Technical writing and editing
I’ve been a technical writer since 1990 when I moved to Vancouver from Toronto after leaving print journalism and embracing a new career in information technology. In hindsight, I think I made two smart moves!
I love IT’s constant learning challenge – new applications, new technologies, and new ways of doing things. The latest tool I’ve learned is Madcap Flare, the industry-standard, single-source authoring tool for creating online help systems and websites, as well as PDF and print documents. It’s very powerful tool. Check out my Affordable Madcap Flare Training website.
I’m particularly attracted to non-technical sectors, like law, finance, government, architecture and engineering, where I feel my communications and writing skills are most appreciated.
Most of all, I love the challenge of translating technospeak into normal English for users.
As a technical writer I’ve created and edited a wide range of documentation types including:
User Guides – User guides are the traditional workhorse of technical documentation. Even if the final delivery vehicle is web, often a client wants to start with a master Word version that’s easy to flip through, annotate, correct and revise.
I’ve created user guides that document dozens of standalone applications as well as web-based platforms like Salesforce, BST, and many others.
The typical tools for creating user guides are Word (up to 400 pages or so) and Adobe Framemaker (longer, more technical documents). Often a client will ask me to create the guide in Word so that staff can take over future revisions once I’ve created a comprehensive and attractively formatted master guide.
Because the print output is so slick in Madcap Flare, increasingly we’re creating all the content in Flare and then exporting it to PDF or Word, reversing the old procedure.
Online help – I’ve created online help systems for standalone commercial applications like Maximizer as well as web-based applications like Salesforce, ERP platforms like BST, and customized applications like IBI Group’s Toll Systems websites used by clients. Typical tools for online help are Robohelp and Madcap Flare.
Quick Reference Guides – I created my first one-page quick reference way back in the 1990s when a lawyer I had taught WordPerfect to said, “Stephen put everything I need to know on one piece of paper.” Fortunately, he didn’t need to know much beyond creating, saving and printing a basic document! Users like to have these one- or two-page handouts handy when they finish training and are back at their desks, working on the new application for the first time. I usually create these in Word and distribute them to users as PDFs.
Videos – I’ve written and produced short corporate videos, including CEO talking-head style videos. Typically I write the script, and recruit appropriate talent for photography, sound, editing and any other specific skills required. I used both Youtube and Vimeo as web platforms for video storage and delivery.
Annual Reports – I’ve managed, edited, and written for two IBI Group annual reports, working with a team of graphic designers, and with accountability to senior executives at the CEO and President level.
Annual reports are a tremendous amount of work and have unique and often hair-raising deadlines. I enjoyed working on both reports very much.
There’s a tremendous satisfaction when the report comes back from the printer. You open a box, pick up the top copy, and finally hold the result of months of work in your hands. The beautiful photo on the cover of the IBI report here was taken in a school designed by IBI architects in Oregon.
Software demos – I’ve created both animated and voiceover software demos used to training new applications. I’m now working with a demo copy of Adobe Captivate and plan to use it to create short training demos for Madcap Flair. Not the perfect training tool for every new user, but certainly a useful tool in the training toolkit.
Training materials – I’ve created training materials for dozens of applications, working in many formats, including printed guides for classroom sessions, PowerPoints used in classroom sessions and webinars, training outlines, and materials for train the trainer sessions. Creating training materials and then training the material to end users provides invaluable feedback on the documentation I’m creating for all users.
Software training – I’ve been a software trainer since the early 1990s, when I helped law firms in Vancouver come into the new world of word processing, document management, networking, email and the internet. Running my own training and consulting firm from 1992 to 2000, I quadrupled revenues in eight years.
I feel very strongly that my training background makes me a much better technical writer – I understand how users fear and embrace change at the same time. Understanding the user experience makes a dramatic difference in the effectiveness of printed and online documentation.
My experience as a software trainer (and a Master’s Degree from UBC) took me into the world of post-secondary education, where I taught writing and communications courses at SFU, UBC, Humber College, George Brown College, and Kwantlen Polytechnic University. I love teaching because it means sharing my skills, my experiences, and my passion for good writing.
Instructional Design – As part of training and teaching, I have developed all types of training and instructional materials, including training guides, training outlines, PowerPoint decks, and quick reference sheets.
In my career as a post-secondary teacher, I contributed to course development at SFU (Internet Research), George Brown College (College English courses) and Kwantlen University (applied communications courses). At Kwantlen, I made substantial improvements to the third-year technical writing course offered to students in the Bachelor of Technology program, drawing on my IT industry experience.
Writing skills training – I’ve developed and delivered short writing skills workshops for clients like IBI Group and Avocette Technologies. My approach emphasizes the three key principles of simplicity, clarity, and brevity. Using writing samples provided by participants, I focus on the rewriting process and how to compress, simplify and improve a given piece of writing, whether it’s a report, a detailed email, a software specification or a solution design document.
Project Management – In 2012 I was the project manager for IBI Group’s new corporate website. Reporting to senior directors and the CEO, I drove the entire process – from vetting web companies for the initial pitch to design and build the site, through design, prototyping, and user experience analysis, all the way to content creation and editing and the launch of the new site six months after the contract was signed.
This project taught me many valuable and hard-won lessons about time and resource management, and how challenging it can be to sustain good communication between the vendor and client (that was me). I believe good project management skills help keep documentation projects on time and on budget. Good writers need to be good PMs!