My Tech Writing Process

As an engineer-turned-tech writer, I have repeatedly heard “Writing is so hard; how do you do it?” and “Anyone can write”. Both statements are fallacious. Yes, anyone can write, but not everyone can write well. And yes, writing is hard, and it is made harder by the romanticized notions of inspiration striking, wooden cabins in the middle of nowhere, and solitude.

In reality, writing is a methodical, multi-step process. In this blog post, I attempt to break down my technical writing process so as to demystify it and hopefully make you think about your own process. The following image depicts my writing workflow for any technical document:

project workflow

As the image shows, my writing workflow consists of four phases:

Phase One: Research

My research phase consists of the following steps.

  1. Use the Cornell Note-taking System to briefly record the key points gathered from sources (reading materials, talking to engineers, attending meetings, and so on).
  2. Use the Feynman technique to ensure that you understand the information.
  3. Setup CockroachDB.
  4. Try out the feature being written about.

Phase Two: Draft

I use the 5-draft method while writing documents.

Phase Three: Editing and Reviews

Once I am satisfied with the rough draft, I edit my document using several techniques. Each technique helps uncover and correct different facets of the document:

  • Grammarly: Check spelling, grammar, adherence to technical writing conventions
  • Text-to-speech: I use the text-to-speech feature on my Macbook Pro to listen to the document. It helps me catch awkward sentence constructions, missing words, and so on.
  • Elements of Style: This little book sits on my desk and reminds me of my personal pitfalls/repeated mistakes. I have earmarked the style guidelines that I know I forget. Going through the book helps me ensure I am not repeating my mistakes.
  • Style guide: I go through the company style guide to ensure I adhered to it.

Once I am done self-editing, I open a Pull Request in GitHub which enables others to review my document. My review process is iterative, wherein my draft goes through technical and editorial reviews multiple times before it can be published. At Cockroach Labs, our engineers and other stakeholders (Product Managers, Sales, etc.) review the document for technical accuracy and completeness, and my manager and fellow technical writers review the document for editorial as well as technical completeness and correctness. The perks of working at a company that is deeply interested in good documentation 🙂

Phase Four: Publish

Once the reviews are done and everyone gives the LGTM (Looks Good To Me), it’s time to merge the document on GitHub and celebrate! Check out my Git profile here.

Try out the process, form your own, and share it with me at hello@amrutaranade.com. And don’t forget to subscribe!

Bonus: I track the various phases of each document in my bullet journal:

project dashboard

 

Deep Work for Tech Writers

One of the life-changing books I have read in my professional life is Deep Work (affiliate link) by Dr. Cal Newport. As I discussed in the Day-In-The-Life blog post, I start my day with one-hour (2 Pomodoros) of Deep Work. And that has been the secret to my productivity and success as a technical writer.

Following are a couple of resources that summarize the book far better than I could have. Go through the resources, try out the technique, and drop me a line at hello@amrutaranade.com to let me know what you think of it. And don’t forget to subscribe!

Book summary: https://fourminutebooks.com/deep-work-summary/

YouTube video:

 

Pomodoro for Tech Writers

Thе Pоmоdоrо Tесhniԛuе iѕ a time mаnаgеmеnt mеthоd developed bу Frаnсеѕсо Cirillо in thе late 1980s.Thе tесhniԛuе uѕеѕ a timеr to break dоwn wоrk into 25-minute intеrvаlѕ, ѕераrаtеd bу 5-minute breaks. These intеrvаlѕ are nаmеd Pоmоdоrоѕ, thе plural in Engliѕh оf the Itаliаn word Pomodoro (tоmаtо), after the tоmаtо-ѕhареd kitchen timеr thаt Cirillо uѕеd аѕ a university ѕtudеnt.

The Pomodoro tесhniԛuе helps you асhiеvе the following:

  • Imрrоvе efficiency
  • Kеер away from diѕtrасtiоns and fосuѕ оn thе task аt hand
  • Imрrоvе timе-ѕеnѕе
  • Eliminаtе ѕtrеѕѕ burnоutѕ
  • Assist in аnаlуzing timе taken fоr tаѕkѕ

Hоw thе Pоmоdоrо Tесhniԛuе wоrkѕ

Thе Pоmоdоrо Technique rеgulаtеѕ when to diligеntlу fосuѕ оn a tаѕk аnd whеn you ѕhоuld take a brеаthеr.

This tесhniԛuе iѕ centered аrоund brеаking your timе down into роmоdоri (one Pomodoro iѕ еԛuаl tо 25 minutеѕ). You lоg a ѕресifiс tаѕk уоu are going tо work on and thеn ѕрrint уоur wау thrоugh thаt роmоdоrо. Aftеr 25 minutes of dеdiсаtеd wоrk, the timеr gоеѕ off аnd уоu tаkе a nice 5-minute brеаk frоm your wоrk.

Once your brеаk is over, уоu ѕtаrt аnоthеr 25 minutе long Pomodoro. This new роmоdоrо саn be dedicated tо thе ѕаmе tаѕk аѕ bеfоrе (if уоu did not complete it during thе previous роmоdоrо) оr a new оnе. Aftеr every 4 роmоdоri (рlurаl fоr роmоdоrо), уоu саn tаkе a lоngеr break, if уоu would like (ѕuсh аѕ fоr 15 minutеѕ).

While уоu’rе wоrking уоur way thrоugh a роmоdоrо, уоu can temporally interrupt it for uр to 45 seconds, if need bе. If thе interruption lаѕt fоr longer thаn thаt, уоur dеdiсаtеd fосuѕ оn thе mаin tаѕk iѕ viewed to bе lоѕt, аnd thuѕ thе Pomodoro iѕ rеѕеt (having tо ѕtаrt over at 25 minutеѕ) again.

Thе dеfаultѕ of 25 minutеѕ реr роmоdоrо, 5 minutеѕ реr rеgulаr breaks, 15 minutеѕ реr lоngеr break, and 45 ѕесоndѕ реr intеrruрtiоn seem to wоrk wеll for me аnd most people I knоw whо’vе triеd thiѕ hаndу tесhniԛuе оut. Hоwеvеr, that said, thоѕе arbitrary аllоtmеntѕ оf timе саn bе сhаngеd dереnding оn уоu реrѕоnаl hаbitѕ and ѕсhеdulе, ѕо аѕ lоng as уоu consistently ѕtiсk with thе аllоtmеntѕ thаt уоu’vе lаid оut. Fоr example, ѕоmе реорlе may prefer to wоrk “in the zоnе” for 50 minutеѕ, аnd then tаkе a 10 minutе break.

Why the Pomodoro Technique works

It is common experience that we can focus on a given task only for a short period of time before we get distracted (or seek out distractions). The Pomodoro technique helps to quantify and manage those focus periods. If you know you have to work for just 25-minutes, and then you can surf the web or check Facebook guilt-free, you will be more inclined to put in those 25 minutes of focused work. And you can get a lot done with 25 minutes of focus!

This technique has been a game-changer for me in terms of my productivity. As I discussed in the Day-In-The-Life blog post, I start my workday with at least 2 Pomodoros of focused work (which is almost one hour), and then I am free for the rest of the day to attend meetings, do some mundane tasks, socialize, or just goof off, because I have done the most important tasks for the day already.

The Pоmоdоrо Tесhniԛuе fоrсеѕ me to think in tеrmѕ of асtiоnѕ that nееdѕ tо bе tаkеn in order tо еffесtivеlу gеt things dоnе. It also imроѕеѕ thаt I рriоritizе аnd dесidе whiсh асtiоn I’m gоing to work оn. By hеlрing tо limit my аttеntiоn ѕраn tо a ѕinglе activity, thiѕ tесhniԛuе аidеѕ me in ѕtауing focused (instead of hopping between a handful оf diffеrеnt tаѕkѕ аnd/оr diѕtrасtiоnѕ).

Rеviѕiting my dаilу Pomodoro lоgѕ highlights whеrе I spend my timе аnd hоw рrоduсtivе I was thrоughоut a given timе period.

I now think of my tasks in terms of thе number оf роmоdоri thаt a givеn tаѕk might rеԛuirе. I diѕсоvеred that еvеn сhаllеnging tаѕkѕ саn оftеn bе tаkеn care оf in a handful of pomodori ѕеѕѕiоnѕ.

Try out the technique and let me know if it works for you. Drop me an email at hello@amrutaranade.com. And don’t forget to subscribe!

P.S: Here’s my favorite Pomodoro playlist:

 

Getting Things Done as a Knowledge Worker

I often imagine myself greeting my tech writing students as they graduate and enter the technical communication workplace. I imagine myself saying to them, “Welcome to the professional world. You have now graduated from being a tech writing student to a knowledge worker. And the key to succeeding in this role is not writing well, or being a good team player, but knowing what work to do.”

You see, in your days as a student, you knew what work was to be done that had pre-determined success metrics. You had set courses, with defined assignments and grading rubrics. You knew if your work was finished or not, and if you met the success criteria or not.

However, in the professional world, you will not be given a well-defined assignment. Instead, you will be given a “project” – a fluid, ever-changing best-guess scenarios developed by others in the organization. The success metrics are not defined either. As David Allen puts it, “There is usually no right answers; there are choices instead”.

As a technical writer, this is the part of the job I struggled with the most. With a never-ending stream of emails and Slack messages, changing roadmaps and company priorities, I was drowning in an information overload. I couldn’t get a handle on all the things that need to be done, let alone actually doing the tasks. At a time, I was juggling three highly technical projects that each required a considerable amount of brainpower and writes and rewrites. On the brink of a breakdown, I found David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (affiliate link). The book has been my savior. It has led to massive increase in my productivity and helped me maintain my sanity.

The Concept of Stress-Free Productivity

Anxiety quickly builds up when we begin to think about all the tasks we have to complete each day. It’s impossible to rely on our brains to remember it all!  The Getting Things Done (GTD) strategy works on the premise of relieving our brains of the stress of remembering all that needs to be done by appropriately capturing everything in writing.

Capturing this information in what is dubbed our “external brain” allows us to be fully focused on what we’re doing in the present moment. This increases efficiency and creativity.

My GTD workflow

GTD Workflow
My GTD Workflow

Develop the 4 Vital Habits for GTD Success

Applying GTD effectively requires more than just recording your to-do list. Making the GTD system truly work for you means embracing the following essential habits: capturing/collecting, daily processing, organizing, and weekly reviewing.

Capturing: Record ideas immediately. Keep notepads in places you frequent, make use of your smartphone’s virtual assistant (such as Siri or Cortona), or create a bullet journal. This helps your brain release the pressure of having to hold on to something to try to remember it. This ultimately releases your mental space so that you can focus on the present.

Daily Processing: Schedule time at the end of each day where you review each captured item and determine if you want to carry out the idea. If you do, you then need to determine the subsequent actions that must be taken.  Actions that require extensive attention should be added to a project list.

Organizing: Actions that can be completed in 2 minutes or less should be further categorized into calendar lists, next actions lists, and follow-up lists. Calendar lists are for time-specific items. Next actions are important, but don’t need to be done within a specified time-frame. Follow-up list items are those that are dependent on additional information or actions from another individual.

Weekly Reviewing: Schedule about an hour at the end of each week to check the progress of your task completion. Reflect on where you see yourself in the next 3 to 5 years. Think about the projects and tasks that will help you accomplish that vision. Prioritize the action items that must be accomplished in the following week to make this vision real.

Reward Yourself

The GTD productivity strategy may seem like more work than you’re prepared to do. Hard work deserves a reward. Treat yourself to something you like at the end of your weekly review. The trick is that you can only effectively complete that weekly review to get the treat. Approaching your weekly review this way increases your motivation to get it done.

Bonus resource: An excellent YouTube video that discusses the GTD method:

 

 

So there you have it: the secret to my productivity and success as a technical writer. Next week, we will discuss another of my favorite productivity tools – the Pomodoro technique. Subscribe to stay tuned!