Recently I had the opportunity to visit the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC and see Julia Child’s kitchen. At first glance, I simply enjoyed how cozy and comfortable it looked. But as I focused on the individual details, the systems she had in place stood out to me. Julia had organized her kitchen so whatever tool she needed was right within reach.
On our team, we “cook up” content that helps people. There are definitely times I’ve found myself facing a blank page and asking, “How do I make this article good?” In other words, how do I write something my audience finds helpful, approachable, and (bonus points) enjoyable?
Something about Julia’s kitchen struck me as applicable to writing help documentation: Just like any tasty meal starts with the right tools and ingredients, digestible content starts with proper preparation. It begins before your pen meets paper. It’s a process.
So, here’s my tip for writing digestible help content: Build your systems and refine your process.
Start with “Why?”
Before you start writing, ask yourself why this content is needed. The goal is to avoid making assumptions about what your audience knows.
- Get to know your audience.
Familiarity with your audience helps you understand their needs. It’s also an opportunity to learn how comfortable they are or what level of knowledge they already have. Look for resources and data you can use to better understand your readers. Figure out who else on your team or in your company can help you learn more about what your audience needs—or wants.
- Name your objective.
Whether you’re helping your audience learn about a feature, master a process, or troubleshoot a problem, try writing out your objective. Be really specific. This will help you define what information to include and also what information doesn’t belong. Here’s an example: Based on the feedback we’ve received, we believe that our users’ soufflés are falling flat. Creating an About Soufflés article to explain how to properly whip and cook the eggs may solve this problem.
Set up the Structure
Craft an outline that defines how you’ll organize your writing and considers your why. It’s OK to start with a general one and make changes as you gather information. Just having that first draft will help you know where you have gaps and what you need to learn more about.
Here’s some things to consider.
- Place most the important or most frequently used information at the beginning.
- Define your sections with headers. If you break information down into smaller chunks, your readers can find what they’re looking for more easily.
- How you structure your content should reflect what you’re trying to communicate. If you’re introducing a new subject, walk your audience through prerequisites they’ll need to know about before they get started, or common errors. Or, if you’re helping someone troubleshoot an issue, don’t waste time getting straight to the answer.
Write it or type it – it’s up to you!
Ask a lot of questions
Having a lot of inquiries before you start writing can help you avoid a situation where you have to pivot later on. Make sure you’ve got a good grip on the subject matter. Then ask even more questions.
As you learn more, you may find that certain information doesn’t cleanly fit into your outline. This is a good opportunity to evaluate and rearrange. Return to your objective and use it to make decisions about what you should include—and what information may belong in another article.
When it’s time to write, remember to stay consistent. Your content will be much more helpful if you structure your content into patterns, stay on topic, and maintain a consistent tone.
Stay consistent with your:
- Format: Use one font. Use parallel headers. Keep similar content together. This applies to how you’ve structured an individual article and your greater ecosystem of articles.
- Topic: Stay on target with your message. Is what you’re writing relevant to the why that you established? Each section you write should contribute to the greater objective of your article.
- Tone: Consider the subject of your article when you decide your tone. Avoid jumping between a formal or informal tone, changing tenses, or switching the point of view.
Keep it simple
A conversational tone uses straightforward, plain language to come across as approachable. Contractions, for example, help keep things friendly.
You can write with a conversational tone and still show that you take the subject matter seriously. But be careful with how you use jokes or loose you get with your grammar. This can cause your writing to come across as too casual or distracting. It can also cause problems when you translate your content into other languages, or if non-native speakers rely on your content.
Ultimately, you’ll know what feels right. Trust yourself!
As with any process, you’ll revisit it and redefine it over and over again. That’s a good thing. You might find new tools that you want to use. If something’s not working, make adjustments. Exercising your ability to ask questions, be flexible, and evolve will help you continue to write helpful, digestible content.