by Leon Rosenshein

Write It Down 2

Documentation is a thing. And there are lots of different kinds, each with their own use case and requirements. But one thing is consistent. Keep the audience in mind. What do they know? What don’t they know? What are they looking to know? What do you want the reader to know?

The most important thing to remember is that it’s for the reader. Whether you’re writing API docs for the RNA Docset, end user documentation for a public facing website, a postmortem, a bug report/feature request, or notes to yourself. remember the reader. Even if you’re writing notes to yourself, what you’re writing isn’t for you now, it’s for future you without all of the contect you have in your head while you’re writing. The reader doesn’t know what you know now. So everything you think is obvious and straightforward now won’t be when you read it. And that’s the simplest case, when you have a chance to know the details.

Another important thing to keep in mind is what the reader wants to do. People are trying to get something done, and they’re looking for help. So provide it. To do <X>, perform these steps. Think about the common mistakes or problems people might have and discuss them. Provide troubleshooting tips. As the writer of a tool/UI/library you know now only what should happen, but what to avoid. The person who has nothing but the documentation doesn’t. If you don’t say it, they don’t know it.

Provide levels of detail. For codelabs we have 100, 200, and 300 level labs. Even if you’re not making it that isolated, you should tell people what they need when they need and make more detailed information easily available when they’re ready for it.

And then have someone you trust, but doesn’t know how to do the thing you’re documenting, do it. We’re working on turning up a new DC and I put together a runbook and a set of scripts to do it, then gave it to someone on my team to try. I thought about what he would know, what he would have available, and tried to document it as unambiguously as possible. Guess what happened. He got stuck on step one because there were some setup steps that I hadn’t documented. So we fixed that and tried again. Little things kept popping up where I wasn’t as clear as I thought. So we fixed those. Then he ran into an error that I hadn’t seen before. So we added more to the troubleshooting section. We’re still tweaking it and making it easier, but it’s at the point where someone else could come in, pick it up, and have a very good chance of making it work.

Having written all that, I find that I’ve actually missed the most important thing of all. You need to actually write something down. Once you have something you can make it better. But you need to start.