Precision Bloggage from Precision Wordage

Template talk

February 8th, 2014

A template is a set of predefined format instructions that can be quickly applied to a document.

An authoring tool is any software that supports authoring (writing) a document and formatting it before generating a PDF, HTML, or ebook output.

Any authoring tool, including Microsoft Word®, has the capacity for using a template.

Templates address three basic levels of formatting:

  • Page addresses parameters for page size, margins, headers and footers and columns.
  • Paragraph controls the typeface and size, line spacing and space between paragraphs, as well as indents and justification. Paragraph formatting can also be used to set automatic numbering or bullets.
  • Character is used to apply bold, italic, underlining and any other special formatting for a single character, word or group of words within a paragraph.

More sophisticated authoring tools allow for additional style definitions, graphic images, tables, and so on. But the above are pretty much universal to all authoring tools.

The advantages of using a template are:

  • Speed—Formatting with a template tag usually requires a single click.
  • Consistency—All documents formatted with the same template have the same look and feel.
  • Clarity—A well-designed template will enhance the communication.
  • Ease of update—With a well-made template, it doesn’t matter whether the same writer does the updates or someone else, because there won’t be an issue of trying to match the formatting or figuring out how (or even why) the writer used the formatting he or she did.

Direct formatting versus style tags
Writers who are not template-savvy tend to use direct formatting, that is, changing the formatting directly instead of using style tags. An example would be adding bolding and increasing the font size to “create” a heading instead of applying a Heading 1 style. This kind of formatting can create multiple issues if a document is more than a couple of pages.
For example, in Word (and most other authoring tools), you can automatically generate a table of contents (TOC), but only if the headings are standard style headings. Otherwise you would have to build the contents by hand and insert the page numbers by hand. If the pagination changes because of edits, the TOC would require manual updating—a complete waste of a tech writer’s valuable time.

You can also set up running heads and feet that change automatically with a new chapter or section, but again, only if style tags are applied correctly.

Direct formatting is an indication that the writer does not fully understand the power of his tools.

When interviewing a potential new writer, I always ask to see a sample of his or her writing in a source file—usually Microsoft Word. I ask for a sample to see how he handles language, but I ask for the source doc instead of a PDF to see how he handles formatting. If it’s a Word doc, I will turn on the hidden characters. It’s sometimes amazing to see what turns up.

Common errors include:

  • Pressing the space key to center text.
  • Pressing the space key to make a paragraph return.
  • Pressing the space key to make a hanging indent.
  • Directly formatting text to change font size, bolding, and so on, instead of using style tags for headings.

Such errors show me that the writer doesn’t have a clue about how to use a template.

Templates are a joy to build and use when understood. A failure to use a template and use it correctly literally doubles the work for the next writer on a project.

Pain-free technical manuals

February 14th, 2012

Last year, engadget.com published an article with a headline that included “promises ‘service manuals that don’t suck’.”

It surprised me that this would be newsworthy–the “promise” from the manufacturer included features we’ve been implementing at Precision Wordage for well over a decade–then I thought about some of the resistance I run into with clients when I’m trying to get them to step away from failed methodologies in their technical manuals.

A recent example was a client who brought us in because, in his own words, he wanted the company’s tech pubs “to move into the 21st Century.”

The first thing we did was to revamp the document appearance, adding white space to the pages, cleaning up the headers and footers and “branding” them in keeping with the company’s marketing standards. Next, we adjusted the language to accommodate the target audience. We cleaned up the graphics so they were actually useful, replacing poor-quality photos with crisp line drawings. And finally, we reorganized the sequence of the contents so the user didn’t have to wade through 50 pages of background before getting to actual procedures.

Well.

From day one, we were fighting with the one in-house tech writer who’d developed all of the old, unmanageable standards. His boss backed us up, so we continued to improve on the documents. Then there was a personnel shift, and the new power over tech pubs did not share the previous vision. The docs were moved back into the old template, the in-house writer returned to his complicated language constructions, and our contract was not renewed.

It’s not the loss of the client that bugged me–that happens. It’s the loss of every bit of innovation we brought in because of the client’s failure to follow the vision of his predecessor.

But there’s another side to this coin.

I got an email recently from a client who actually demanded that we push the envelope on friendly and usable technical documents. He said, “The facts are that the tested time to install for the [new product] was approximately one half of the time for installing the preceding [old product], call volume decreased by almost one third and product registrations increased in the low double digits. I also tracked various press coverage and noted a positive effect on product reviews. More importantly, customer satisfaction scores started climbing which was important for customer loyalty and brand reasons.”

Now that was a fun project.

At Precision Wordage, we are passionate about the work we do, and our sole objective is to make our work as useful, informative and as pain-free as possible. We throw combined decades of experience at accomplishing this, and take pride when our work wins awards.

If you share our desire to continually improve your users’ experience with your documents, contact us and let’s see if there’s a way we can work together to bring your vision to fruition.

-Su

Template in a teacup

November 20th, 2007

In publishing software, a template is a set of design specifications. This would include page layout (margins, number of columns, how graphics should be positioned in relation to text), which fonts are to be used and when, line spacing, table formatting and myriad other little details that add up to a professional, easy-to-read document.

The idea is to have a common set of rules that can be used across different documents.

And why would we want this?

Most businesses have a corporate image. This can include one or more logos, specific colors and specific type faces. As part of a company’s brand recognition, using templates in your documents allows for a continuity of image throughout all publications.

Another reason is speed. With a well-designed template, a document can be formatted to top-quality professional appearance quickly and easily. If every document published had to be formatted manually to match a common style, publishing costs would go up faster than the price of real estate in SoCal.

The process is simple: A document is either created directly from within a template, in which case the correct formatting can be applied as it is authored; or the document, already authored, has the template attributes applied to it.

Updates or refinements to your brand image are also easy to make with a template (another cost savings). Instead of making changes to every document, you can change the template and let the changes cascade through your documents automatically.

Invest in good template design for your publications department, whether you use Microsoft® Word, Adobe® FrameMaker®, Adobe InDesign®, or any other publishing tools, and ensure that your templates include instructions on how to use them!
The problems our clients can create for themselves when they don’t use templates range from comic to incredibly expensive, but that’s another blog on another day.

- David