Tips and Tricks I Learned as Technical Writer (Part 3)

We’ve talked about the need to make scannable blog posts and how the visual system works. We’ve talked getting the right toolbox to create scannable posts. Now, let’s talk about how to put your tools to work.

Use headings as sign-posts
Especially if your post is long, use headings to break it up and show what is covered in each section. Be succinct, but accurately capture what’s in the section. This allows people to:

  • Get a sense of what the post is about.
  • Jump to the section that interests them.
Call out the key points in your paragraphs
This is where I use bolding. But you can also use font color or even italics (with the caveats discussed in my second post). I like to highlight the key points of my post by bolding sentences throughout it. That way, if someone just looks at the bold sentences, they’ll get the main points.You can bold sentences or parts of sentences. Just make sure you structure the sentence so the bolded part can stand alone and make sense.As I said, you can use any of a variety of methods for emphasis:

  • bolding
  • a colored font
  • italics
  • underlining

Whichever method you choose, though, pick one and stick with it throughout your post. Don’t use two or three different methods for emphasis. Why? Remember in my first post I talked about how items that are visually similar are considered related. If you use a red font for some items and bolding for others, people instinctively think that there is something similar about all the red items versus all the bold items. If there isn’t, you confuse people and cause them to focus on trying to figure out that problem rather than focus on what you’re saying.

Call out highlights with pull quotes
I use pull quotes to both highlight important information and to entice users. I generally use them for my more witty or controversial statements, as a way of hooking poeple to keep reading or at least scanning. Use pull quotes sparingly and only for your best stuff.
Use bullets or other grouping mechanisms to give users “information chunks”
By information chunk, I mean something like specific recommendations, suggestions, checklists, specific tools, a list of links, and so on. Use bullets to present these. Or use a table or some other structure that visually groups and sets the items apart (usually through indenting).Why? Using bullets or other grouping mechanisms serves to:

  • emphasize your list
  • draws the user’s eye
  • and forces you to be succint–which helps the scanning reader
Use pictures when they best present the information
Let’s compare two ways of presenting information:FacebookUsage25-34For Facebook users age 25-34:

  • 40% access Facebook several times a day
  • 33% use it at least daily
  • 20% use it several times a week
  • The remaining 7% use it weekly

The chart is the best way to present this information. Even if I bolded some items in my bulleted list, the chart would be better. Why? Because the reader can understand the data and the implications more quickly through the visual. Saying that 40% of users access Facebook daily doesn’t have the same impact as seeing that big chunk of the pie. The reader immediately sees the large difference in use, without having to make any effort at mentally processing the information.

One clue that a picture is appropriate: if you realize your readers are going to be painting a picture in their head by reading your description, consider just giving them the picture to begin with.

Avoid the wall of text
I usually write my text, and then make an editing pass for scannability. That’s where I add the bolding, add headings (if I didn’t begin with them), insert pictures, and decide whether to move some items into bulleted lists, etc.If you’re reviewing your post and you see a block of paragraphs or a third of a page that is just plain text, do something. Add emphasis, break the paragraphs into a bulleted list, even add an unnecessary graphic to just liven up the page and break up that text. This is where you might use lines or little graphical flourishes to just give the page some space and make it feel more readable.

Finally, take that extra time to scan it yourself. Don’t read, just skim over the page and see what jumps out. Nothing? Something? The something you want? When the items that jump out convey the message you want, you’re post is ready to be scanned, or read, and it’s time to publish.

Neicole M. Crepeau

Creator of TweetPackage.com, I'm a tech industry veteran with 25 year in the industry. I've done technical writing, usability testing, user interface design, and product and program management work. Most recently I've been applying a research and marketing perspective to social media and blogging about that on my personal blog, http://nmc.itdevworks.com. I'm also a mother of four wonderful children and wife of a terrific man--who also happens to be a fantastic software developer. 

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  4 comments for “Tips and Tricks I Learned as Technical Writer (Part 3)

  1. October 6, 2009 at 8:40 am

    Neicole (spelled correctly this time),
    Your post this week went beyond the 400-word limit. I’m guessing there are 2 reasons for this:
    (1)to demo the usefulness of your visual techniques, and
    (2)you are more comfortable with your audience — after a few weeks of shorter installments you’ve made a judgement that most of the actual readers of thebloggersbulletin will stick it out for the slightly longer haul.
    Is this part of what you learned at the Microsoft seminar on online reading/readers?
    Clearly there is a segment of online readers who settle in for the longer treatment.
    (Avinash Kaushik’s many thousand word postings to Occam’s Razor commands huge regular following — also, when you read his blogs, you’ve just read his next $50 book).
    Am I off the track?
    Peter

  2. October 6, 2009 at 10:09 am

    Hi, Peter. Thanks for your comment.

    I don’t stick to an overall word limit, myself. I’ve written some pretty long posts when it took that to cover my topic. Though, in general, I agree with you that shorter is better. I strive to be as concise as I can. But I never actually do a word count on my posts, personally.

    I haven’t researched this, but my hunch is that people will stick with longer posts if they are scannable, readable, and continue to provide valuable info all the way through. I’d be interested in seeing the study or research that identified a 400 word recommendation, if you have it.

    I’m guessing that if you compared two posts that were both just straight blocks of text, people would be more likely to read the 400 word one. But if you compared a longer one with good formatting and whitespace use against one that’s just a block of text but only 400 words, people would still be more likely to read the longer one.

    FYI: I didn’t attend an MS seminar, I participated in or conducted the studies I referred to in my first post.

    Did I answer your question? And do you have a link to the 400-word research?

    Thanks!

    Neicole

  3. October 7, 2009 at 2:07 am

    Neicole,

    As usual, I agree with you:-)) I’ve been quite surprised to find that some of my longer posts have been the most successful.

    I think it’s useful to take an “Old Media” view as it applies to pacing. You need to create expectations. If people expect to get short updates from your blog, a long post will defy expectations and not do well. However, if people expect to come and spend some time a post that is a bit longer won’t hurt.

    The important thing is, as you say, to create sign posts, keep everything in small bites and don’t make anything longer than it has to be.

    – Greg

  4. October 7, 2009 at 8:49 am

    Thanks, Greg. Good point about expectations. Consistency is another one of those keys in writing.

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