Technical Writing Tips: Recap from the 2013 Best Practices Conference

Two weeks ago, we had the pleasure to attend the 2013 Best Practices Conference in Savannah, Georgia. The program presented the most interesting presentations, making this the best of the Best Practices ever. Here, we recap a few of the excellent technical writing tips as shared by some of the presenters at the conference. While some of these tips may seem like common sense, we often need a reminder of the obvious:

Be human.
…as opposed to being nonhuman? Yes, as a matter of fact. Some instructions can be too robotic and formal, and may only succeed in scaring the wits out of your reader. One speaker gave an example of a message in their software that stated the user had a “payment violation.”
Wouldn’t you be scared after getting this message? I’m trembling already!

Stay away from those stiff, frightening words; for example, instead of using the word “Halt,” use the more common, simple word “Stop” to instruct readers. The goal is to give readers appropriate instruction, not to send them running away while screaming in fear of their user guide.

Be clear.
Say what you mean in brief, simple words. Don’t try to impress readers with large, complicated words. People who need a quick instruction will only be frustrated when they have to stop and look up your grand vocabulary in the dictionary. Readers will understand your message faster if your writing is clear and concise. Also, stay away from slang phrases that some readers may not understand. Being clear and brief will deliver your message to your readers quickly. It will also save you time and aggravation if you are translating your content into other languages.

Be everywhere.
There are many different generations of people who may be reading your documentation. Older people may still like to read printed manuals or PDFs. Younger people who grew up with a mobile phone or computer available to them at all times may prefer more digital and social methods to receive communications. So, publish your information to lots of different channels to make sure you reach your entire audience.

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