Continuous Improvement for the Writer

I was rambling on in my personal blog about self-improvement, and after some thought I realized that I could find a way to tie that blog to tech writing. Businesses talk a lot about “continuous improvement,” but it’s often difficult for the tech writer to crystallize what that means for him or her. I’ll take a shot here.

Continuous Improvement in manufacturing organizations usually focuses on quality: faster output, fewer defects, at lower cost (as my engineering friends like to say: “Faster, Better, Cheaper–Pick Two!”). Can such standards be applied to our lofty literary efforts? Aye.

Faster!

Does your department produce a lot of documents that have to get out the door “as soon as possible?” Or do you have occasional situations where a specific type of document (say, a press release) needs to get out the door faster to respond to real-time events?

Reusing content

There are a few ways to speed up the process of responding to demands for “faster” writing. One of them is to repurpose content. I recall hearing at the STC conference in 2000 that advanced markup languages like XML were supposed to make content like corporate messaging much easier. You write a paragraph once and are then able to apply that message in other documents. This would be things like corporate mission statements, company business overviews, and executive biographies. One person would be responsible for maintaining the original, and everyone else would use the existing verbiage. One department I worked for had a Word doc full of paragraphs that functioned that way (we called it the “junk file”). It saves having to reinvent the wheel every time a new situation arises.

Simplifying processes and approvals

This approach tends to make some managers uncomfortable as it usually means fewer people have the authority to change a “happy” to “glad.” And some folks really like having that authority. However, if the chief executive or other senior managers want content out the door sooner and you have five people approving a document, that process just might require some reworking. I spent three August days in a non-air-conditioned trailer at Marshall Space Flight Center participating in a Lean Six Sigma exercise trying to simplify the export control approval process for conference papers. Three days? Yes, indeedy. But when we came out of that hot trailer, we had a system that could be executed in a week vs. two or three. And yes, one person no longer needed to be included in the loop. A small victory, but worth it.

Contingency planning

While managers often don’t like to dwell on such things, humans being what we are, things are going to go wrong. A sensible contingency plan can include having content already written should Bad Event X occur. How do you do this? One way is to embed a technical writer with the engineers working on risk management to keep track on the top risks of a given project. Writers might not know all of the ways that a risk could manifest itself, but they can at least have text ready that explains the root cause of a problem so they know what to say when something goes awry.

Cheaper!

Often the biggest-cost items for documents or other products are not within the control of the individual technical writer. That doesn’t mean you can’t provide input.

Spending money wisely

It’s amazing how much waste occurs due to errors caught only in the print cycle. Most quality control issues–misspellings, bad capitalization/punctuation, backwards/outdated illustrations–can and should be caught before anything goes to print. This might require more labor hours to ensure an editor looks at a document, poster, proposal, etc., but if the alternative is reprinting several thousand flyers or millions of dollars in lost business, an additional set of eyes might be worth the overtime. Of course an additional review takes more time, which conflicts with “faster,” but that’s a decision that would need to be made based on your circumstances. If you want documents done right, “better” is cheaper.

If you must print…

Printer cartridges and paper can eat up a budget. Try to edit on the screen first (if you’re under 30 and reading this, you probably think I’m crazy, but some folks really prefer to proofread on a hard copy). If you insist on printing, print in “draft” mode, which is not quite as high-quality and doesn’t eat up as much toner.

Better!

I’ve already covered one quality issue: mechanics. There are other ways content can be made better, though that depends on how you choose to measure it. As one of the classes I wrote noted, “What gets measured gets done.”

Improving access

Depending on what you’re creating and whom you’re writing for, “accessibility” can mean many things, from writing in multiple languages to including closed-captioning on videos. Are you writing for the general public? For younger people? Improving readability might include simplifying your language to reach your target audience.

More depth

When I worked for Disney Information Technology, I picked up and read some books on object-oriented programming so I’d know what the programmers were doing and to get myself smarter about what I was actually saying. In similar fashion, when I started working for a defense contractor and later NASA, I had to educate myself on the intricacies of petroleum and water pumping systems or rocket propulsion systems so that I could write accurately to the level of precision my customers required.

Bottom line

While it might be impossible to achieve “faster, better, cheaper” all at once, it helps to have a mindset that’s open to continuous improvement. Much of it starts with a willingness to ask yourself, “Is this the best I could be doing? What is getting in the way of my doing better?”

 

About Bart Leahy

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