How Do You Approach a New Topic?

You’ve just been presented with a new and off-the-wall topic compared to your usual content. What’s off-the-wall? It’s what happens when you were hired to write technical documentation and you’re suddenly asked to write a formal letter on behalf of the department. Or you were brought on to write proposals for military water and petroleum systems and suddenly find yourself writing about security systems in another division. Or you were writing conference papers for large rockets when you’re suddenly asked to write a paper about management processes. Okay, those might not happen to you, but they have happened to me. What the heck do you do about them? After all, you’ve developed a certain comfort zone and level of expertise writing about X. Now, suddenly, you’re expected to write about Y?

In a word: Yes.

If you got into the technical communication department through the English department, as I did, you already have an advantage over a large population: you like to read. So you have to break down and read things that you haven’t read before. (See my “When Have You Researched Enough?” entry for more on research.) Sometimes it’s as simple as that: you’ve got to break down and do the research.

There are other ways to approach a new topic, though. You can start by asking your subject-matter expert(s) (SMEs) what the heck you’ve just been asked to do. Assuming you’ve corralled your subject matter via the Two Most Important Questions, you also can narrow down the focus of what you need to write. For example, if you’ve been asked to write a paper about management approaches to address specific situations, that doesn’t mean you need to go back and read everything there is to know about management theory and practice.

You also need to orient yourself a bit after you’ve started your research. This means doing a little “mental mapping,” or organizing the contents you’ve absorbed into manageable piles that make sense to you. You might find yourself connecting the new content to things you already do know. This method of working by analogy is similar to how you might approach a work of science fiction. My parents met at Eastern Airlines, so I always had a lot of airline route maps in the house. One thing I’ve always tried to do is integrate new knowledge by connecting it to things I already know; so in my mind it was rather like adding a new city to the route system and then connecting it via several different cities so that it fits with the patterns I already knew.

Another approach to organizing material is “bucketing,” a rather ugly neologism that means putting similar information into related mental buckets. Then it’s just a matter of arranging the buckets in such a way that the reader will understand what you mean.

Of course once you’ve got your buckets, you might find that there is more than one way to arrange them. These patterns become easier to identify as you encounter more and more new material. Here are some of the patterns I use when sorting new information:

  • Chronologically: If your end user must act on your information in a specific time order, as in the case of making a recipe or assembling a product, then it makes sense to put the information in that order. There might even be occasions where you have to write in reverse chronological order, as in the case of an incident report, where you start with a known problem and have to work backward to arrive at the original, root cause.
  • General to specific: If your user must work with very complex, detailed, and difficult-to-understand information (say, redesigning a rocket engine), you might need to give your reader the “big picture” of how their work fits into the overall structure before delving into the specifics. This structure also works if you’ve got a very specific problem to address–say, a budget cut–and you want to provide the broader context of the decision before explaining why your specific item is being cut by X.
  • Specific to general: This is how a criminal case or incident/accident report is written up. You start by describing very specific actions or situations first–building backward to earlier causes, until you arrive at the overall “big picture,” which is to answer why something happened.
  • Spatially: When you’re describing a piece of machinery or a floor/site plan, you would want to describe the individual parts of the object or space in question. You might start in a general-to-specific mode first, explaining the overall plan or function, but then you need to describe how each part fits in or contributes to the whole. Or you might start front to back or top to bottom or, in the case of a house, starting from the front door and working your way through room by room.
  • Functionally: This is similar to a spatial organization of information, but would generally apply to a process that has many moving parts moving concurrently, like a business. In this situation, you might end up using a “most to least important” order, where the different functions or departments are described hierarchically based on the politics of the organization.
  • Hybrid Topics: You might encounter topics that are broad and complex enough to require more than one type of order to convey clearly. For instance, as in the business example, you might follow a product or service through its entire life cycle, starting with its initial design and working your way toward the customer or starting with surveying the customer and working your way back to the final product. Another example is a rocket flight. When I was writing papers for the Ares I-X flight test, I would often have to provide the big picture first–what the Constellation Program was, what we were testing, and why–before going into a spatial description of the rocket, a description of the ground systems required to support it, and then the sequence of the flight test itself.

In all of these cases, your goal should be to “tell a story” that makes sense to your readers/users. The good news is, your readers will generally have an idea in their heads of how your topic should work, so if you follow that expected narrative, they should be able to follow your logic and connect the same dots that you did in organizing the material.

A word of caution: it might be tempting to get so creative that you feel the urge to contradict expectations or provide a “surprise ending” for your readers. This is perilous for the non-fiction writer. Your users are reading your material to accomplish a specific task, correctly, in a particular manner or order; for the most part, they are not reading to be entertained. I add this caution only because I was so tempted once or twice early in my professional writing career, and I had to have operational reality explained to me. Consumers of technical communication do not want surprise endings, just the facts they need, in the order they need them, to do they job they set out to do. The more constructive thought you put into arranging the information on the front end, the less work your readers have to do on the receiving end. Trust me, they’ll appreciate it.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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