Elmore Leonard’s technical communication lesson

August 21st, 2013 | Posted by The Robocolum(n) in Technical Writing

Last Tuesday it was announced that crime novelist Elmore Leonard had died. Some obituaries have described him as the nearest thing the US has to Charles Dickens. Despite such hyperbole, his 10 rules of writing ring true for all writers. Whilst most Technical Communicators do not write in a novelist’s style, we can all learn from number 10 in the list.

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

Of course we all think our work is wonderful. It is willingly read by users who have happily skipped to their desks with smiles on their faces, who trawl through the search results to the relevant topic, read it and instantly understood what to do. In the real world, our users only touch our documentation when they are truly desperate. They are in a hole with an impended deadline and a factor 5 headache coming on.

All this begs the question, do we really understand what our users look at? If not, may be we are in danger of breaking that tenth rule. If you don’t know what your users use, there are a handful of analytics solutions out there to help. For example:

  • Google Analytics
  • RoboHelp Server
  • Madcap Pulse

Each has a slightly different way of working, but they all give you data you can analyze to get answers to your questions. As the saying goes, “Data equals power”. Only when you have the data can you make informed decisions on what the drop. Finally, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that just because an area of your help is never accessed that it is no longer useful. Perhaps it is. If in doubt, here’s a suggestion. Ask your users!

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  • http://www.grammarparrot.com/ Karla

    The Onion did a good article about him: http://www.theonion.com/articles/elmore-leonard-modern-prose-master-noted-for-his-t,33559/ My favorite line from the article: “advocating a method of writing that dispensed with unnecessary descriptive detail in favor of succinctness.” Very techwriter-ish! :-) Do you get the show “Justified” in the UK? It’s based on his “Fire in the Hole” and other Raylan Givens novels. One of my favorite shows.

  • Jay Maechtlen

    except that the part “readers tend to skip” may be vital info for some use cases – make sure it is easy to skip until they need it, then easy to find when they do need it.

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