the URL incorrectly
  • the user wasn’t logged in to our software
  • the URL didn’t exist because we hadn’t yet uploaded the content
  • there were network problems on the server side.

Designing this 404 page required finesse and an understanding of multiple disciplines:

  • technology: how the site was hosted, how it was integrated with our software and what the technical reasons were that would cause the page to display.
  • ux: how users were getting to our site, how they were likely to arrive the 404 and what information they would want to see on the page.
  • tech writing: what language to use on the page to acknowledge the problem, and how to convey a clear message about the actions users could take.
  • design: how to layout the page (including placement of the title, paragraph and procedure), and how to style the page to make it consistent with the rest of the site.

The content and the design of the 404 page had to cover a lot, and we wanted to keep it brief.

Rising to the challenge

We used a clear statement at the top of the page acknowledging the problem, along the lines of “We can’t display that page.”

We included a brief, 2 sentence paragraph explaining what happened, and to “try again soon” in case of network or content-loading issues.

Lastly, my colleague crafted a succinct 3 step procedure advising users to “log in to the software then try the link again”.

The page also included contact details for our Helpdesk so users could get further assistance.

The point

Tech writers rule! and if you ever get the chance to write a 404 page I encourage you to do so because they are challenging and fun.

Writing fortunes for cookies

Ever had to write a fortune?

I’m working on a crochet project – a bowl of fortune cookies.

The pattern I’m following stitches them closed and embroiders a smiley face on the outside but I chose to include actual fortunes inside my cookies.

Writing challenge! I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of space or flexibility for presentation of the messages, so brevity was key. I also had to make some style decisions.

Font. Punctuation. Language.

Next, because I was using iron-on transfer paper I needed to print the text backwards. I created mirror text in Word and did a few test prints.


You can’t turn tech writing off, no matter the project.