Recipes and Templates in Technical Writing

While I’ve stated before that I love writing the first draft of a document, that does not mean I always start with a clean sheet of paper. Often I will start with a template of some sort–and there are templates for nearly any document you can imagine on the internet these days. Much like a cooking recipe, a template is a good place to start before you try getting creative.

When Do You Use a Template vs. Start from Scratch?

Templates

Templates are a good starting place if you’ve never written a particular type of document before. For example, often because I’ve been the only English major among a group of engineers, I’ve been roped into writing or at least starting documents I’d never heard of before, much less written: Concepts of Operations (CONOPS), Systems Engineering Plans, white papers, and so forth. Most engineering organizations have an idea of what these documents look like, so it’s probably a bad idea to “get creative.”

The trick with templates is that depending on who created them, they might be set up for  a particular industry or audience. In that case, you might need to draw upon more than one source–or, better yet, see what templates your employer/customer might already have on hand. Therefore, like a recipe, you start with the instructions as written, then “season to your taste.”

Starting fresh

There are times when even the type of document you want isn’t exactly fresh at hand. Say you were asked to create a simulation of a working piece of software because the environment in which people would be exposed to the software does not allow them to access the live system (or maybe some of them don’t have credentials to access it yet). You might have to create a simulated version of the software in Microsoft PowerPoint using screen captures and hyperlinks. (I’ve done stranger things.)

Other times you might start with a blank piece of paper writing a straightforward article, but the topic or technology is completely new. An article format is easy enough to create, but then you’re still faced with a blank screen. In that case, the challenge is organizing the content.

Or you might have to create a form or a checklist for an application that hasn’t had one up to now. You’ve seen forms before, but you still might have to create fields that don’t fit a standard application. You can do this: it’s just a matter of deciding which items need text fields vs. check boxes or, if the form is online, “radio buttons” so that your users are providing the information you need in the simplest way possible. The tools exist, but they might need to be customized to meet your particular need.

Whether you’re working with a complex topic or a complex document, there’s no harm or shame in looking around for a starting point, especially if you feel stuck.

About Bart Leahy

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