By David Bringhurst, Marketing Manager, Gasper Corporation
At first glance, writing seems somewhat esoteric. Those who believe they can’t write view the act as beyond their ken. I have chosen the word “act” with care. I think it is because people view writing as an act-something that you just do, something you have to get right the first time-that they believe they cannot do it. However, I think that, with the right guidance, just about anyone can be, at the least, an accurate and clear writer. What’s more, I think it is important that they be one.
At Gasper Corporation, we have instituted a writing process in our documentation and marketing departments to help ensure that everyone is capable of producing quality documents. Just getting people to recognize that writing is an iterative and (often) participatory process, not an isolated activity, is more than half the battle.
The process itself is a hybrid that we developed in the documentation department and then exported to the marketing department. The process combines elements of planning that are presented in JoAnn Hackos’ indispensable Managing Your Documentation Projects with review elements we borrowed from our development process. In fact, the entire publication process is similar to our development process.
All writing projects begin with at least one planning document. Hackos recommends creating an information plan for any set of publications, and a content specification for each publication in the set. Since our publication set is already fairly well defined in both the documentation and marketing departments, we rely more heavily on the content specification than the information plan.
The idea behind both planning documents, however, is essentially the same. The purpose is to clarify for the writer what the purpose and audience is for the publication or publication set and, through answering a set of questions, to discover if there are any underlying issues in the development of the publication or set. These planning documents are similar in purpose to the functional and design specifications that our developers create before they begin coding.
The planning documents are reviewed by the team to make certain that the writer has captured all the issues accurately and understands the document’s purpose and audience. The writer cannot proceed with the actual publication until all members of the walkthrough team have signed off on the information plan or content specification. This review process is an integral part of quality control and is repeated for each document in the publication process.
Reviews take the form of a walkthrough. A walkthrough is a highly organized process that brings the writer together with subject matter experts and other stakeholders in the publication’s success. The walkthrough proceeds according to a set of rules designed to insulate the writer from personal attacks and to elicit detailed feedback on the document.
A documentation walkthrough is attended by one or more developers who have worked on the feature being documented, as well as at least one other writer from the documentation or training teams. In marketing, product managers will attend, along with at least one other writer and, if available, a sales representative.
After the team has signed off on the planning documents, the writer adjourns to prepare an alpha draft of the publication. We have superimposed a review level on the process by requiring an alpha and a beta draft. This ensures that every document receives at least two reviews before publication. Classifying drafts as alpha and beta may be unnecessary, but doing so provides us with handy monikers for reporting our progress to management.
After the walkthrough process has been completed, the writer engages another publication specialist to proofread the document.
A document is not released for publication until it has passed the walkthrough process and received sign-off from all walkthrough participants.
At Gasper, quality is both an individual and team responsibility. Quality is not a step we tack onto the end of the process, but an integral part of each step of the process. Our publications often provide the first impression of our company, so we take great pains to ensure that they speak well of us.
About the author: David Bringhurst, an STC senior member of the Southwestern Ohio Chapter, began his career at Gasper Corporation as a part-time technical writer. Within a few years, he was managing a combined documentation and training department. He served as Web coordinator for two years before joining the marketing department. His current title is product marketing manager. Regardless of his title, however, he considers himself first and foremost a writer.
Questions? Email David