Writing technical documentation is a part of working in the IT industry. Technical manuals, technical specification guides, support guides, implementation guides – all are types of technical documentation and are a part of the job. Many technical roles in the IT industry are involved in the documentation process. It might seem easy to just put some words and diagrams together, a table of contents and call it a technical document, but it’s a bit more than that. I’ve listed five tips below on how to write great tech docs.
1. Use A Well-Structured Table of Contents
The table of contents is probably the most important part of the technical documentation. The table of contents lists what is actually in the document and how it is grouped. It is used to help users know that the document contains the information they are looking for. Looking at the table of contents, they can easily see if it contains what they want, or if they need to read another document.
Another benefit of having a well structured table of contents is it allows the reader to find the information they need quickly. Microsoft Word, Adobe PDF and other document applications allow clickable links of the table of contents. This allows you to click the item or the page number and it will take you to that page. Very helpful for finding topics in a hurry.
2. Be Succinct But Thorough
As a technical documentation author, it’s hard to know what amount and what kind of information to put into this document. To write a great document, try to be succinct, but thorough. This means not to go on and on and into all kinds of detail about certain areas that are not needed by the reader. It can be hard to tell what’s relevant and what isn’t – but try to consider the reader and target audience when you’re writing the document. If you are too “wordy” or use too much information where it’s not needed, it will turn the readers off and it won’t be an effective document.
3. Be Consistent Throughout The Document
Consistency is a big way to improve a document. It makes it look more professional, and actually more readable to the user. When I say consistency, I mean consistency both in the terminology you use and the formatting you apply. Some people won’t notice this. However, if you’re writing technical documentation, it’s most likely for other technical users, who are usually detail-focused people. Make sure your document uses the same formatting throughout. Try to break the information up and make it readable to the users by using white space effectively.
Using the same terminology is also recommended. This will ensure that the user knows you’re talking about the same thing when you use the same words. If you use words interchangeably, such as “desktop”, “PC”, “computer”, it may confuse the user, when you actually mean the same thing. That’s a simple example, but the idea is that you should choose the one term and stick with it.
4. Keep It Accurate and Error-Free
It almost goes without saying that technical documentation should be error free. As I mentioned above, many readers of the document will be other technical users, and there’s a good chance the errors will stand out to them. Not only that, but if the errors don’t stand out, then it will provide them with the wrong information about the system or area that you’re documenting – which defeats the purpose of the document!
5. Avoid Large Screen Captures In Technical Documentation
Using screen captures or screenshots in your documentation is a very effective way of explaining your point to the reader. It’s especially useful for software documentation or support processes, which are easy to take screenshots of. However, computer screens have gotten larger over the years, but A4 sheets have remained the same size.
This leaves a tendency to include large screenshots in a document, which makes the screenshots small and ineffective. Including screenshots is a great idea – don’t get me wrong – but try to only include the areas that are relevant to the section you’re explaining. This may result in more screenshots, but they will be more effective and make the document more readable.