Style Chameleon

When I started my current job there were three major problems with the documentation:

  • There was too much duplicated content, so it was difficult to know where to point people.
  • Given that there were always multiple versions of the product in use, it was hard to figure out which paragraph refereed to which version, particularly as the product changed.
  • Each page felt like it was written by someone else (it was!) and the reading experience could be quite jarring.

The first two were huge tasks, but the solutions were pretty straight forward: build system for documentation that was structured such that it could theoretically hold all the information (replace lots of information repositories with a single information repository) and then use maintenance branches in a version control system to snapshot and fork off old branches as they're released.

Done.

The last problem is harder. Much harder.

I did a pretty good job, at first, of just writing everything myself, which meant that the first drafts all sounded like they were written by one person: because they were. This doesn't scale. The next step was to edit the hell out of all contributions that weren't by me.

This also doesn't scale.

There are some canonical solutions: write a long style guide and try to get people to comply with it; use templates and standard formats for documents so that everything uses common structure and forms. It's still hard to enforce, but it's something.

I put a lot of time into content reuse systems that had additional structure. It helps, and reduces some editorial overhead, but has the same weak points as the conventional solution.

At some point, you need actual humans to edit and make sure things are clear and consistent across the entire corpus. If you don't have the resources for good editors, then either writers have to spend a significant amount of time editing, which is a huge time suck (and slows progress,) or you start to get drift.

I'm not sure that we have a good answer yet. In the mean time

Appendices

Style in Group Processes

  1. As you innovate and improve it's really hard to resist the impulse to go back to older pieces to revise them. You should make passes through all your content on some sort of schedule, but you have to give yourself permission and allowance to go back and fix style later.
  2. Common style is less about "being right," and more about figuring out the kind of communication that's appropriate for the target audience(s) and using effective structure to support them. In short: compromise.
  3. Style is about the entire reading expenses, not just the syntax, or the typesetting: it is both of these things as well as others. For some kinds of texts, the trick is to often to write as few words as possible, and to make it so that people can scan through documents as quickly as possible while only reading the sections that are relevant to them.

Personal Observations

It's actually interesting to write blogs again, as I'm (re?)discovering a style of writing that I have been very comfortable with in the past but haven't really exercised recently. It's also interesting to see how my own writing and writing process has changed as a result of writing so much technical material.

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