Now Screening: DDLC

If you’re an aspiring technical writer, chances are that you have heard the term DDLC. For the uninitiated, this may sound like one of those abbreviated movie titles… Those interminably long ones that often get shortened into just their initial letters… While certainly not as entertaining as those potboilers, learning about DDLC can certainly be very useful for your everyday work as a tech writer.

Simply put, DDLC, aka document development life cycle, describes the various phases in the life of a document – from conception, to design, development, and maintenance. DDLC mirrors another similar sounding abbreviation – SDLC, aka software development lifecycle. Your document takes shape, grows, and eventually outgrows its useful shelf-life along with the software it relates to. 

The following are the phases of DDLC in brief:

Analysis

Right at the outset, you need to understand the requirements in details. What kind of a document or collateral are you creating? Is it a user guide, a technical specification, a tutorial? Who is the audience for this document? What is their level of familiarity with the product / solution in question, and therefore, how detailed must the document be? Will this document be printed or published online? Accordingly, what tools must you select?

Understanding these requirements will help you put together a basic project plan that articulates the expected goals / outcomes, the team composition, and the time required to get the document ready, etc. 

Design

The next step is designing the document. This would provide a clear framework of how the document will look and what information it would contain. Designing involves creating the table of contents, creating a style sheet, developing a template / master page, etc.

The channel of delivery and publishing format would have a bearing on the design elements you choose. For example, the font size and even the placement of the header / footer would change depending on whether you are creating an online help embedded into the product or a PDF for print. It might be a good idea to get your draft table of contents and templates reviewed by peers and team members so you know you are on the right track before you start authoring the document. 

Development

With the design and overall framework approved, you can move on to the most critical and intensive phase of DDLC – the actual authoring of the document. At this stage, you:

  • Constantly interact with the subject matter expert (SME) to obtain detailed information about the product;
  • Don the role of the user and gain first-hand knowledge of how the product works. You might even catch some bugs and spot some areas for improvement as you work with the product;
  • Put together a first draft of the document based on the framework you have defined earlier on;
  • Add screenshots, illustrations, navigational aids, etc., to the document
  • Review / proofread / edit your own work to create a draft that is ready for internal review.

Review

After your draft is ready, you send it for review to both your peers and your SMEs. You can choose to keep sending interim drafts for review so you can manage the development and review tracks in parallel. This will reduce the overall time and effort spent in developing the document. 

Publishing

Publishing your document depends on the format and channel of distribution. For a PDF, you might need to generate a table of contents, set the document properties, create bookmarks, etc. In case you are creating an online help using a help authoring tool, you might have to generate an index and glossary, set up map IDs for context-sensitive help, etc. Once done, your document is ready to meet the world!

Maintenance

This is the last, and often the longest, leg of DDLC. Maintenance would involve making changes to the document based on user feedback, updating steps and screens over versions, and adding information to support new product features. Every version of a document is assigned a unique version number to maintain clear revision history. 

DDLC is cyclic – eventually every document reaches the end of its valuable shelf-life and it is time to start from scratch again. 

 

 

DDLC and SDLC have been going hand-in-hand for several years now. But as the world moves towards agile development, the concepts of SDLC and DDLC are also undergoing constant change. More about this in another blog… 

It’s not about the words, you know? It’s about The Words

Let me tell you a story about a Mr. T who made fine tea powder. Unfortunately, not many bought Mr. T’s tea. He sang peons in its praise, wrote up a storm, but sadly to no avail. He wondered why people wouldn’t read the detailed document he had written about his tea, its aroma, and taste.

Finally, he decided to consult his friend, a professional content writer. He shook his head in disbelief when the content marketing expert told him that most people did not read the things he wrote because they never discovered his content, and the few who did ran away faster than Usain Bolt because they simply couldn’t relate to it, leave alone enjoy reading it!

What does this signify? That even the best of products need the right kinds of communication to go with it; and that simply writing long prose is not going to do the trick any more. You must find relevant and interesting ways to connect and communicate with your customers. When you speak to your potential customers convincingly and mange to create a bond of trust, the likelihood of them buying your product increases many-fold.

Effective content marketing lets you relate to your customer on a whole new level. Articles, blog posts, white papers, infographics, social media updates, etc., help you engage with your audience using various flavours of content. Here is what research tells us:

  •  63% of companies said posting content on social media has increased marketing effectiveness.
  •  67% of Twitter buy from a brand they follow.
  • Informative blogs on company sites result in 55% more visitors.
  • 70% of customers prefer getting to know a company via articles/blogs rather than advertising.

Though it’s a cliché now, there is no denying the fact that social media is one of the most versatile and effective channels for content marketing. But what you post on your social media page matters; keep posting a steady stream of sales posts and tweets and you will lose even your most loyal followers.

An effective way to use your company’s page on Facebook, Twitter or Linkedin is to put up an interesting titbit with a link that will lead visitors to an informative blog, article or whitepaper on your website. This presents you with an amazing way to reach out to users who had never before heard of you and direct them to your website where they can discover so much more about your brand.

An informative and well written blog can double up as a sales tool, highlighting specific features of your product or speaking exclusively to a carefully chosen buyer personas. Such focused blogs can help you sell your products to targeted customers much more effectively than a generic web page.

But the important thing is to remember that the quality of your content matter the most when you are using content marketing. It really is not just about the number of words, jargons or key words you play with. It’s about using the right words in the right numbers, and the right message for the right audience profile. Are you looking for an expert team content writers who are well-versed in the art of content marketing? Of course, we’re here! And we’d love to help!  

 

 

Finding your Niche – To be a Jack of All or a Master of Some?

Assume that you are a small business owner who manufactures shoes. If you decide that your target customer includes just about everyone who wears shoes, your marketing strategy has lost the war even before it began – you’re likely to be yet another player in an already crowded market.

Similarly, if you are a freelance content writer, your target customer can potentially be any business who uses content, which is practically every company in the world. And yet, a mass-market approach is not likely to get you anywhere. Just like how each of us carefully chooses a pair of shoes that best fits our feet, style, and comfort, every customer is looking for a specific kind of writer. No discerning customer is looking for a writer who can just put words together to reach a specific word count.

Also, writing, even technical writing, is a very creative process. While you may have templates, style guides, best practices, et al to give you a basic framework, only you, the writer, has the power to choose the words, style, and format to address the needs of your audience as you understand it. So, like any passionate craftsman, it is important that you discover your niche – the one or few special forms of writing that you are best at.

However, 'niche’ is not something you can find under a rock or just decide on a whim. A niche must be cultivated over time. To help find your niche segment  try answering a few simple questions like:

  • What is my style of writing best suited for?
  • Which market segment do I like writing about the most?
  • Which clients have I had the most fruitful associations with?
  • What is it that I bring to the ‘content’ table that my competitors don’t?

In fact, it might be a good idea to begin your career as a generalist, trying your hands at every project that comes your way, and over time, choosing to become a specialist who excels in certain forms of writing.

Many content writers may feel that limiting themselves to specific genres or industry verticals can narrow their market and reduce the opportunities available to them. But the truth remains that defining your niche empowers you enjoy your work every day, give your customers the best each time, and eventually become the market leader in your area of expertise.

Defining a niche certainly does not mean that you will be immune to competition, but if you innovate frequently and keep up with the market trends (again, easier if you are catering to a particular segment), you will be way ahead of the pack.

 

Do you agree with this idea or do you have an argument against it? Drop us a line, we would love to hear from you.

Technical Writing for Dummies – Do you have it in you to be a technical writer?

I met an old classmate of mine the other day after a long hiatus. While catching up with what our numerous other common friends were up to, she asked me what it was that I did for a living. When I told her that I was a technical writer, she seemed rather excited and asked if she could try her hand at it too. After all, according to her, she knew English, had written essays in school and spoke the language like a native!

That got me thinking. What does it take to be an effective technical writer? Is an elementary knowledge of English enough? I wish it was! Because if that were true, we wouldn’t be facing such a shortage of good technical writers. A tech writer has to be the whole package. Here are a few things this package should definite include:

  • The ability to write:
    The name says it all – technical writerAlso speaking and writing are two very different skills; a good speaker does not necessarily make a good writer (and vice versa!).

  • The ability to grasp technology:
    This includes the aptitude to understand technical concepts and the willingness to be updated about the latest trends. This can also extend to your ability to understand concepts explained by SMEs, decode jargons, ask relevant questions, and then convert the information into useful content.

  • The ability to see the big picture:
    It isn’t just enough to look at each task in isolation and convert them into a series of steps. An effective tech writer must also be able to take a macro view of the product and all use cases and then comprehend how every modular task must come together to create a cohesive help guide.

  • An eye for detail:
    This includes something as plebeian as inserting commas into the right places and putting periods at the end of sentences to something as vital as “seeing the usually unseen” – Is the flow of content appropriate? Is the language consistent across the publication? Are document conventions being followed correctly? Is the help guide really helpful?

  • The ability to tell a story:
    More and more technical documents are moving toward visual media from plain text. This means that, rather than simply using the right words in a conventional manual, a tech writer must be able to transform steps and explanations into a narrative that tells a story.

An effective tech writer must also be proficient with the tools of the trade. These may include text editors like MS Office; help authoring tools like RoboHelp and Madcap Flare; screen capture and photo editors like Paint, Snag-it, or Photoshop; and increasingly video development tools like Captivate or Camtasia. Quite a lot of technical documents are authored in a collaborative environment these days. Therefore, collaboration platforms like Wiki and Confluence are gaining importance, especially if the authors are working from multiple locations.

As must be evident (from this list which is hardly exhaustive!), some of these skills are inherent and others can be picked up with the right training and mentoring. If you think you have what it takes to become a technical writer and would need help with picking up the other essentials skills that can be taught, our Technical Writing training program may be just what you need. 

Interested? Write to us!

 

The Ten Commandments of Digital Marketing

If I asked you to name a few friends who aren’t online or connected in some way, I am sure you would be hard pressed to do so. In this age of the digital customer, marketing too has to be geared to the miniscule attention span of a webpage surfer. Today, the question cannot be if you need digital marketing but how do you get it right. Here are a few tips – the Ten Commandments – that can guide your digital marketing strategy.

1.       Thou shall have a clear understanding of what your social media presence is saying.
Social media is a tool, and it is essential that you learn to use it as effectively as possible to create maximum impact for your brand.

2.       Thou shall understand the target audience.
They make or break your digital media strategy. Get a fair idea of what they are looking for, their likes and dislikes, what is popular in the social media domain and assess how these can help you achieve your goal.

3.       Thou shall be interactive.
The social media is called “social” for a reason. The novelty might have worn off, but only because this means of communication has become a standard. Unless you stay regularly active, your audience will lose interest.

4.       Thou shall respond to all comments…
Even negative ones! It is good PR practice to respond promptly or provide appropriate answers to complaints. Arguing with a complaining customer is never a good idea, just keep them informed.

5.       Thou shall re-purpose content intelligently and save time.
Make sure you change some elements or highlight different portions of your content to target varied audiences.

6.       Thou shall not spam.
Before sending out emails, newsletters or any kind of communication meant for advertising, remember your target audience. The “spammer” label once applied is not easily shaken off.

7.       Thou shall make it searchable.
People like to click, but only if it is to the point and honest. Keep your links short, but not so short that they don’t get the context. Again, remember too many internal links makes it look like spam!

8.       Thou shall not underestimate the value and reach of a blog.
Make sure to post original content as much as possible and find the right social media to post it. Also, post often enough to keep your audience interested but not so much that their reaction is “Oh no! Not again”.

9.       Thou shall make good use of followers.
Once you’ve built up a community of online followers, use them as a resource or sounding board for brainstorming ideas.

10.   Thou shall clean up after thyself.
If a particular profile of your company is no longer active, get rid of it. Your brand image takes a beating with a neglected social media site.

In addition to the above, it is also important to have an effective method to measure success of your online marketing strategy. You don’t need to be a technical wizard to run a successful digital marketing campaign, but being innovative and aware of the latest trends in your particular sphere definitely helps.

 

We are sure you will have your own list of commandments. Do share them with us, we would love to hear from you.

Technical Writing for Dummies: A Day in the Life of a Tech Writer

The alarm rings, is it 6 a.m. already? Time to set a new day in motion, wake up numerous beings of all sizes and ages from varying degrees of sleep and get everyone going. Finally, you are alone at last! This is your once-a-week “work from home” day, so you give the traffic a miss. You sit at your system and start yet another typical day as a technical writer.

You check your mailbox and find that the new feature that was being discussed in this week’s scrum meeting is ready. You need to add information about this feature to the user manual. You also need to prep the release notes for the upcoming release. And you need to create a short training video that explains this feature.

You make an appointment to speak with the subject matter expert (SME) to get more information about the latest addition to the software product you are documenting. Not an easy task!  Most of them are more difficult to catch than the underworld dons and when caught, have the verbal dexterity of a cat speaking Latin. But Eureka! You’ve managed it. A short call and a few emails later, you have all the requisite details in hand. Decoding what you’ve got from the SME is important because otherwise it often tends to read like….you got it – a Latin cat!

You can you proceed to write your piece and get some screenshots. You log in to try your hands with the new feature. That is, after all, the best way to figure out how to document it properly. There seems to be a problem with the text formatting for the label on the screen. Must remember to mention that in your notes to the QA team and perhaps even log a bug. That issue aside, you manage a few nice screenshots for the piece and everything is working perfectly.

With the write up ready, you send it out for a peer review. While waiting for it to come back, you begin working on release notes and the script for the video. Release notes are a simple listing of the features that are being added in this version of the release along with other information such as bugs fixed since the previous release, known issues, support limitations, etc.

The script for a video, on the other hand, needs a more creative touch. You need to find a way to weave in a story around the new feature while also explaining all the steps in the correct sequence. A video must tell a story in order for it to be effective.

Just as you give your release notes a nice finishing touch, you get your write-up back after review. Seems good enough, just a few comments. With the comments resolved, you are ready to include the page into the help authoring tool and publish your guide. You make necessary additions to the table of contents (ToC), the index, and the glossary, and regenerate the user guide in the necessary format(s).

The latest version of the user guide is now ready to go into the daily build; you take a couple of minutes to check for broken links before committing the latest version into your source vault and unlocking the document. The release note is also all set to be updated on the website. The script is ready for review – hopefully tomorrow you should get started with the video. But that’s for another day….

 

All in all, a pretty productive day you think as you sit down with a steaming cup of coffee and go on to spend some quality time with the horde that’s back and kicking up a storm in the front room!  

The Marketing Sudoku – Whom do you Write For?

Until just a few decades ago, marketing was very personal. You distributed well-written and beautifully designed product catalogs to anyone you met and hoped that someone would actually bother to go through them and give you a call. Sometimes, an intermediary or a common friend helped you connect with your prospective client.

Not anymore! Or at least the human connect happens a bit later, if not lesser, in the marketing lifecycle. Nowadays, most of your connections in the digital world are driven by virtual intermediaries – search engines… bots. So, even before your product catalog / website manages to pique the interest of the human customer, it needs to catch the attention of the bot that helps your customer discover relevant content.

Using keywords wisely is a good starting point – the title is the best place to make it relevant to search engines. The headers and meta-description must be apt and to the point. You can use alt text with images, and we’re just scratching the surface here… However, your work doesn’t end there! Once you have managed to successfully reach your human customer, your content has to be creative and captivating enough to engage.

Research says only about 16% of the total users who come to a website actually read every page they visit word-by-word. Most of them merely skim through and read the header, what’s bold, or is highlighted. Only if you’ve managed to get them interested, will they go on to read more. So, there is no denying the absolute necessity of well-researched, relevant, and useful content. 

And frankly, none of us buy something because the web page is replete with well-chosen keywords. Keywords are for the bots. Get the bots interested, let them know how and for whom your content is relevant, and the bot will do its job of serving up your content to the right people at the right time. Google too has moved beyond keywords to something more measurable and authoritative like ‘authorship,’ ‘average time on page,’ ‘social share’.

So, writing for the web is a complex function today. Your audience is almost always two-pronged – the human and the bot. And managing the “Hummingbird” is as tricky, if not more, as managing the human, what with algorithms constantly changing and newer ones coming up at regular intervals. Achieving this balance in your content creation is an art of its own.

What’s your take on this tricky issue? We would love to hear your ideas on solving this conundrum.

 

Technical Writing for Dummies – Technical Writer? Who?

Succumbing to temptation and peer pressure, you’ve finally gone ahead and bought the latest smartphone. After admiring the box it came in and popping a few bubbles on the bubble wrap, you hold your prized possession in your hands at last! Only to realize, you have no clue how to switch it on, let alone do the various things the ad promises you can do (OK, we are exaggerating this a bit! But just play along, will you?). You then scramble to find the user manual among the things you strewed around while unpacking the phone.

Once you start reading the user guide, you realize how comprehensive it is. With drawings, screenshots, and step-by-step instructions, it explains almost every little aspect of your phone. Soon, you are Whatsapping and sharing and doodling like a pro!

Ever wondered who writes these very useful user guides? You got it! The technical writer. Technical writing is the art of explaining complex “stuff” in a simple, unambiguous manner.

And the user guide is just one of the many things a technical writer authors. Functional specifications, online help, reference guides, tutorials, readme notes, and admin guides are a few other collaterals prepared by a technical writer. In fact, technical writers today do more than just write. They create screencasts, multimedia videos, training materials, e-learning courses, and more.

You might also have also come across user guides that read like the menu card in a foreign restaurant for all its usefulness; try hard as you might, you just don’t understand what’s written there! Or a guide that read like an essay? Or one that seemed like a never-ending list of to-dos!

This leads us to the crux of the matter – the role of a good technical writer who authors help that really helps – and delights. A well-written user guide could motivate us to return to the same brand while a badly written one might lead us to condemn an otherwise good product.

At TechWritingLabs, we accord very high importance to being a good technical writer – in fact, we aim to be good technical communicators who use all available channels and media to communicate and engage with the intended user / audience.

 

If you think you have it in you to be a good technical writer or want to graduate from being good to great, come join our “Technical Writer’s Program”. It’s customized to promote self-paced learning and is far removed from typical classroom trainings! Want to know more? Drop in a note to info@techwritinglabs.com.

Technical Writing for Dummies: Why this Dearth of Quality

The demand for technical writers grew coincidental with the IT boom, and technical writing became a hot career choice in the 90s. Unfortunately, almost 25 years later, the gap between demand and supply of technical writers is as wide now as it was then.

If the knowledge of English language and a moderate grasp of technology is all that is required to be a technical writer (as is the common presumption), then the demand supply ratio wouldn’t be as skewed as it is right now. The ability to logically explain is one of the most essential traits of a successful tech writer. What this means is that tech writers must be more than wordsmiths. You, as a tech writer, must be able to translate complex information into one that is easily understood by the target audience (this could be general audience or technically trained).

Mark Twain said, “To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement.” But these days, writing alone isn’t as valued as it once was. A technical writer must add more value and go beyond writing. They need to be problem solvers and must strive to be problem solvers, analytical thinkers, information architects, project planners, etc.

 

This blog serves as a starter for an interesting journey, titled “Technical Writing for Dummies”. This series hopes to serve as a beginner’s guide to quality technical writing – the emphasis clearly being on quality. Watch this space. 

Freelancing: Is it Worth the Hassle?

“Be your own boss” sounds like a dream come true, and “flexibility” and “work-life balance” are all words much bandied about when people refer to working as a freelancer. However, when you do manage to talk to a freelancer, what you mostly hear about is burning the midnight oil satisfying demanding clients or twiddling your thumbs while you wait for someone to discover the writing genius that is you!

Is working as a freelancer a nightmare or a dream? Let’s look a few pros and cons before we decide:

Pros of Freelancing

  • You are the boss, which means independence and flexibility.
  • You can choose to say no to projects that don’t excite you (provided you’ve saved something for a rainy day!)
  • You have direct contact with the client (no shielding; this could work both ways though!)
  • If you are a workaholic, the more you work the more you earn!
  • Once you are done with a project, you can choose to take a well-earned break.
  • You get to work on a wide variety of projects; the learning is tremendous!

Cons of Freelancing

  • Working from home needs tremendous self-discipline, and distractions are many.
  • You have to manage everything from your internet connectivity to aggravating SMEs.
  • Financial security might seem like a distant horizon.
  • If you want to take a break, there will be nobody to pick up the slack.
  • All decisions, whether wise or foolish, are yours, and so is all the responsibility when things go wrong.
  • When there is a shortage of work, you might be forced to take up whatever projects come your way.
  • You don’t really have anyone to gossip with, and sometimes the loneliness gets to you.

 

So, in summary, like all good things, deciding to be a freelancer has its share of problems. If you are planning to turn freelancer, our Freelance Writer’s Program can help you make the right beginning.

If you have a compelling argument for or against freelancing, share it with us. We would love to hear from you! And if are a freelancer already, we’d love for you to share your experiences with other readers here.