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The art, and the power, of saying no

Recently, I needed to let a product team know that our tech writing team couldn’t take on the task of creating a particular doc. The doc was outside our normal area of responsibility, but one where we could certainly have added value. The problem was, we just didn’t have bandwidth. My manager showed me a published procedure which outlines our priorities. It was very useful to be able to refer the product team to the procedure, and to have at my disposal those words in the procedure which had been so carefully written for just this sort of situation. I was also able to offer the product manager our help in reviewing the doc once the engineering and product teams had created it.

This experience led me to think about the art, and the power, of saying no.

Saying no feels bad. You’re letting the side down. You and your team are underachieving.

Not so. I’ve come to the realisation that saying no is a good thing, provided it’s done under the right circumstances and in the right way. It’s good not only for you, but also for the people you say no to, for your manager, and for your team members. Even more, it’s good for the organisation as a whole.

How so?

When an organisation has had the luxury of a tech writer or two for a while, people start appreciating the skills we offer. They start asking us to create documents that are urgent, high profile, sales critical, and more, but that are sometimes outside our scope.

It’s fine to help out if the tech writing team has time. But often the team is fully taken up in other work that’s of equally high priority, and which is part of our primary responsibility. In such cases, it does the team and the organisation a disservice to say yes. Writers will end up working overtime, or the  docs under our primary care will suffer.

If we say no, people in the organisation may realise they need to hire more tech writers. In many cases they already know they need more writers, and our saying no can give them the data they need for their hiring requests.


If time allows, it’s good to be able to offer a little more than just a “no”. Here are a few ideas. Some of them involve preparation ahead of time, under the assumption that you’ll have to say no at some time:

  • Write up your team’s policy and responsibilities clearly, so you have somewhere to direct people to when they ask the impossible. Don’t be afraid to adjust the policy doc as time goes on, and as your team changes or you discover more situations which you can or cannot support. The team’s policy is not set in stone. It changes with your team, your stakeholders’ teams, and the organisation as a whole.
  • If you have a helpful suggestion or recommendation, include it when you say no. For example, point people to templates and style guides that will help them write the doc themselves. Look for existing documentation that may be similar to what they want.
  • If you have the bandwidth, offer to review the final draft after another team has created it and pushed it through initial review.
  • Encourage the product and engineering teams to contribute to the docs on an ongoing basis, so that they’ll feel able to write their own doc in this sort of situation. Create a quick-start guide to your doc tools and review procedures, and point them to that guide. On the topic of writing such a guide, you may find this post useful: the importance of audience.

Have you found yourself in a position where you’ve had to say no, even though you know that you and your team would add value to a task if you had bandwidth? I’d love to hear any tips you have on how to handle this sort of situation, and what you’ve learned from saying no.


2018 conferences now open on Tech Comm on a Map

The Tech Comm on a Map application now caters for 2018 conferences. This week I updated both the web app and the Android app to accept data for 2018. I also archived the 2016 conferences.

Tech Comm on a Map is an interactive map showing items of interest to technical communicators around the world: conferences, groups, businesses, societies, courses, and other things we find interesting. Tech Comm on a Map is available as a web app (see the previous link) and an Android app.

Highlights of the latest update:

  • I’ve added a  option, which you can click to add items to the map (new in the web app only; the Android app already has an Add event option in the menu).
  • I’ve added a data type for 2018 conferences, and archived the 2016 conferences (web and Android).

Each coloured dot on the map represents a conference, business, society, group, course, or something else. Click a dot to see what it’s about.

Adding 2018 conferences and more

The map is now able to accept 2018 conferences, but there’s not much data on the map for 2018 yet. At this point I’ve added just two 2018 conferences. I’ll add more over the next few weeks.

If you have time, please do add items to the map: 2018 conferences, groups, societies, educational courses, and more. It’s also fun to add tidbits that you think are of interest to tech writers and have a geographical relevance. For example, the Other item type includes the birthplace of Ada Lovelace. Try de-selecting all event types except Other, and see what’s there now.

To add an item:

  • Click the new ⊕ icon  on the web app.
  • Or select the Add event option in the menu in the Android app.

If you’d like to know more about the apps, how they work, and where the data comes from, take a look at the page about Tech Comm on a Map.

Doc sprint at Write the Docs day Australia

Yesterday was the very first full-day event held by Write the Docs Australia. In the morning we hosted a writing sprint, featuring five open source projects. The afternoon was devoted to five presentations. Of course, coffee and conversation happened throughout the day.

Although short, the writing sprint was fun and productive. Participants learned about open source, fixed doc bugs, discussed information architecture, and got to know some style guides.

At the start of the day, we invited people to pitch for their projects. Then each of the pitchers chose a table in the room. The other attendees decided which sprint to take part in, and joined the relevant table. These were the five sprints:

  • Dart, led by Sarah Maddox
  • Kubernetes, led by Jared Bhatti
  • Cyrus (email), led by Nicola Nye
  • webpack (JavaScript module bundler), led by Chris
  •, led by Geoff

What happened in the sprints

I ran the sprint on the Dart docs. Dart is a programming language with accompanying libraries. Developers use Dart to create apps that run in a web browser (Dart code compiles to JavaScript), servers and command-line applications, and mobile apps via the Flutter SDK.

We had four contributors taking part in the Dart sprint. Our focus was to update selected pages to match the Google style guide. We produced the following pull requests:

The Kubernetes sprint closed a number of issues, pretty much all those that had been allocated to the sprint!

At one of the tables, people spent much of their time discussing information architecture and doc design, using the open source project as the basis for the discussion. The project leader collected two pages of useful feedback as a result.

Things people learned

For many participants, the sprints were their first venture into the world of open source. A participant asked me, “So, after today, can I continue contributing to the docs? How would I do it?” She was pleased to hear that she could continue participating, and she’d do it in the same way as during the sprint. Our table also discussed contributing to open source projects in general: read the contributors’ guide for each project, be aware that pull requests do require work from the repository owners.

Participants needed a basic knowledge of Markdown. I gave a quick overview of the syntax, to get them started.

For the Dart sprint in particular, it was useful to learn a bit about the language. The sprinters’ guide included a quick introduction, and we ran a sample in Dartpad, to watch the code in action.

The open source projects we focused on are hosted on GitHub. Participants learned the GitHub workflow: how to edit files in a GitHub repo, submit a pull request (PR), receive feedback on the PR, make changes to the files in the PR, and re-submit the PR.

For the Dart sprint, our task was to update pages to follow the Google Developer Documentation Style Guide. One contributor was delighted to note that the style guide agrees with her tech writer intuition, overall. Another contributor reviewed a very long page, checking the style guide when in doubt. She found that, in most cases, the page did follow the style guidelines. I suggested that she add this information in the comment when she sent her pull request, as it would be useful information for the repo owners.

It was hard work

It’s hard work editing pages to follow a style guide. The Dart table stood out as being the quiet, focused area of the room. We were all deeply in the zone.

There came a touch of humour to dilute the hard work: a comment from one of the sprinters to Swapnil Ogale, Write the Docs organiser, after he’d been chatting with our table for a while.

Swapnil: “Good, OK, I’ll leave you to it.”

Sprinter, with a smile: “Yes, leave me alone. I’ve got a lot of work to do.” 🙂

Difficulties people encountered

People had trouble with the GitHub workflow at the start of the sprint. For example, when a sprinter first tried to enter a comment on an issue, an email verification request popped up. The experience was confusing.

Some people found it difficult to concentrate in the noisy environment of a sprint, and they felt stressed that they wouldn’t have time to achieve anything in the short time frame of the half-day sprint.

Three hours is a very short time for a doc sprint, particularly when the sprinters are new to the environment and the docs.

Feedback and thanks

If you were at the Write the Docs day, I’d love your comments and feedback on the writing sprints. I’m sure readers of this blog would be interested to know what you learned from the sprints. The owners of the open source repositories would like to know how they can make it easier for people to contribute to the doc sets.

A big thank you to everyone who took part in the writing day and contributed to the docs!

Technical Communicators Conference 2017 wrapup

This week I attended the Technical Communicators Conference 2017, the annual conference of the Australian Society for Technical Communication (ASTC). This post is a summary of my impressions of the conference, with links to the posts I’ve written about each session.

I thoroughly enjoyed this conference, with its atmosphere of dedicated professionalism mixed with warm friendliness. The event took place in Sydney, Australia, filling two days with 14 technical sessions. By my rough estimate (I counted the tables at lunch) there were around 60 attendees. Most were from Melbourne and Sydney. A few people flew in from New Zealand, one from the west coast of Australia, and one from the US. Let me know if I’ve missed out any other travellers from far-flung places!


As is often the case with conferences, one of the best parts was meeting and talking to people face to face. Many were old friends whom I’ve met at other gatherings over the years. It was also great to make new friends.

A common theme arose in my conversations with the other writers. Those who have a role in a company or organisation find that there’s way to much work for them to handle. Even if they’re lucky enough to work with one or more other writers, there’s still a firehose of work pouring down on them. (This wasn’t so much the case with the writers who run their own businesses.) The people I spoke to said it was a good position to be in, yet at the same time they wished the organisations would allocate more budget and/or make more tech writing positions available. The writers feel strongly that they’re making a large contribution to the customer experience or process efficiency of their organisation, and could improve things even more if there were more writers around.

I think this sentiment is a very positive trend. Tech writers recognise their worth and feel that they’re doing valuable work. There was no frustration in the way people spoke. No-one said that their work went unrecognised within the organisation. They just wished there were more of them around.

The nice thing about a smallish conference is that you meet the same people more than once during the course of the two days, and can build up a relationship with them over that time. Most people attended all the sessions (there was only one track). People exchanged opinions enthusiastically during and after the sessions. During some sessions there were even jokes flying around between presenter and audience members.


Here are my posts about the sessions, in reverse chronological order, with the conference’s last session at the top of the list:


Thank you so much to the ASTC committee and the conference organisers, for all the hard work you’ve put into this conference. It was excellent. Thanks also to the presenters who put so much time and energy into preparing and presenting the talks.

Yes but I have my phone – ASTC 2017

I’m attending the Technical Communicators Conference 2017, the annual conference of the Australian Society for Technical Communication (ASTC). This post is a live blog of a session at the conference. In other words, I’m writing as the presenter speaks. Any mistakes are mine, and all credit goes to the presenter.

Grant Mackenzie presented a session with the enticing title of Yes but I have my phone. I didn’t take any notes during this talk, as the conference organiser asked us to put away all pens and laptops. The point of the session was that you can do everything with a mobile device. I guess I could have taken notes on my phone, but somehow that seems to me like I’m paying less attention to the speaker than when I’m using my laptop. Something to do with the focus of attention and the posture required to take notes on a tiny screen. Entering text on a mobile screen also takes more time than typing, even though I’m an adept swiper. In fact, I’m writing this post on my mobile device, while on the bus on the way home from the conference. So, for me anyway, this is one use case when a laptop, or at least a keyboard, is better than a mobile screen.

Back to Grant’s presentation, which was lively and packed with information. The main thrust of the talk was that you can use a mobile device to create engaging, informative content. In particular, Grant demonstrated the use of various apps to create professional videos and photo-based art, complete with green screen effects and good audio.

Release notes came up again – they’ve been popular in this year’s conference. Grant’s approach is to have two important people in the company talk through the items in the release notes, while illustrating the features on screen, either behind the speakers by use of the green screen, or fullscreen using the speakers’ words as voice over.

We also saw some cat videos. 🙂

Thanks Grant. Your presentation was a thing of beauty.

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