By Srivani A
Hansa, the legendary bird of Indian mythology has a special talent of distilling water from milk and opting only for the milk. No mean feat this! Such great talent requires extraordinary attention to detail. Alluding to this concept, editing is a weapon in the hands of authors to separate the wheat from the chaff; we can pick and choose what is important and what needs to go in to the content and where.
I list out some of the pointers that are pertinent for all kinds of write-ups; including technical documentation:
Head for the Heading: Headings are very important as they reflect in the TOCs that are the first and most convenient source of reference for the readers. Sometimes, the readers are unable to locate the required information since the headings are vague and do not clearly mention what to expect in the content. We too have been victims of this. How often have we come across this scenario, where, we buy a new product but are unable to locate the information that we want in the TOC of the product’s manual! Let the headings be relevant and straight forward; especially, when it comes to technical documentation, white papers, and manuals. The concept of WYSIWYG works well in headings. Fancy titles or headings work fine in philosophical muses, poetry, magazine articles, and in large volumes like novels.
3-30-3 Rule: This rule is especially relevant to RFPs, white papers, marketing collaterals, mailers, web sites, and other short format content. It is proven scientifically that the reader takes 3 seconds to form an opinion on a given article. According to the acclaimed psychologist, Malcolm Gladwell, the concept of ‘thin slicing’ lets readers decide to read further within the first few seconds of reading the content. Therefore, it is important that the first few lines of any write-up captivate the readers’ attention. The next 30 seconds make the readers decide if the content is relevant to them. In these 30 seconds, the point is to convey the relevance of the content and why it is important to read further. Once we have grasped the readers’ attention, we have 3 minutes to explain ourselves – informing, educating, perusing, selling, et al.
Keep It Short and Simple (KISS): In a recent study conducted by one of the websites, it was revealed that most of the readers can retain their attention span for about 800 words only. Anything beyond does not augur well with the audience. They either lose interest or simply opt not to read further. Therefore, one of the foremost tasks to observe is to keep the content as lean as possible. Slicing the content in to short paragraphs or in to sub sections helps cut down on length. In online articles or documentation, providing minimalistic content and embedding links for further reading is a good way to KISS.
The nitty gritties: Attention to nitty gritties such as, the adherence to the use of language and grammar, styles, and formats are inevitable. Consistency, clarity, completeness, and absence of redundancy are some of the other subtle, yet important factors to focus on, to keep the content crisp and presentable. Having a style guide to attend to the nitty gritties is often handy and makes the work simpler. While on the one hand, content is the king, on the other, it is imperative that presentation is the queen.
Tricks and Tips: All of us grab at any trick or magic wand that would make our work easy and effortless, and, at the same time, deliver the content as desired. Some tips that I would like to share here are:
- Create check lists. We often tend to by-pass this useful magic wand in our race against time. However, it saves time in helping prevent inconsistencies and defects.
- Create a sample and pass it to the client for review in an informal set up. Though it may be time consuming initially, in the long run, it actually saves re-doing the entire document. In case of user manuals, ask the non-technical staff to identify the technical jargon that they may not understand or the procedures that are ambiguous. This way, over use of technical jargon can be avoided and more clarity can be brought in to the manual.
- Create UIs with inbuilt tips that appear when you hover on them. This helps avoid explaining each and every icon or button, thus, maintaining minimalistic content.
In a jocular vein, yet quite a fact, never write or edit when hungry or angry. It will only end up in slop-shoddy work.
Thus, as ‘Hansas’ of the documentation world, we editors have loads to accomplish. It is a never ending process, which always provides more room for perfection. A nip here and a tuck there to tailor our documentation to the client’s satisfaction, apparently, is the end goal. But, in retrospect, however hard we may train our guns at it, we sometimes fall short of our own expectations. Therefore, going by the Zen philosophy, ‘wabi-sabi’ng our work is not a bad idea. Periodically, do revise the standards to align with the changing audience preferences. Let us remember that the eloquence of the content is in its editing.
Please share your experiences and knowledge too. I am a hungry birdie, ever ready to learn and improve my skills.
About the Author:
Srivani A is a Technical Communicator working on contract with Tata Consultancy Services. She holds a STC-certified Diploma in Technical Writing besides a Green Belt in Lean Six Sigma. She is widely travelled and has donned the hats of a writer, teacher, trainer, counselor, editor, and technical communicator; each adding value to her personality. In her spare time, she likes to work with kids with autism besides writing articles for websites and magazines. You can connect with her on LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/srivani-a/42/402/149 and also at firstname.lastname@example.org