Blog Archives

Designing tutorials – some insights for API documentation

I’ve just published a blog post on the Google Geo Developers Blog, about a new design for the Google Maps API tutorials. I’d love some feedback from technical writers. If you have a few minutes, would you head on over there and let us know what you think?

Report from first Write the Docs Brisbane meetup

Today I attended the first ever Write the Docs meetup in Brisbane. It’s the third in the super-popular Write the Docs Australia series.

We started by going round the room introducing ourselves and describing the document we’re most proud of. Stories ranged from blogs, books, and job ads, to documents that actually contained the word “blah blah blah” before given tech writer luv.


There were 3 presentations at this bumper session:

  • From Hackathon to Help System, by Jared Morgan
  • No-contact Customers: Customer proxies and how to use them, by Laura Bailey
  • Writing clearly: a super-power for software developers, by Josh Wulf

From Hackathon to Help System

Jared Morgan gave an amusing and information-packed account of how he implemented an open-source help solution for a product that wasn’t originally designed to support embedded help. He talked us through the original idea for an open-source help product, which he worked on with a partner. The system was to be written in AsciiDoc. The plan was to render the help on hover, using asciidoctor.js.

Jared and his partner didn’t get around to implementing that solution, but an opportunity came up to use the idea at Ladbrokes, where Jared currently works. He initiated the project during a hackathon: putting embedded help into an existing system. There were a number of challenges, because the system wasn’t designed with user assistance in mind. For example, there was no easy way to uniquely identify the fields.

Jared introduced us to a new term: DragonForce a solution. The term comes from a heavy metal band that’s enthusiastic but not particularly methodical in approach. The basic idea was to render the help content when the user clicked a help button. They also wanted to use open source technology, and to use single sourcing of the content.

The tools:

Then came the serious task of releasing the product to real customers. Jared told us how the system needed to be refined and go through QA to prepare it for release. And he gave some pointers into things he’d do otherwise on hindsight.

Jared’s take-aways from the project.

  • Developers do care about docs.
  • DevOps teams to get things done, and are worth getting to know.
  • It’s good to get outside your comfort zone, and learn the challenges the developers have.
  • You can think outside the box, and not let your department define the scope of your role as tech writer.

No-contact Customers: Customer proxies and how to use them

Laura Bailey talked about no-contact customers – that is, people you can’t get in touch with. Technical writers need to know their audience. But as businesses grow, customers tend to get further away. So what can you do when you have a no- or low-contact audience? Laura talked about how to be your own data scientist.

img_20170202_185434Customer proxies are people and systems that you can use to represent your audience. These are people or systems who have a closer relationship with your customers than you do.

Examples of people who may be customer proxies are sales staff, consultants, developers, data scientists. On the systems side, there are support requests, comments, forums, site metrics, surveys, and so on. You need to analyse your own organisation to find out which apply. Laura mentioned that you can even search the Internet for complaints and reviews of your product from customers.

Once you have the data, you need to process it to make it useful. Scrub it and structure it. You may need to do this manually, if you’re listening to phone call recordings, for example. Or automate the scrubbing if you can work with log output, for example.

A hint from Laura is to think of the future, when analysing and recording the data. Think about aspects of the data that you may need to use in future, and record the relevant data points now. It’s also worth noting that often you’re working with systems that are designed for teams other than tech writers, such as sales staff. So think carefully about which data points can provide insights into the questions you have.

Scrutinise your data, and bear in mind where it came from. Avoid confirmation bias. Find as many data sources as possible, and try to support your conclusions with data from more than one source.

It’s a lot of work, says Laura. Data and its analysis is one of the biggest problems in the tech industry, and is currently a focus too. So take care to target your workload to the questions you need answered. Use the work to proactively prevent growth of the problems you’ve targeted.

Writing clearly: a super-power for software developers

Josh Wulf gave a rollercoaster talk about his experiences in developing, which teaches children to code in Minecraft. My summation: Trillions of GitHub commits, oodles of smart people, crazy love of code.

Josh invited us to observe 10 seconds of silence for all of the unread docs. 🙂 And he played us some Roger Troutman.

Some nuggets from Josh: Sometimes we think that language just describes things, but language actually creates the world. It gives us the ability to observe our own actions. At first you’re unconscious of your actions. But then you write it down, and you can analyse it. Bug reports are a good example. Diagrams do the same thing.

A good way of helping people is to ask them to tell you, and to tell themselves:

  • What I did.
  • What it did.

That’s often enough to solve the problem.

It’s a wrap

Thanks to Swapnil Ogale and all the Write the Docs attendees for another great meetup!

How to write a presentation

I’ve just finished writing a presentation for the upcoming STC Summit 2017. Putting together the slide deck and notes made me ponder on how I go about creating a presentation, and to wonder whether other people follow a similar path.

This post is about the process of developing a presentation, rather than what to put into it. Here’s how I prepare a presentation.

Grab the idea when it floats by

  • Make a note of any ideas for a presentation, and keep the list somewhere handy. Some ideas sit around for months or years before a good occasion comes along.  I use an online document for my list of ideas, so I can add to them no matter where I am when an idea occurs.
  • Think up a title for the presentation. It’s often best to think up one or more names while the idea is still fresh. The title captures the original intention and mood of the idea.

Submit a proposal to speak at a specific event

  • Keep an eye out for a conference or other occasion where my idea will fit in. Conferences often have a theme. For example, the theme of the STC Summit 2017 is Gain the Edge to Get Results. Every conference has a target audience. It’s important to submit a proposal that suits the theme and audience.
  • Think about the title again. Sometimes I need to change it, to suit the event and audience.
  • Write an outline of the presentation, bearing the audience and theme in mind. Some conference committees want a full outline, others ask for a summary of what the attendees will learn from the presentation. This step takes a lot of time, because it determines the final content of the presentation. Usually, though, I find it reasonably easy to create the outline, because I’m keen on the theme of the presentation. It’s something I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while. I think about the audience continually: What do they want to learn from this session, and what can I promise to show them. Everything that I put in the outline must be achievable and reflected in the eventual presentation.
  • Write a session summary. This is more of a “blurb”, an inspirational invitation to people to attend the talk. It needs to contain factual details of what’s in the session, and it must also reflect my passion about the topic.
  • Submit the proposal, along with other information requested by the conference committee. This may include a bio, a headshot, audio-visual requirements, and so on.

Prepare the presentation

  • Grab more ideas as they drift by. At this stage, my brain is actively engaged in the presentation, and ideas pop up at all sorts of times. Don’t let them get away!
  • Extend the outline. Still working in a doc rather than a slide deck, I add the notes from those drifting ideas. I copy and paste stuff from everywhere. Often I don’t try to make the notes tidy. They don’t even need to fit in completely. The outline is at the moment just a collection of potentially useful facts, quirks, quotations, ideas for illustrations, laughs, and what have you. It gets messy, but that’s OK. Until it’s not OK.
  • Get visual. At some stage, notes become boring, messy, and counter-productive. For me, the visual aspect of the presentation is as important as the content. The structure conveys the theme. The colours make the audience (and me) restive or restful. Images convey meaning or complement the content. The presentation starts to fly when I move it from a doc into slides.
  • Create the presentation outline and section headings that the audience will see. I think it’s useful, and kind 🙂 to give the audience an outline at the start, and show them header slides for each section with an indication of the section’s place in the presentation as a whole. This helps the attendees organise the information in their own heads. It also gives them a feeling of progression. We’re not lost in a spiral of slides. We have a destination and we’re getting there. It’s also fun to have a visual theme for the header slides – a way of presenting progress that fits the theme of the talk. I’m ready to change the outline, and thus the sections, as I develop the content. Change is inevitable and inexorable.
  • Write the slides and first draft of speaker’s notes, at the same time. Some slides are purely visual, others are bullet points. The speaker’s notes help me decide what each slide is about.
  • Keep going with content development, but be ready to jump back and adjust previous slides. Most times I find myself shuffling things around, from slide to slide, and even moving chunks of slides further up or down the flHow to write a presentationow.
  • Recognise and bypass deadlocks. If I get stuck while developing the content, I go for a walk. Often I’m stuck because I don’t want to change something. I really, really don’t. Or perhaps I don’t even recognise that the change is necessary. But there’s no easy way forward without the change. So, I go for a walk. I don’t consciously think about the problem, but I’m open to suggestions from my subconscious. If an idea pops up, I note it down right then and there. I send myself an email, or scribble a note on a scrap of paper. In my experience, it’s best to make those notes immediately, before my presentation-weary, brain-washed self has a chance to tamper with the wording. The words of the thought that popped up encapsulate the insight that my subconscious is offering.
  • Ask for a review. When the first draft is ready, I ask for a friendly review from a colleague, or from someone who matches the intended audience of the talk. People often have really great feedback, ranging from things like, “the aspect ratio is wrong in that image”, to, “it’d be good to add a bit about what went wrong”.

Prepare to present the talk

  • Set aside a number of one-hour sessions. This part of the preparation takes a long time. It’s also quite tiring, so I need to spread the sessions over a number of days.
  • Find a quiet room.
  • Talk through the slides. Start at the very beginning, and speak out loud.
  • Refine the speaker’s notes as I go. I prefer to present without notes, so for me the speaker’s notes are a handy place to note the things I want to say, when creating the presentation, rather than an aid during the talk itself. The notes are also useful for the reviewers, and perhaps for other people who read the slide deck later without the benefit of seeing it presented.
  • Be prepared to change the slides even at this late stage. When I talk myself through the deck, I see how it’ll work in front of an audience. Sometimes things don’t work as I expected.
  • Time the presentation. When I’m happy with the slides and notes, I talk through the slides from beginning to end, still reading from the notes but without stopping to adjust the notes or slides. If there are any demos, I do those too. I note the start time and end time, and thus the length of the talk. This is the best way to ensure the talk will fill but not exceed the session time.
  • Hide the speaker’s notes. Of course, I can’t do this all at once, as it’s hard to remember all that content. Instead, I kind of look at the notes out of the corner of my eye when I need them, and try to present as much as possible without them. At this stage, it’s not important to repeat the content of the notes word for word. It’s good to fly free of the notes, provided I’m sure I include everything that I intended to include.  I do this a few times, until I can hide the notes entirely.
  • Make a PDF version of the slides. I prefer presenting from PDF rather than a browser, because it’s easy to flip between a PDF document and a demo in the browser. I find that I can use the full-screen PDF mode without losing the easy navigation to the browser or other apps on the computer.

A tip about overcoming stage fright

A by-the-way hint just occurred to me while finishing off this post. It’s the most useful thing anyone ever said to me, about how to overcome stage fright. Take a step forward as you start to speak. I used to skulk behind the speaker’s podium, shivering and stiff with nerves, and basically stay that way throughout my presentation. I still get very nervous, but following the advice to step forward really helps. Moving my body kind of frees me from that initial blue funk. It gives the audience the feeling that I’m speaking directly to them. If I need to, it’s fine to go back behind the podium later, such as when I need to give a demo or press the button to advance the slides.

That’s it. 🙂 Looking at these notes, I see that it’s a lot of work. But I think it’s worth it. Attending a conference is a privilege and a pleasure, and speaking at one is even more so. What do you think, and do you follow a similar process when creating a presentation? If anyone has any tips to help aspiring presenters, those’d be most welcome.

What do you want to know about Tech Comm on a Map?

I’m putting together a presentation about Tech Comm on a Map, the app that shows technical communication events and groups around the world. What would you like to know about the web app and the Android app for Tech Comm on a Map?

It’s a little scary for a tech writer to create and publish an app. Actually, it’s a little scary for anyone. Are you curious about any particular aspects of why I did it, what the results are, or anything else? If I can, I’ll weave the answers into the presentation.

Tech Comm On A Map

I’ll be speaking about Tech Comm on a Map at STC Summit 2017 in May, and possibly at other events after that. At the moment, I’m writing the presentation based on my early proposal and outline. I’m having fun! But before I get too invested in what I think is fun, I’d love to hear what other people think too.

The theme for STC Summit 2017 is “Gain the Edge to Get Results“.

Here’s the blurb and outline from the proposal I sent to the STC Summit committee.


As an API technical writer, it’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of your readers. They’re application developers. They’d rather read code than prose.

Tech Comm on a Map for AndroidOne way of grokking this audience is to develop an app yourself.

This presentation tells the story of a tech writer, a map, and an app. The app is Tech Comm on a Map, an interactive web-based map that shows events of interest to technical communicators. You’ll hear why Sarah decided to create an app and how she went about it. You’ll see some code and understand the nuts and bolts of the app: where the data is stored, how it gets there, how it ends up on a map for everyone to see.

Tech Comm on a Map is an app for technical communicators, and technical communicators contribute to the data. Sarah will describe the process of crowd-sourcing the data and open-sourcing the app: what went well, what went slowly, what’s still going.

Writing an app has helped Sarah understand her audience (software engineers), her subject matter (APIs), and her profession (technical communication). Come and see how.


It’s hard to create an app. It’s even harder to get the app published and make it available to other people. That’s true whether you’re a developer or a technical writer. You need to put yourself on the edge and take the jump. You need courage, strength of conviction, and knowledge. Above all, you need documentation and examples. They give you the edge.

By taking the jump into app development, Sarah has gained first-hand knowledge of what developers go through. She applies this knowledge to the documentation she writes. It’s also a lot of fun!

At this session, you’ll learn the technical details:

  • The nuts and bolts of a web-based application like Tech Comm on a Map: where it’s hosted, where the data is stored, the JavaScript code and the APIs that create the map and the app’s functionality.
  • How the app’s data is crowd-sourced.
  • What open sourcing your code means, and why you may want to do it.
  • The difference between a web-based application and a mobile app, from a developer’s as well as a user’s point of view. Tech Comm on a Map is available as a native Android app as well as a webapp.
  • The information sources that Sarah used when developing the app.

You’ll also see how such a project can help develop your soft skills:

  • Sarah’s engineering colleagues helped her kick off the development of the app, and made ongoing suggestions for refinement. The resulting interactions increased mutual understanding and respect.
  • Fellow technical writers all over the world help compile the data. A project like this is a good way of connecting with your peers.
  • Developing an app can help you better understand your subject and your audience of software engineers and other specialists.
  • Such a project gives you confidence in your own abilities, even if you’re just skimming the surface of code complexity.

See Tech Comm on a Map in action at

What are you curious about?

Does the above description raise any specific questions in your mind? Is there something you’re very keen to find out? Let me know, and I’ll include it in the presentation if I can.

Modern technical writing, a talk by Andrew Etter about his book

Yesterday I attended a Write the Docs meetup where Andrew Etter spoke about his recently published book, Modern Technical Writing: An Introduction to Software Documentation.

I haven’t read Andrew’s book yet, so I appreciated this introduction from the author. One thing that strikes me is how interwoven are two aspects of technical writing: firstly, the processes (the way we glean our material and our efficiency and efficacy in writing content); secondly, the tools we use. Every now and then, I’ve heard people say we shouldn’t focus so much on the tools when discussing our profession and how best to perform our role. I’ve thought that too, at times. But it seems to me that these two aspects of our work are becoming more and more interdependent. The tools make a specific way of working possible, and the way we think of our work determines the tools we choose.

From what Andrew said about his book yesterday, the content of the book seems to agree with my above musings. Now, I should go and read that book. 🙂

Modern Technical Writing, the book

Andrew pointed out that you can read his book in about 45 minutes, and that he’s been allotted an hour for this talk! This comment raised a good laugh.

The book is about 11,000 words. Andrew summed it up (with a smile) in about 12 words, which roughly correspond to the highlighted words in the list below:

  • Learn – learn your subject matter and get to know your audience.
  • Write in lightweight markup – it’s the easiest way to get from a pleasant writing experience to a useful website. Markdown is a good solution, because people want to use it. You’ll therefore have plenty of people willing to contribute to your docs.
  • Treat the docs as code – version control and continuous updates. The stability of the docs over time depends on the quality of your updates.
  • Create static websites.

The book, Modern Technical Writing, started as a wiki page. Andrew needed information about technical writing to pass on to others. He did a bit of research, to see if anything already existed that he could use. Having found nothing that fit the bill, he decided “I’m the writer”, and wrote it himself.

What makes a book sell?

Andrew spoke amusingly about an FAQ on the Kindle Direct Publishing site: “Why am I not selling? I am a good writer.” The fundamental question is, how do you get people to buy something you’re selling? Andrew said with a smile that he has no idea! He doesn’t do much marketing or promotion via social media. Here’s his recommendation:

If you have something you feel strongly about, something you’ve shown to your friends and got good feedback on, something you think adds value to the world, then put it out there.

The publishing process

Andrew chose Kindle Direct Publishing as the mechanism for publishing and earning royalties. The rules around pricing are really complicated. The magic happens when you upload your book to Amazon, and they transform it to a Kindle book. Amazon is the market leader in online publication, and your book benefits from this.

One drawback is that you cannot test your book before publication. You just upload it, view the highly inaccurate preview, and then publish it.

The aftermath

Andrew showed us a screenshot of his book on Amazon right next to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. To be near Elements of Style is mind-boggling. But it lasted a very short time. He  dispelled any myths that self-publishing is lucrative. He has, however, received very nice messages from people all over the world.

Charging a price for the book

If you give something away for free, there’s the perception that it’s not really valuable. If you give it a price, people are more likely to see it as worth something.

For his book, Andrew thinks that the price of around $4 is in the right range.

What technical writers do

What is the “differentiated value add” of a technical writer? That is, what do we do that no-one else does?

  • Consistency – specifically, consistency in tooling. Without tech writers, each engineering team would pick their own tools, which would result in chaos.
  • Accountability – someone has to be responsible for creating good documentation. Andrew remarked with a smile that you have to be able to fire someone if the documentation is bad.
  • Creation and curation – writers review and take care of others’ content as well as writing it.
  • Culture – having good writers around makes everyone else aware of what good writing looks like.
  • Good documentation leads to efficiency improvements in many ways. It helps the organisation and customers save time, and time is a precious resource.

Andrew talked a bit about the writing process, project prioritisation, and the team. He joked at the beginning of the presentation that these topics may form part of the second edition of the book, if he ever considers writing one.

The old way versus the new way of producing documentation

Andrew talked about old methodologies and tools versus the new ones, and walked through some code samples. I didn’t make notes of this part of the talk. The details are in Andrew’s book.


Thanks to Andrew Etter for an engaging presentation and congrats on your successful book!

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