How Am I Doing It?

For me, getting off the starting block is the hardest part of any writing project. In technical documentation, “getting started” is itself a project phase with many component tasks.

Among those tasks, you must develop a project plan—a roadmap to drive toward completion of the documentation project and keep it on track.

To create the project plan, you have to first determine the scope of the documentation end-product. What material will the document contain? Does that material already exist in some form? Or will you, the technical writer, need to research and write the content from little or no sources? Who are your subject matter experts (SMEs) for the material that does not yet exist in an available format?

When you’ve determined the document’s scope—what the end product will contain and what it will not—you can develop an outline, an organization to shape the parts into a coherent whole.

From a working outline, you can begin to assign content to its logical place in the document’s flow. This is rarely a linear process. Existing material is readily available for some sections. Other sections can intimidate the less-seasoned writer with their gaping holes in information. But this outline mapping exercise provides insight as to where you’ll need to do the most fact digging to draft original material. These are typically the areas where you must rely on input you can glean from the subject matter experts.

Side note: It just occurred to me how ironic it is to dig for the purpose of filling holes. And so I wonder if the reason that SMEs often resist being subjected to brain-mining for the sake of documentation is that they’re afraid it will leave a hole in their closely guarded intellectual mystique, as if the harvested nuggets are stolen from them forever?

The actual writing process follows the same pattern (you know, the one I was discussing before I waxed insightful). Rather than start at the very beginning, you start where you have the most information. If that’s chapter 6, then that’s where you begin to mold the material into content that meets its intended purpose.

I find that other sections begin to fall into place after the writing is underway. This early progress provides several benefits. The writer achieves initial success and a confidence that the project is on track. The manager or project sponsor finds assurance that the documentation project will succeed in the long run.

As the content comes to life, the outline itself often changes. Because of such morphing, the first content in sequence—chapter 1, the introduction, the executive summary—does not come into focus until the very end. You can’t be completely certain what the book is about until it’s done, can you? So I write that part last.

Back to the Book

But how do you get started for a work of non-technical writing? What if it’s a chronological story? Doesn’t it make sense to start at the very beginning for this kind of writing?, she asks herself. But she answers still, No. If you think about it, technical writing also tells a story. So just like a technical writing project, any lengthy writing endeavor will benefit from the same type of preliminary planning and organizing tasks that are part of “getting started”.

In the same way, the writing tasks can start with any part of the story you like. My book timeline reveals those familiar gaping holes in information. I already have some writings that will form the basis for certain sections of my tale. For other sections, I’ll have to research the facts from which to write them.

So I start this writing project with what I have. The years of my professional life create a basic outline, but because I have more existing material from the latter years, that might be the logical place to start?

Or not.

Either way, I continue the strange task of researching my own life history in terms of employment and non-employment and the living in and through those times. But wait. This task is not unlike the process of ferreting information out of software programmers or civil engineers(!), although it is hard to avoid my own calls and ignore my own e-mails…

Yes, it’s impossible for this subject matter expert—me—to hide from myself. That doesn’t always mean, however, that the information I seek is readily available. Being a pack rat (of physical as well as electronic artifacts) can be an unwittlingly fortunate thing. But many details lie sleeping in the dark of memory and alas, must also be subjected to brain-mining.

In other words, to get started with this writing project, I treat it as I do technical writing projects. After some initial planning and scoping, I jump in at the point where it seems I’ll be able to make the most progress the quickest, so as to realize that I truly have “gotten started”. The project is underway.

After the relief of launch beyond the starting block, I am free to jump around from section to section, from research to writing, and back again. This writing project, too, is a circular exercise that will not be completed until I finish chapter 1—at the very end.

    • Lee Matthews
    • February 13th, 2011

    Hey sis… my first time to ever get on a blog and its yours !!! My best wishes for a great success and also a very Happy Birthday tomorrow !!!


  1. AWESOME job! (Sorry for the caps, cannot use itals in this box!)

    In the words of Bill Murray in Meatballs… “Spaz! You’re on your way!” Color me jealous, be right behind ya on the track in short order – you’ve motivated me –

    As I read today in a LinkedIn writer’s group thread, “Writers write to taste life twice,” but I believe the full quote is “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection.” – Anaïs Nin

    Go get ’em, kiddo, it’s just me here, but I think that you are off to a beautiful start.
    – Mitch

    • Techquestioner
    • February 7th, 2011

    Congratulations on jumping into blogging. I’ve been thinking about it, but haven’t taken the plunge yet. I’ve added you to my Technical Communication Blogs list in Google Reader, and will be happy to follow your hops around the field.

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