Vol 44, Issue 6

July/August 2005

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Writer/Editor as User Advocate

by Deborah Long, Technical Editor, BMC Software Business School

Over the past few years, STC Houston's May program meeting has become the “rehearsal” and proving ground for members planning to present at the annual Society conference. This year, Linda King, a project manager at HP and also a member of our administrative council, gave us a glimpse into what she had planned to speak about at the 2005 meetings in Seattle.

Linda King

In a nutshell, Linda explained how technical writers and editors are actually “advocates” for the end user (or reader) of our documentation by providing “effective” communication. To be effective, she stressed, we must gatherer specific requirements during the project request process. Researching the needs of your audience is of primary importance (who they are, their starting level of knowledge, etc.). King generously shared a most precious tool, the comprehensive form used by her group at HP to assess the needs of any given Technical Publications customer. We were introduced to an engineering concept of listing what is and what is not to be included in the project scope. She then stepped us through the project-planning procedure that she uses (from outline to draft to rewrite to final stage), giving us many tips along the way.

The bottom line, according to Linda, is to be flexible and meet the customer's expectations (obtaining early buy-in and making modifications, as needed, to the project plan are critical to a successful outcome). Speaking of expectations, she suggests setting reader expectations right up front via an abstract or introduction . Next, be sure to develop only what users need to know. Some other recommendations were to refer to your project plan as a roadmap; create a useful table of contents with functional headings; use simple, easy-to-understand language (stay away from jargon!); and provide access to related documents. As a real-life exercise, we went over some actual editing examples and saw how we could improve the readability of a given paragraph by just tweaking a few words or reconstructing a sentence. We can help the reader immensely by submitting our documents to an editor, if available, or by taking the time to self-edit before publishing.

As always, colleagues were asked to provide feedback, and so we did! We hope that Linda found our feedback beneficial and that she was as well received by conference-goers as she was by the attendees at our monthly meeting. Join me in congratulating all STC Houston members who shared their knowledge and presented at this year's conference.

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