Online Help Break Time

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Summer has descended like a heavy wool blanket.  One day it was spring and the next summer.  No, I’m not kidding, we had one glorious beautiful day of Spring.  It was cool, it was slightly breezy, and it was definitely Sunny.  Now it’s in the 90’s (and yes, I understand it’s still May), but apparently Mother Nature has decided that heat, thunderstorms, and wind are for us.

As the week wears on I have been pulled out of my furious work-a-holic fervor in order to meet a deadline to focus on the fact that the holiday kicking off summer is here.  So, instead of posting the next article of Creating Online Help – Fun with Templates, I have decided to breath a little a make plans for some time off.  After all, good writers know when to give the gray matter some play time in order to let the endorphins run and rejuvenate the creativity.  This is a good a time as any.

I continue to work with Scrivener and make small (ok, miniscule) steps with my novel.  Each Beta version brings a smile to my face.  The developers and beta testers are (IMHO) incredible.  I wish all my endeavors with software and hardware geared at organizing and focusing me met my needs.  Every software roll out has issues, anyone in the IT world longer than 5 minutes will tell you nothing goes smoothly.  It’s called code or programming or something equally mystifying to me.

While I am not on the “in” with this software project, it seems to me that this is a relatively smooth process for the developers at Scrivener.  Maybe I’m a lucky writer as I have experienced few issues with the software.  My biggest issue (minor really) is that it takes a long time to launch.  Then again, that could be my computer since all my writing software is huge.  I mean I use everything from RoboHelp to Dreamweaver to Fireworks.  Talk about memory hogs 😆

I’m off to make plans for a long weekend, enjoy the sun, and hopefully not melt in the current heat wave.  Enjoy the Holiday, and check back shortly for Part 5 of Creating an Online Help System (Fun with Templates!)



PS:  If you don’t want to wait for part 5, feel free to read the first 4 posts about creating Online Help.

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So far we have discussed Online Help Design from which product to use to the look and feel to the color scheme.  Last week our Online Help talked about what we expect to see when everything is put in place for the Online Help for Scrivener for Windows.

Online Help End Result

  1. A left hand navigation pane that lists the topics in the help.
  2. A main content pane that displays the content (e.g., topic) selected from the navigation pane.
  3. A Glossary pane.
  4. A print button for those instructions or cheat sheets that are long and need quick referencing.
  5. Color scheme — based on the current site branding guidelines.

Topic List

The next practical thing to do is list all the topics that are obvious. I say obvious because inevitably you will not see everything there is to see when gathering information on the first go round.  I usually create my topic list in an excel spreadsheet because it’s easier not only to keep track of the topic names, but due dates, who’s responsible, who the Subject Matter Expert (SME) is, and comments, questions, and research items per topic.

Let’s start our list with what we see in Scrivener today.  Below is a screen shot of the workspace for Scrivener for Windows.


The workspace is comprised of a main toolbard for navigation and project setup options at the top.  The rest of the workspace is made up of 3 panes.  The left pane is the project layout comprised of folders and text files, in this can I have set it up with the folders being a chapter and the text files are a section in that chapter.  The center pane is is where the content displays.  The right pane is made up of 3 components:  Synopsis, General, and Document Notes (or Project Notes) which you can toggle with the arrows.

One of the main books created should be about the basics of the software.  In this case, the Scrivener basics will describe the layout of the workspace and a description of each panel and component.  This is also a good place to insert the terminology of the software, like Pane, Components, Toolbar.  From there the overview topic can show each piece of the workspace with examples of how to use it or other setting layouts.

Typically, the structure of the Online Help navigation should mirror the menu options on the site as much as possible so that the end user is not confused by the terminology or where to find information.

Excel Project Plan

At this point my Task List would look something like this:

Book Name Topic Subtopic SME Comments Due Date
Online Help Basics About Online Help CJ
Printing Topics CJ
Help Navigation CJ
Scrivener Basics About Scrivener
Workspace Layout
Project Layout Viewing Project Document
Navigation Novel Format Folders
Text File
Research Web Links




There are a couple of things to keep in mind here.

  1. Almost all books have at least 2 topics. There is always an Overview or About topic which explains the high level end to end process.
  2. Backend your Dates. What I mean is that the client usually tells me when they want the Online Help completed, which usually is when the software rolls out. So I start with an end date then add the mini-dates to the topics backwards.


It’s all in the timing. I usually use this guide when figuring out the dates.

NOTE: Figuring out dates per topic is time consuming and can be tricky. So for this exercise, and since we have no strict time-line, I’m going to leave the dates off this particular exercise.

Figure on 8 hours for creating new content. 4 hours for editing existing content. Glossary definitions can be tricky, but I usually average 8 minutes per definition. Longer if you have to research what a field does.

After I have added dates to the spreadsheet when a new topic comes up I tag it with NEW so that I can quickly identify where issues in meeting a deadline may occur. After I have the original topics drafted I can then decide where along the time-line to fit in the new topic and I will remove the new tag with an actual date.

Style Guides

Now that we have scoped the project and started the basics, it’s time to discuss writing content. Like most good things in life, it takes planning. Another step which I will save for a later time, but is one of the most import things when designing an Online Help system, is THE Style Guide. Prior to actually writing content and during the template stage, I will write a style guide. And yes as tedious as it sounds, I still write one even if I am the only writer.  Why? Because there is nothing more frustrating to a read something that is normal in one paragraph.

Big in the next.

Then small.
Or heaven forbid a different font altogether.

You get my drift. It not only helps keep me consistent on style, font, color, but phrases and terminology. For example, a window “displays” in one topic should not “appear” in the next topic. A style guide defines all these issues much like a template.

I like to create what I call an interactive template. This simply means that instead of having the section names and margins set that I go one step further and put a sentence or 2 per section to define what should go in that section or what I recommend goes in that section like a mini cheat sheet.

I know that style guides are not much fun, but it is the start, the foundation if you will, on which all content is written from. This lays down the rules and while you will find that not everything fits into a box, consistency makes it easier not only for the author, but for the end user. They will know what to expect when they see a specific icon or color.

Is everyone with me so far? Questions? Concerns? Comments?  Let me know and I’ll answer them before the next big step into the Template and Content World.

Previous Posts Building an Online Help System

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The next step in Creating our Online Help System is to begin at the end.  So far we have found a product to document (Scrivener for Windows), defined the basic look and feel based on the existing software, and started the research to figure out what the software does.  You did do the research right? So where do we begin?

Begin at The End

What’s the best way to create something? To know what the end result is. I mean, how can you create a cool hybrid car if you don’t visualize what it looks like when it’s complete? Same with an Online Help System, or a web site, or a Blog. You must first identify the end result before you can set requirements defining it.

Before we write one word, we must first ask a series of questions to know what the expected end result is.

Look and Feel


Skins (TV series)

Image via Wikipedia

The skin defines the color and icons of the help system. There are two types of skins:

1.  WebHelp – non-animated skin and is easily customizable with a basic graphics package. Colors can be changed within RoboHelp itself.

2.  FlashHelp – animated skin, but requires a Flash editor to customize the icons.

Help Components

1.  Content – Displays the steps and information about a process or task.

2.  Table of Contents – An outline of the major or high level topics  (one idea is to group the chapters by concepts)

3.  Search – there’s not much to do here except make sure that the proper keywords are in the associated topics.  RoboHelp has the ability to rank search results, so adding keywords to topics (aka meta tags for you web designers) is a nice feature.

4.  Glossary – terms and acronyms that are used in the day-to-day business.

End Result

Based on how the end user is likely to use the help, I picture  something like this.  A black and white skin with the Scrivener logo in the top bar to correspond with their current branding.  A Navigation Pane on the left which displays a Table of Contents, Glossary or Search based on the option selected via a button on the toolbar at the top. The content selected from the navigation pane displays in a pane to the right and is the bigger of the 2 panes. Breadcrumbs are option, and  something I don’t normal add unless the help system is robust or complex.

I have decided to create two Master pages (or templates):  Overview and Task.

  • Overview – contains the big picture of a process or task.
  • Task — contains step by step instructions on how to complete a process or task.

Each template contains the look and feel for the topic being discussed with major headings that will be used for each category and snippets of information so that if there are multiple authors, the look feel and consistency of the content presented look the same.  After all, we don’t want the end user to see that there are 4 different authors.  We want to present unified and consistent content so the end user knows if a link displays a screen shot in one topic, it displays a screen shot in another topic.


Now that the basics of how we are going to present the information are laid out.  We need to decide the scope of the content.  After using Scrivener for a few months, I ran across several items that perplexed me.  For this demo, I will show you those items that not only stumped me up front, but also the benefits and time saving components of the software.

When tossing around ideas of how to lay out the help, put everything down that first comes to mind.  Don’t worry, as I always say, it is easier to delete than it is to add.  Here are some of my ideas, in no particular order:

1.  How to setup a new project.

Scrivener (software)

Image via Wikipedia

2.  How to import a body of work into a new project.


3.  How to create folders and text files.

4.  How to quickly rearrage files into logical chapters or sections.

5.  How to compile specific sections for review.

6.  Character sketches.

7.  Project notes vs File Notes.

8.  Chapter Synopis.

9.  Printing text.

10.  Viewing text files in different layouts.

So far we have covered the online basics of a help system, the foundation, and the end result.  What do you think so far?  If you have questions or comments let me know.  Next week I’ll show you the behind the scenes look of RoboHelp and the structure of how we layout not only the topics, but a skeletal draft of what the end result will look.

Previous Posts Building an Online Help System

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Creating Online Help Part One described finding the subject to document and the questions to ask before starting the Project.  In this case, we’re going to document Scrivener, software for writers.  Before we lay the foundation, I want to take a moment to delve into the components of a good help system.

Online Help Components

Every good help system has a minimum of 4 key things:

  1. Content
  2. Glossary
  3. Search (natural keyword search)
  4. Navigation

Our help system will display the Content first and foremost on the right with a left hand navigation.  At the top are buttons where the user can access the Glossary and Search feature.  Breadcrumbs are not my favorite, but with a deep and complex system it is another easy way for the user to navigate through the topics.  In this case, I’m going to label breadcrumbs as TBD.  Let’s see how it looks first then decide.

The beauty of RoboHelp, is that breadcrumbs are a simple check box to turn it on or off.

So now that you have the jist of the components of a help system, what’s next?

Simple answer: Build the foundation. Like most great things in life, creating a blueprint is essential. This blueprint not only dictates what to do, but when. Before I start any project, I like to see what it is I’m dealing with. So let’s break this down into managable steps.

Online Help System Life Cycle

  1. Research – this is a big area. This part of the process lets you not only see the system, but play with it as well.
  2. Brainstorming – what is it the company wants to accomplish? Not just from a software or product view, but from end user satisfaction.
  3. Design – the look and feel of the online help.
  4. Writing Content – pretty basic here, what does the software or product do? How is the end user to use the software or product to accomplish the task(s) at hand?
  5. Testing – once the help is put together and published to a test enviornment, do all the pieces work and/or display as designed?
  6. Publishing – Go Live — put it somewhere the end users can find and use the product.

So over the next few weeks I will show you step-by-step how to build this system.  So let’s jump into the 1st step in the process, shall we?


First, when talking with a client, I like to see if there is something I can check out. In most cases, there is something on the web where I can see a demo or worst case, screen shots of the software that needs documentation. If the client already has an online help system or printed user guides, I ask to see them too. It’s extremely helpful to see what they are using currently and (1) update based on current style or (2) redesign based on modern technology.

In this case I have places that I can go to to learn about this product.

  1. I can actually use the software by downloading the beta version of Scrivener for Windows.
  2. Review the tutorials that are associated with the software.
  3. Browse the Window forums to see what issues the users are having or read about what the users really like about the product.
  4. Browse the Mac forums to see the issues and features of the Mac version since this has been out for 2 years.  This not only gives us a good feel for the product, but what features that Windows will have in the future, as well as what features the user likes and dislikes or where they need help with the software.
  5. There is also a Tip and Tricks section which hold valuable information as well.

Let’s Play in the Sandbox

In most cases, when a client hires me, I’m brought in near the completion of the development cycle.  This is far enough along where I can play with the software to get the look and feel of it, as well as an understanding of what the end user will see — without breaking anything of course.   In this case there is the beta test, so I am using the software the way any end user will use it.  From this I usually start planning the way the help will look.

  • What color scheme does the software use?  Can I mirror that?
  • Do they use a logo?  Do they have a web version I can use for branding the Help with?
  • Is there a linear process where I can mirror the left hand navigation?
  • Are there clearly defined modules that I can use as an outline?

It is important that you get a big picture understanding of the what the product, or in this case, software is. If you are confused at this point, then now is the time to ask questions of the developer. However, not every question needs to be flushed out at this point.

  • What is the product or software?
  • What is it supposed to do?
  • How do end users use it?
  • Is the existing documentation helpful? If not, what first ideas popped into your head on how to make it better? (Save this information for the next post — Brainstorming)

During this Research and Sandbox stage I write down the first things that pop into my mind.

  • Color scheme and logo help with branding and I always try to follow the clients lead.  They almost always have optimized graphics for web and intranet.
  • There is always a linear thought process for the end user.  What is it or what are they?  Just because I do it one way doesn’t mean that everyone will do it that way.  The best way to document the process is to go with the logic that you use to get to the result and then explore the alternatives.
  • After downloading the software, document the setup.  In almost all software there are preferences.
    • Document the basics like preference, look and feel if there are any, password settings, backup options.
    • Document the online help basics like how to find information in the help, release notes, and how to print topics or job aids.

Online Help Foundation

After all this research and downloading the beta versions, what do we have and where do we go?  Well, after the reasearch and using the software you should have a pretty good idea about the look and feel of the help and basic ideas for how to organize the help.

Look and Feel

Scrivener is black and white and has several images we can use to brand the help with.  I’m going to use one of the smaller square logos so that it will fit nicely into the upper left or right side of the skin.  The skin in this case will probably be black and white to play off the logo.

Scrivener Components

After using the software I noticed it has several components that we can use to chunk topics into.  My first impressions have the layout looking something like this:

  1. Basics
    1. Toolbar Setup
    2. Navigation
    3. Importing or Exporting
  2. Project Setup
    1. Synopsis
    2. Character Sketches
    3. Notes (Project and Documents)
  3. Viewing Projects
    1. Corkboard
    2. Outliner
    3. Scriveners Mode
  4. Generating Manuscripts
    1. Compiling
    2. Exporting the complete work or sections for review

So what are your thoughts so far? If you followed the research steps with me, do you have any ideas that crossed your mind as you read the information?

Don’t forget to come back next week when we Brainstorm ideas about the output.  Yes, the output.  I find it easier to know where you’re going before you get there so you can build a smooth road to that point.

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This is the first in a series of posts about creating an Online Help System. A lot of people are still confused by what online help is, as well as how to create the help and deploy it. Over the next few weeks I will show you how to create an online help system from the ground up. I will show you all the parts and pieces that go into deciding what to create and how to get the results for the end user.

Choosing a Help Project

Scrivener (software)

Image via Wikipedia

Prior to learning the basics and setting the foundation, we have to identify what needs our help.  In this case, Literature and Latte have graciously agreed to let me use their software Scrivener for this demonstration.  Almost anything can be documented and deployed via an Online Help system, however, I find the most challenging and rewarding projects to be Software products.

Software products can range from simple to complex and the Help will hopefully take even the most challenging scenarios and simplify them for the end user.  Help can also be setup as interactive Training. Before all that design and research and documentation begins though, we must first decide on how to create the Help.

Online Help Considerations

Before you start creating an online help system there are several things you must consider.

  1. Decide what HATT (Help Authoring Tools and Techniques) to use.
  2. Is there existing Online Help in place?
  3. Is there existing user documentation?
  4. What is the client’s budget?
  5. Is there internal staff to turn the project over to at the completion of the project?
  6. What is the client’s current hardware configuration?
  7. What are the deliverables that are expected?
  8. What is the deadline?

After you have answered the questions above, you can give the client a good estimate on time and a broad picture of the deliverables and timeline.

The CreativeAce Help System

Using the survey above, here’s the defined frame work we’ll use going forward.

Adobe RoboHelp Icon

Image via Wikipedia


  1. What HATT to use? In this case, we are going to use RoboHelp. Why? Because this is my tool of choice and I think it is one of the best tools out there.  I have been using RoboHelp (RH) for more years than I care to tell you and I’ve been with them through thick and thin and like most software products that have longevity it only gets better.
  2. Is there existing Online Help in place? No, we are going to create this system from scratch.
  3. Is there existing user documentation? This is a new project for the Windows platform.  There are tutorials associated with Scrivener so we can use that as a basis for research.  There is also a forum for Windows users which can be leveraged for general knowledge as well as a possible Troubleshooting or FAQ section.  And, while it may not be totally compatiable, Scrivener for Mac has been out for a couple of years.  We can see what MAC has and get an idea of what to expect in the Windows version and see what Windows may grow into.
  4. What is the client’s budget? Not applicable, in this case.
  5. Is there internal staff to turn the project over to at the completion of the project? In this case it’s not applicable, but I may update or add to the demo to show different features of Scrivener and/or RoboHelp.
  6. What is the client’s current hardware configuration? Linux servers with help deploying in Flash via a browser. Main browser types to optimize for: Internet Explorer, Chrome, and Firefox. Versions To-Be-Determined.
  7. What are the deliverables that are expected? An interactive Help System with Glossary and possibly printable job aids.
  8. What is the time frame or deadline of the project? This is dependent on my current schedule.


Now that we have the basic questions asked and answered, where do we go from here? Next we layout the foundation of the project. We need to decide what is being document and how it should look.

Come back next week to see how what an Online Help System is comprised of and how we start laying the foundation for Scrivener for Windows.
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Online Help Components

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Online Help Systems are interactive user guides.  You may think you’ve never seen an Online Help System.  Have you ever clicked help in Microsoft Word?  Or Outlook?  Then you’ve seen Online Help.

Paper user guides are being replaced by a more functional and interactive Online Help.  The benefits to Online Help is that you can write the content once, but have several outputs in several formats without re-writing or re-styling your document.

Online Help System Parts

Before we get into the nitty gritty of laying our foundation, let’s take a quick peek at the basic components of an Online Help System.  Althugh there are many tools in use today to create a Help System, I prefer RoboHelp. I think it is the most complete tool on the market. It has a lot of features that I can use to leverage the content and export what I have written into several formats. This is called Single Sourcing, but we’ll come back to that.

I’m not much for reinventing the wheel, which is why I think Online Help works well for me. Why? Because Online Help can be used to leverage existing information. Unlike the old style paper manuals, Online Help can use content in multiple places, but need only be written once.

This series of articles detail how to create a Help System using RoboHelp.

Look and Feel

The way the help system is laid out is made up of the following components:

1) Content

2) Index

3) Search

4) Glossary

5) Print


The skin defines the color and icons of the help system. There are two types of skins:

1)  WebHelp – non-animated skin and is easily customizable with a basic graphics package. Colors can be changed within RoboHelp itself.

2)  FlashHelp – animated skin, but requires a Flash editor to customize the icons.

End Result

So the end result will contain a Navigation Pane on the left that will display a Table of Contents or Index or Glossary or Search based on the option selected via a button on the toolbar. The content selected from the navigation pane will display in a pane to the right of that. Optional are breadcrumbs, which I don’t normal add unless the help system is robust or complex.  The look of the help system includes matching the colors and adding a logo based on the client’s current branding.

I usually sketch what the page or pages will look like, but since we are doing this all online, I will refer you instead to a completed project so that you can see what we will be creating. Check out the Administration Guide to see what the end result might look like.

So what you you think so far? Let me know what you would like to see in this help system or feel free to ask me and question about Online Help.

Previous Posts Building an Online Help System

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It has been an unusually cold winter and while deadlines have come rushing in, it’s time to take a look around and dust off the old blog, posts, and potential up coming posts.  In short, much like  spring cleaning the house, your blog and web site also needs a good cleaning.  I recommend that sites be looked at twice a year.  And what better time then during your annual spring cleaning.

Technical writing is always a challenge when deadlines loom.  Inherently things just don’t go as smoothly as they should or could.  So I have spent the better part of the first couple weeks troubleshooting, pulling apart documentation hunting for gremlins, then tweaking it and putting it back together.  We made it better, stronger, and in the end the users are highly impressed with the online help.

Now that the first deadline has washed over us, I can wade to shallower waters and see what I have to clean up.  My first stop, my site.  As I look around the theme and the layout, I found that a spring cleaning on my site is needed.

First: WordPress 3.0

I have never been known to jump to the latest greatest software or computer.  Why?  Because inherently it is flawed, even after BETA is completed not all bugs have been found or resolved.  I don’t mind Beta testing, in fact, I rather enjoy testing new software.  What I do mind is paying to upgrade or buy new software and finding that it brings my writing, my site, or worse, a client’s site to a grinding halt.  So while I languish at WordPress 3.0 I find that my site still operates the way I left it.  For the moment I’ve decided not to upgrade it, but rather researching how WordPress 3.1 is working for others.  If things sound like they are going smoothly at the end of my spring cleaning then I’ll be happy to sweep away the old 3.0 and usher in the new 3.1.

Second:  Plugins

I don’t have many as I hate to bog down the speed of my site.  I do have the standard protective one’s that backup my site, stop spam, and prevent hackers from trashing it.  As I look at my list, some are helpful in telling me that I need to update them for this or that reason.  These take a while to go through to see what the updates are, but usually in the end, when a plugin wants to be updated, it’s usually a pretty good idea.  I decided to flip some plugins around and find that my old SPAM catcher was not meeting my needs.  I like to rifle through my spam filter just to verify it really is capturing what it should.  So I found a really helpful one in G.A.S.P.  If you don’t know what it is, go check it out.  Easy plug and play and easy to understand.

Third:  Look and Feel

As I flipped through the pages of the site, I find that the colors no long excite me as they used to.  I keep thinking of what I could do to make it better, smarter, slicker.  So as I do research for a couple potential clients, I’m playing around with things that jazzes up my site too.

Over the next couple of weeks, I will research, test, poke, prod, and see what comes out of the brain storming process.  Come back in March and see what the Spring Cleaning reveals.

Fourth:  New Posts

I have been playing around with a few ideas and while I don’t want to jinx my current idea, I think you’ll be as excited to see what I have in store over the next few weeks as I am.

So did you do spring cleaning on your site?  Is there anything you recommend checking out or installing that is exciting?  Let me know.

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Well, it’s that time of year where everyone is enjoying the season and visiting with friends and family.   I just wanted to take a moment and say thank you to all my friends, family, and loyal readers.  I appreciate the support during this very hectic year which has kept me extremely busy.

The deadlines and the holidays gives me little time to breathe, but I find at the end of the day I’m enjoying every minute of it.

Time of Reflection

Despite the trials of the last year, I have learned not only am I dedicated to my fictional writing, but with a little patience and structure, I can find time in which to carve out a daily time to focus on the novel and still maintain my commitments to my current assignment.

As the blizzard rages around us, closing roads, stores, and preventing other businesses from opening tomorrow, I am very grateful for the flexibility of my jobs.  I can work where I want for the most part and on occasion I can dictate when I work too.  I even enjoy the pressure of the upcoming deadlines over the next 3-4 weeks.

News Years Resolution

I have long ago giving up on New Years Resolutions as I found that sticking to them is difficult and frustrating at best.  In some cases I make it a few weeks.  So I won’t sit here and spout promises that I may not be able to keep.

After the second major deadline (due the 2nd week of January) I am planning on adding the next 2-3 posts on how to create an Online Help System.  Really, we are that close to finishing it.  I am still debating on the skin and colors, but in the end, I hope you find it’s worth the wait.

For my friends and family, I am grateful that you are here and give many thanks for your support.  To my readers, I hope that you have a wonderful holiday season and will return in the new year  with more posts that you enjoy.

Many thanks.


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Where in the World is CreativeAce?

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What happened to CreativeAce?

Hello everyone. Did you miss me? I want to take a moment and apologize to you for my sudden disappearance. A lot has happened in the last couple of months. Some good and some not so good.

Shortly after my last post, my site was hacked. After working tirelessly restoring the site to it’s former glory, I was hacked a second time in 10 days. Now some of you, I know, were also caught in this hacking frenzy.  While I won’t point fingers, let’s just say that restoring my site for a second time took a lot longer than the first time.

Why, you ask? Well, I’m so glad you asked. Because my old hosting provider was too busy trying to make sure I didn’t blame them for their security failure rather than helping me resolve the issue. So I took everything down and found a new hosting provider. One that not only helped me get setup, but transferred my files, and then helped me clean them up.  While this took longer than I anticipated, I was so thrilled that I actually had help in this endeavor.

I am thrilled with Host Gator, and their customer support. Not only did they help me on my site, but also helped when I needed to step in on behalf of a couple of clients. They went above and beyond the call of duty and I couldn’t be more pleased with my decision to relocate.

Where is CreativeAce Going?

I have been traveling a lot for a new client and so time for blogging has been at a minimum. However, before all the hacking-moving angst occurred I had been in the process of designing an Online Help System. As I sat explaining to my new client the necessary steps to create a new interactive Help System, it occurred to me that this would be a great time to blog the step-by-step process of what Online Help is and what it can do.

In the next few weeks, we are going to build an Online Help System from scratch. Come along for the fascinating ride of how this all comes together to be an interactive portal that can not only be helpful, but with any luck, fun too. “How-to” manuals no longer need be dry reading, but sometimes there’s not much you can do to liven up “Enter your name and address,” but I promise to try.

So, if you’re ready to dive into the life of a technical writer, let’s go shall we?

See you next week as we discuss, The Basics.

Categories : Technical Writing
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I was interviewed for a position about content writing not too long ago. They told me that my “writing style” was just what they were looking for. As I put away my portfolio that I had brought to the interview, I started to wonder about my writing style. I sat down with said portfolio and began to slowly look through it. Each piece of work I have has a different writing tone which was dictated based on the writing style called for by a particular client. I pride myself on being able to write for any industry in any style that the client dictates.

Writing Styles

Here is a top 5 list of general writing styles I have seen and/or used:

  • Technical Business – usually business processes or white papers detailing what a client or internal staff needs to know in order to perform their daily, weekly, or monthly assignments.
  • Online Help Systems – usually task oriented, but over the years as single sourcing became a more reliable feature, included training material and business processes.
  • End User Manuals – paper based manuals that users in the field use for a quick “how-to” approach.
  • Web Content – aka Niche Content. Content uniquely created for a business based on the products and services being sold. This can be very serious or very relaxed depending on the business and/or owner.
  • Article Writing – articulate, brief, clear (ABC). Tends to be more serious so that the author comes across as an expert even if they hired a ghost writer.

Each style listed dictates it’s own tone. The Online Help Systems tend to be more conversational, whereas the End User Manuals have a more instructional tone. Another huge factor in tone, is what the client and their target audience wants.

Writing Tone

I find that the writing tone is often dictated by the style chosen, but the client and their audience are a close second. To find and strike the right tone you must pay careful attention to the client. This means everything from listening to your potential boss-to-be to reading articles or manuals that they have on hand. Don’t be afraid to ask for a sample of what they want written or in some cases updated.

Client Tone

Here are some of my suggestions when you try to figure out the clients tone.

  1. Read what they have had written before.
  2. Ask questions:
    • Is this the same style and tone they want OR are they looking for a more modern conversational style?
    • Are the previous materials a good length?
    • Do they have enough screen shots or examples?
    • How creative can you get with the screen shots and examples (i.e., Can you use celebrity names or should you stick to realistic people?)
  3. Listen to your client as he/she speaks. No, seriously, listen to them. Don’t plan on what you are going to say next to impress the client with your knowledge or your “Great design idea” that you miss what they are saying. Listen to how they talk. Are they slow and meticulous in what they are saying? Are they speaking conversationally? Are they using big words or everyday jargon?

Writer Tone

It amazes me the things that we lose over time. I have been writing a long long time. Maybe I’m old school, maybe I have been taught old fashion manners, but whatever the case, there are certain things that are common knowledge to me that I do not always see in the younger generation of writers. I have adapted to the time as things change, and they are always changing, hence you will see on my site a portfolio page. This shows a lot of my work and as I find time, I keep adding more pieces to the page(s).

What I find odd is that writers today have only an online portfolio. I can’t tell you how many times I have gone to  a client’s office for an interview and brought a paper sample of my writing and hear “Wow, I’ve been doing interviews for a week and your the only one (or only the second or third one) to bring in writing samples.”

To me this enhances my chance of landing a job, not because I have paper samples to show the client, but so they can remember my writing style and tone as we are discussing their writing needs and goals.

The tone I’m setting is: I’m here, I want to write. This is who I am and my writing style.

I have been a writer all my life. I have written for big corporations and small business. I have written for a variety of industries from insurance to mortgages to pharmaceuticals.  You can specialize in a particular niche, many writers do and do so well, however, I like having a bigger base to write for. I find that writing for more than one industry or niche helps improve my writing style in another area.

So, are you a writer? What styles do you use? Do you find your style dictates your writing tone or vice versa?

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Categories : Writing Styles
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