Getting started

It used to be so simple. A technical writer would meet with an engineer, gather information, write it up—in longhand—on a legal pad, and then send the information off to the typing pool. After some revisions, the typed manuscript and perhaps hand-drawn graphics would be delivered to the printer and, eventually, a book appeared. Over time, the legal pads were replaced with typewriters; then, the typewriters were replaced with computers. In addition to producing text, technical writers accepted responsibility for page layout and pre-press production tasks.

Today, technical writers are more often technical communicators: they produce text, images, photographs, charts, live video, screencasts, webcasts, comic books, simulations, and more. And technical communicators face a bewildering array of options: XML, help authoring tools, wikis, customer-generated content, desktop publishing tools, conversion tools, and so on. Instead of creating content in isolation, technical writers coexist with training, collaborate with technical support, and compete with user-generated content.

Other factors further increase the complexity:

  • Global markets require global content. You must create information in your customers’ languages or, as a fallback, simplify content so that readers with limited proficiency in the language provided can understand it.
  • Product development cycles are shorter. Information needs to be updated more often. A document production process that takes a week per iteration is perhaps acceptable for yearly product releases, but not for a quarterly update schedule.
  • Government regulations and compliance requirements have increased. Regulatory agencies mandate not just what information needs to be delivered but the storage format of that information.
  • Product variants or custom products are more common. Buyers expect customized content that reflects their unique configuration.

Writers cannot “just write.” First, they must decide what information is needed to support a particular product, who will create that information, and how best to deliver the information to their audience. They need a content strategy.

The best-known definition of content strategy comes from Kristina Halvorson of Brain Traffic, who says that content strategy:

plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.1

 

Rahel Bailie of Intentional Design uses this definition:

A repeatable system that governs the management of content throughout the entire lifecycle.2

Content Strategy 101 is a call to action for anyone involved with technical content: writers, managers, and executives. Without a content strategy, you will waste time and money with inefficient processes to create information products that do not support your business goals. Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler, says that “Content is a business asset worthy of being managed.” When done poorly, technical content is a liability—it can result in damage to your reputation, lost sales, and legal problems.

You need a content strategy to ensure that you:

  • Deliver the right information
  • Deliver information effectively
  • Engage your customers and build community
  • Streamline your publishing process
  • Meet legal and regulatory requirements
  • Control the cost of content
1 “The Discipline of Content Strategy,” A List Apart web site, published December 16, 2008, alistapart.com/articles/thedisciplineofcontentstrategy/, visited August 7, 2012
2 “What’s the buzz about content strategy?,” tcworld magazine, August 2011, tcworld.info/tcworld/content-strategies/article/whats-the-buzz-about-content-strategy/, visited August 7, 2012

 

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