Clear and to the Point

29 April, 2010

Project cycles

I’ve recently discovered that graduate students typically a crisis when writing their thesis, when they despair of ever finishing their degree. At the time it seems like the collapse of their hopes for a career. It might be easier to handle as a stage in the normal writing-project cycle.

I’ve been writing technical materials for years, mostly in project three to eight months long, and still suffer from the emotional ups and downs of writing. Every project has similar emotional phases: excitement at starting out, wonder of discovery at learning the material, puzzlement or even bewilderment about how to organize the information, feeling productive at putting it together, and then doubt that it will ever be finished. The last stage is surprise and pleasure as it all comes together and doesn’t look so bad after all. The crisis might be less severe if thesis advisers would only tell their candidates to expect those phases and keep slogging, get a good night’s sleep or go for a walk and then come back to do a short manageable task.

It’s very daunting to start writing without a clear plan and just hoping to have everything down by the last page. It’s like setting off one day to walk across the continent. To help keep it manageable, I suggest outlining the topics and sub-topics of the thesis and then roughing out each one with a few sentences & a note of any illustrations or references. You can run such a plan past your adviser to make sure you’re on the right track. Then, with the logical structure in place, it’s easier to fill in the details. It’s more like riding to the next town, checking your itinerary, and buying a ticket to the next town—except that you don’t have to do the sections in order. Fill them in when you have the information or the inspiration. This is called top-down design and it’s one way to cut a project down to size.

I hope that helps (similes and all)!

30 October, 2008

My previous contract: online resources for technical support

Filed under: technical communication,work — monado @ 10:15
Tags: , , ,
My most recent gig was an interesting contract with an excellent project manager. The Toronto Star’s company, Torstar, merged with Metroland early this year and the two companies are aligning their resources.
Metroland owns the K-W Record, Guelph Mercury, and Hamilton Spectator along with a wealth of community newsletters, from London to Ottawa, put out by different publishing offices. Each of them uses a different mix of software. In fact, there are more than 200 applications. Some of them are small but others are used every day by many people to publish the paper and the Web site. Even when different offices use the same application, they use different parts of it and call it by different names.

Torstar and Metroland wanted to create a help desk for Level 1 user support and they hired a team of technical writers to create training materials and a resource for the help desk to use. There were six of us and we created a wiki, which the support team could edit themselves after our contract was finished. In parallel, a support team was getting a thorough grounding in company operations.

We devised an information structure and page layouts for the wiki, researched the most important applications, and seeded the wiki with the most common support issues and procedures–not only for publishing software but for HR forms such as expense requests. We also provided online resource such as log-in links for application servers for various regions, so the support team could quickly log in and fix things for their caller.

We trained the support team to update the wiki as they find new and improved solutions or how-to’s. Along the way we picked up the task of coordinating the day-to-day training for the intense classroom segment of the support team’s orientation. Meanwhile, our process guru found tools for creating & maintaining backups as the wiki content changes.

It was a challenge and a behind-the-scenes look at a new industry—which is what I like about my career.

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