Technical writing and efficiency

Writing technical documents is a complicated process. Even more so if you work in a large department, producing many documents for multiple products. Working efficiently is important if you want to stay on top of deadlines and avoid pulling your hair out over unnecessary complications.

However, sometimes process improvements are a double-edged sword. While a change in your process might make one aspect of your workflow more efficient, it can often increase the workload in a different area.

Let's say you have several projects in process, and you devise a system for tracking status and metadata about those projects using a fancy Excel spreadsheet. As long as you keep the information in the spreadsheet up-to-date, it is useful and helps you stay on track for hitting deadlines.

But what if you slip and forget to update the spreadsheet? And what if the amount of information you are recording in the spreadsheet becomes tedious to keep up-to-date during a last-minute rush to meet a deadline? In technical writing, a lot can happen during the few days prior to a product release.

Unfortunately, the work necessary to maintain any system can offset the efficiency and peace of mind you gain from that system.

So, before you implement a complicated system for improving your workflow, ask yourself: "Is this really going to make my job easier? Or is it just adding to my workload?"

If you sense that it will increase your workload, don't just ditch the idea completely. Instead, ask yourself if you can reap the same benefits in another way. Perhaps you can come up with a different process that requires less maintenance.

For example, instead of using a complicated spreadsheet for tracking project details, perhaps you can embed such metadata into the documents themselves as hidden text. You're going to be working in those files regularly anyway, so the risk of failing to update that information is greatly reduced. Then you can run a macro or script to pull that data into an on-the-fly report any time you want. The need to maintain an external spreadsheet disappears, and you can still track the details that are important to you.

So the next time you try to make a process more efficient, be sure to consider the cost of maintaining that process. You want to spend your time writing manuals, not stressing out over a system that doesn't work.

Related: Turning document reviews around quickly