Last week, I mentioned the important communications processes that help keep tech writing projects running smoothly. This week, I want to reiterate their importance by rationalizing their use.
For most project participants (and general readers, too), communications processes are basic logistics management: They're in the background, they're boring, and they feel inconsequential.
However, if you’ve worked on a tech writing team (or any writing team), you know that projects often fall (gently or painfully) apart. Project managers forget to reply-all; SMEs miss their interviews; writers edit old versions; proofreaders fail to update and send out style guides.
Most of the time, the problems can be traced back to ineffective communications processes.
A successfully completed multimember team project (where “success” equals an excellent product and the mutual respect and good will of team members), requires a project lead, weekly team meetings, uniform file-naming system, and general team investment in the efficacy of the communications processes.
An identifiable and self-identified project lead updates everyone and holds everyone accountable. Without a recognizable lead, it's hard to identify a "team," and a project may not even get off the ground.
Weekly team meetings that are written into the project calendar make the project an obvious priority. Ad hoc meetings theoretically work, but the work calendar self-populates at a rigorous rate, and it’s almost always impossible—especially with far-flung team members—to schedule a meeting tomorrow that everyone can attend.
The utility of a rigorously used file-naming system is obvious. But it requires use and enforcement. If a project lead doesn’t establish and apply it, a file’s dead versions are resurrected and important updates get lost.
Boring? Maybe. But most definitely consequential. If you work on writing projects (or aspire to), do yourself a favor by establishing the communications processes that will make your project a success.
Partly because they’re team-based, partly because they’re produced over an extended period of time, and partly because production is iterative, tech writing projects require rock-solid communications processes to ensure completion.
Communications processes refer to the ways that team members provide reviews, comments, revisions, approvals, and updates. Sounds (somewhat) simple, but a typical white paper often includes a client, a project lead, one or two writers, two or three subject-matter experts, and an SME liaison (or a “wrangler”). This seven- or eight-person team may start their project on the same page, but when a file is misnamed or misplaced, or an SME interview is missed or mis-scheduled, the project can easily run off track.
Wayward writing projects stretch the scope, but they also stretch the patience of participants, which can be even more frustrating.
To help mitigate mishaps associated with files or individual schedules (because they can never be completely avoided), establish a sound communications process while setting the project scope. This means:
Next-level communications processes include ensuring team members cc the communication lead on all emails, putting Zoom or other conferencing info numbers and links in all project-specific emails, and sending out a weekly project calendar with relevant updates.
Implementing and practicing effective communications processes can be arduous, but by helping to navigate the pitfalls that throw projects off track, rock-solid communications ease the load and lead to quicker completion.
If you’ve ever looked to produce a yearly report, a white paper, a series of tech sheets, or any other project that falls under the broad and rather complicated category of “tech writing,” you’ve probably felt overwhelmed and unsure about where to start. This post can help.
Approaching and efficiently delivering any tech writing project is a big job. However, it’s a job worth learning more about because it can encompass many different projects, can be enormously beneficial across a range of business, and can resonate with a variety of audiences.
In this post, I’ll discuss some of the best approaches to effective and efficient tech writing. In posts to follow, I’ll identify useful tools to aid execution and completion.
Starting and finishing tech writing projects depends on setting scope, communicating progress, soliciting feedback, and submitting or publishing the final work.
Setting a rigorous scope constitutes the first step, and it is key. When you set a scope for a tech writing project, you determine:
Although tech writing projects are built to suit, with a prefigured topic and audience, it's still important to explicitly identify every project's topic and readership.
The identification is necessary because most tech writing projects are produced by a team, often with an outside writer. Ensuring that every team member knows what they're writing about (and for whom) ensures consistency. It also helps project managers get as specific as possible about their marketing objectives: After all, a tech-based Q&A offered as a download on a business’s website reaches a different audience than the same content published through a trade organization.
Setting scope also requires identifying subject matter experts (SMEs) who can contribute objective and evidence-based material. Designating SMEs before a project begins—and often bringing them into the process of setting scope—can gain their timely and invested participation.
Finally, setting scope requires a calendar and schedule. There’s really no way around the fact that tech writing is an iterative process, and each iteration requires review. Identifying the team and gaining their early buy-in can help manage touchpoint fatigue (aka, “You need me to look at this again?”). Creating a granular schedule can ensure maximum efficiency. When SMEs and others can anticipate the commitment required from the jump, they can better rise to their role.
Setting scope is the most important step in completing tech writing projects. Sharing the scope ensures that objectives are met, that SMEs understand and anticipate their commitment, and that the project moves along as efficiently as possible.
Business owners and consultants frequently solicit our services for turning their content into a book. Niche business books can do excellent work in the world, but they often don’t because business-owning writers habitually mistake their primary audience.
A primary audience is the audience most likely to receive value from reading your book. These readers need your book because it has answers to their most-frequently-asked questions and offers them relevant and usable information.
Primary readers are not just inherently attracted to your book’s title; they also intuitively know where in the bookstore your book is likely to be shelved—usually because they read (or know the titles of) the other books with which your book is in conversation.
This means that your primary audience never has to work too hard to find and make use of your book’s value: Your book is written for—and to—them. You determine your book’s content, but your primary audience determines everything else, from the voice and style you adopt, to the types of evidence you use for support and persuasion.
Because the primary audience determines so much, correctly identifying it is crucial to your book’s success and should be completed in the foundational stages of strategizing your work.
This is not always easy to do. In fact, business owners often misidentify their primary audience as prospective rather than current clients. The difference may sound irrelevant, but the designation results in two very different books.
Books written for prospective clients have value, of course, but the value is usually narrowed to sales. Perhaps surprisingly, "capturing sales" is too-general a foundation: It may require comprehensive knowledge of your pitch, but it requires little to no knowledge of real readers. Without understanding them, writers will find it painfully difficult to meaningfully answer questions related to argument, voice, style, and even design and publication strategy.
Mistaking prospective clients as a book’s primary audience will result in a bad book. But it’s a hard mistake to avoid because prospective clients are precisely the audience to whom business presentations are pitched.
In a follow-up post, I’ll discuss how to specifically identify your book’s primary audience so as to safeguard yourself from negative reactions, like, “This could've been a PowerPoint.” I'll also show you how early identification of your audience makes the work of developing every other element of the book easier and more clear.
Most of us intuitively welcome sleep as one of the best and most important things in life. Its depth and duration redound not just in the quantity of our years but in the quality of those years, too. When National Geographic took an in-depth look at the benefits of sleep, it found that during sleep, spindles stimulate the cortex and help categorize new info according to the old info we've already acquired. And in episode two of its third season, Radio Lab showed how certain tasks can be better completed (or completed in the first place) after a good night’s—or even a good nap’s—sleep.
Old research has frequently spoken to the brain benefits of this kind of “offline learning,” but new research argues that even tiny breaks are important to achieving new tasks. When we combine the ameliorating effects of resting and the incremental achievements gained through micro-ambition, we gain a better picture of “micro-offline gains”: the very small but very necessary work that enables skill acquisition.
Micro-offline gains suggest that skill acquisition depends not (or not just) on the active effort to learn a new skill or to complete a task but in the periods of rest we offer our brain to consolidate the information it’s working so hard to acquire. Ultimately, when we tax our brains with learning a new skill or staying focused on a big, integrated project, we accomplish more when we offer our brain more, very short, breaks.
Even when they're just seconds long, these kinds of tiny breaks can aid our completion of the task at hand (or at least can aid our accomplishment in the steepest part of the learning curve). Unfortunately, these aren't the kind of breaks that include Instagram or other semi-conscious scrolling; rather, they’re micro-moments that mimic the consolidating effects of sleep.
Summer is a time for downshifting. Although I’ve already contributed to this cause by advocating for aiming lower, I’m now also arguing for interrupting your project with more guiltfree breaktime. This is especially true for my clients who struggle to make summer the most productive season of writing. It turns out that scheduling many opportunities for micro-offline gains can help with making connections and building arguments. The season requires it, and your brain will thank you by becoming smarter, faster.
Micro-ambition, or “the passionate pursuit of short-term goals” is generally attributed to Tim Minchin, an Australian comedian and somewhat of a renaissance man, who advocated for the term in a 2013 commencement address (which offers other truisms that I passionately endorse, including, “There is an inverse correlation between depression and exercise. Do it. Run, my beautiful intellectuals, run”).
Whereas macro-ambition refers to the passionate pursuit of The Dream, micro-ambition refers to the work in front of you. Macro-ambition sometimes works for those with A Dream, but it doesn’t always lead to success, and the cost of pushing achievement into an indeterminate future can be high.*
That’s why while most of our clients procure our services in the pursuit of macro-ambition, we try to structure our offerings according to short-term goals and the work that needs to be done today. This sort of micro-ambition too neatly dovetails with the uniquely American dedication to life-hacking productivity, but micro-ambition does not advocate for productivity for its own sake. After all, there’s nothing either particularly ambitious or necessarily fulfilling about simply being “productive.”
Rather, we offer micro-ambitious services that we've typically described as “strategic.” For example, for an author working on a first draft of a memoir, we offer strategic prompts soliciting tiny stories that contribute to the memoir’s theme. Or, for an author testing out curriculum guidelines for inclusion in a guidebook, we help create smaller strategic publications to determine reader engagement and guideline efficacy.
Strategy has become too encompassing a word, though, probably because it has been just about fully pushed into the land of useless jargon (from which words rarely return). Micro-ambition, though at first glance just as useless, captures for the moment the very small achievements that can elicit the engaged work that ultimately adds up to A Dream, even if it’s not the dream the author first had in mind.
*Minchin's existential takedown of the lifetime pursuit of A Dream: "[I]t’ll take you most of your life to achieve, so by the time you get to it and are staring into the abyss of the meaninglessness of your achievement, you’ll be almost dead so it won’t matter."
Inspired by my last post’s gif and by a few recent client experiences, I want today to advocate for the phone.
For contract workers, freelancers, and anyone working remotely, email (and its more casual cousins, like Slack) are the queens of communications processes. Asking a quick Q, updating a far-flung project partner, onboarding a client: In all of these cases (and most others) it feels supremely efficient to send a quick email. Email lets you get stuff done when you're in the midst of other work.
But sometimes that's a problem. Email aids the multitasker, but its benefits are often perceived rather than real (research typically shows that the high mental cost of task-switching makes multitasking pretty inefficient anyway).
At the same time, inbox scope creep is very real and a very real problem. It’s hard to hierarchize replies and responses to anything when everything—every query, question, and fyi—is piled on top of an already towering heap.
Meanwhile, the phone, also a tool of communication, seldom feels like an appealing alternative. In the email era, a call may feel a little intimidating. It’s more involved, and it’s more intimate, perhaps because it seems to require participants’ (almost) complete attention.
But a phone call conveys care, and—because it assumes an immediate response—helps aid prioritization. It can also keep projects running smoothly. A few years ago, I began integrating phone calls into my SOP where I’d typically send an email. It’s hard to gauge the impact on productivity, but I absolutely noticed a difference in my work. Getting on the phone to more regularly check in and troubleshoot helped partnerships feel real and invested.
Because of this, I’ve become an advocate for picking up the phone: It may be out of style, and it definitely feels more labor intensive, but that doesn’t mean it’s not time to bring it back.
In my work with book development, authors who finish their books often differ from authors who don’t finish in just one respect: Those who don’t finish don't feel accountable—for a variety of (sometimes complex) reasons--to completion.
Creating flow charts, using editorial calendars, adhering to timelines, tracking time, soliciting beta reader feedback: These tools help foster a willingness to take responsibility for a project. Appropriately deployed—and routinely used—they can encourage someone to feel more accountable for a project than they might otherwise feel inclined to do.
I rely on the tricky quality of these types of tools to produce posts. My editorial calendar works as an impassive disciplinarian, coldly reminding me that I’ve set out to but have yet to complete a task.
Coaches and others know that there are all kinds of ways to foster accountability. One of the simplest is to articulate your goal. Go further by writing it down. Go all the way by writing it down and regularly reporting your progress to a friend.
The efficacy of this method was tested in 2014 by Dr. Gail Matthews, a psychology professor at Dominican University, who wanted to test the premise of the never-conducted-though-frequently-cited 1953 “Yale Study of Goals.” The latter was used (spuriously, it turned out) as evidence that people who wrote down their goals had a much higher chance of reaching them.
When Matthews created her study, she found that among her 267 participants, 76 percent of those who had been instructed to write down their goal and send their weekly progress to a friend accomplished their goal or felt they were “at least halfway there.”
Matthews's sample size may be too small to draw big conclusions, but I will add my anecdotal evidence in support: Authors whose work requires routine progress reports almost always progress. Those who do not make use of progress reports may progress, but who can tell? They don’t report.
Whether you manage teams or just yourself, research suggests that there are some very basic ways to foster the accountability that can lead to success. Write it down and phone a friend to get at least halfway there.
If you’re a reader of the MWS newsletter, you already know that I used Independent Bookstore Day to restock my supply of birthday books. You also know that at the very top of the heap is Normal People, Sally Rooney’s follow-up to Conversations with Friends (an emo-elder-YA hybrid), and that it’s for me!
But there are lots of other titles in my stack, and they’re mostly for young readers. My favorites include the endearingly odd Dory in Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon, the clever environmentalist Noah in Flush by Carl Hiaasen, the delightfully different Penderwick sisters in The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall, and the hilariously unlikely nanny in Nanny Piggins by R.A. Spratt.
I love giving books because it lets me imaginatively repeat the first-time reading experience with the anticipation inspired by the knowledge of what’s to come—the book is great! When I give Life After Life by Kate Atkinson or Enchanted by Rene Denfeld or Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell or Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, I feel like I’m giving someone a ticket to a fantastic land I’ve just discovered.
But of course, because it’s a one-way, single-use ticket, I can’t take that journey again. Sure, I can reread the book (and that, too, is a source of great pleasure), but I can't ever discover an already-visited land. In this way reading is like stepping into Heraclitus’s river: It’s never exactly the same book (because it’s never exactly the same reader) twice.
Giving books, then, is a gift you give yourself. In giving, you get to relive a bit the magic of discovery, and once your recipient has returned from their journey, you get to talk about your discoveries together.
'The weekend is coming! The weekend is coming! And while that news alone is a source of joy and wonder, it's doubly so this weekend because Saturday is Independent Bookstore Day!
Where will you visit and what will you buy? If you're in the Minneapolis area, you might try The Wild Rumpus for a belated copy of The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, or maybe the Red Balloon in anticipation of the newest Wings of Fire? How about Birchbark for Killers of the Flower Moon, or Once Upon a Crime for the creepy classic, Rebecca? Or maybe you'll head to Magers and Quinn for a newer classic, The Great Believers?
Or maybe you're working, or digging in the (muddy [snowy?]) dirt, or riding the bleachers at a child's doubleheader. If you can't get out and about in your neighborhood, there's always the internet's busy streets. Specifically, you might try Belt Publishing for the Minneapolis-superfan's Under Purple Skies.
Buying independent is an excellent way to make manifest your belief in the restorative value of books and the invigorating power of independent bookstores.
It's true that books are expensive and can be borrowed—for free—from the library (libraries!). But good books are forever: You read them once or twice or more. You read them aloud to those you love. You lend them to those you trust. You gush over them with acquaintances and hate on them with strangers. You revisit the phrases, the characters, the scenes, the stories—and the images and feelings they invoke—over the years of your life. And good books make those years so much better.
And bad books? They're the worst. But even bad books deserve a second life in more appreciative hands. So sell back A Little Life and The Flamethrowers to the used bookstore, and try to remember that the books we hate also give us something to think over and question, and that's a lot.
Find your Minnesota-specific guide to Independent Bookstore Day at Rain Taxi or Twin Cities Geek. And reserve Saturday for spending money on the booksellers, bookstores, book publishers, book printers, and, of course, the authors that entertain, educate, delight, and, sometimes, astound us.
English PhD, former arts administrator, obsessive cook, native East Coaster, mom to two rabblerousers.
English PhD, former high school teacher, obsessive organizer, native Midwesterner, mom to three troublemakers.