Technical writing is like fishing

Last weekend I had the joy of camping with my family and, for the first time in a decade, I brought a fishing pole.

When I was young, my father and I went fishing regularly. We'd wake up at dawn, load up the canoe and fishing poles, and head for a fog-covered lake or pond. Mostly I caught bluegill as my father landed whopper largemouth bass.

The weekend camping trip reminded me of how much I missed angling for largemouth. This has been a busy year, and I needed a break, even if it was only overnight.

On the first day, I cast a K&E purple bass-stopper along the milfoil growing near the shore, and landed a nice bass. It was only a couple of pounds at most, but it put up a nice fight before burying itself in the weeds. I caught another nearly as big the next morning.

The experience rejuvenated me like no vacation could. I've been fishing every day since! A little in the morning before work, or at dusk with the kids.

A few days ago I found myself standing on a peninsula between two incredibly beautiful ponds that connected to a larger lake. Not a person or house was in sight. Just me, the water, and the fish. In the peaceful silence I pulled another bass up, and fought him through the weeds before landing him.

Bass are lazy fish and love to play hide-and-seek. Often they won't hit until the bait passes them several times. They are finicky. But when they do strike, they strike hard and swim like sharks.

Writing user assistance is much like fishing. Like a picky largemouth, the user is looking for something specific. You have to decide what will entice him to bite. Perhaps a well-selected embedded link to an FAQ? Or an overview of product features that leads into instructive procedures? If you don't throw him what he's looking for, he'll wander off and you'll never have a chance to catch him again.

Users don't want to read help; they don't do it for fun. Like a hungry bass, they need something substantial to keep them going. You have to make it look appetizing.

So next time you see one of your users, throw him a jig-and-pig or a crankbait and see if he strikes. Just be sure to practice catch-and-release!

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