This past month has been a hard one for me. My mother is in hospice care at an assisted-living home.
Along with waves of grief about my mother’s approaching death and guilt for not being a better son, I’ve been struggling with anger at “the system.” The people within this system are kind, ethical, caring, and professional. And yet, time and again, they perform functions that reveal a sort of death industrial complex that is bent on extracting money and minimizing care, even if it shortens your loved one’s life.
I don’t believe in burdening others with my hardships. Instead, I want to give you advice that will hopefully be useful if you find yourself in a similar situation.
When your loved ones are dying, and you’re struggling with emotions and making difficult decisions, realize that you don’t have to do it all on your own.
To the people around you, admit that you’re struggling. Where appropriate, share your feelings. Otherwise, when you need to be with your feelings, you can excuse yourself from situations.
Ask a loved one to help you with the logistical and administrative work; there are forms to sign, phone calls, and purchases such as sending Ensure protein drinks, toothbrushes, hairbrushes, gowns, and multivitamins to an assisted living facility.
Know what your parent’s or loved one’s rights are or ask the person helping you to know what’s covered and what isn’t by the insurer, medicare, and Medicaid. This information is critical for getting care, medications, and coverage.
Don’t sign or agree to anything upfront or verbally. Always require documents and ask for a day to review them before you answer or make a decision.
My email inbox was a bottomless pile of messages seen and considered but not resolved. Having so many small choices increased my stress and reduced my ability to get things done.
Then, about a month or so ago, I heard “inbox zero” mentioned. I intuitively grasped the concept and set about finding a better way to process my email that reduces my effort, stress, and mess. It’s most obvious feature is that you have zero emails in you inbox.
Now (Feb 20th) I’ve been doing this for over a month and have gotten faster and better at it. Here’s my updated system, which I call zero inbox.
Recently, I wrote about zero inbox, my hack for getting rid of email stress and mess. I also mentioned that it depends on having a to-do list that can link back to your email messages.
A few years ago, I started using the free version of Todoist, an elegant and dependable app developed by a Germany-based software company. I was so pleased that I upgraded a year or so ago to their Premium version for $3/mo, billed annually.
Getting the most out of my to-do list requires a little skill and effort. Here’s how I add tasks to todoist:
Using the todoist extension in Chrome, I create an item for (almost) every task I encounter. The extension makes it easy to link to an email message or browser tab that’s open.
I avoid creating duplicate to-do items for tech docs deliverables I’m already tracking in an enterprise tool, like Jira or Bugzilla. Duplicates double or triple the amount of maintenance work I have to do.
For tasks I’m already tracking in enterprise tools, I create an umbrella task like “Work on the top priority item in Jira.”
Because this work is my highest priority, I type “p1” as a keyword in the item’s description: Todoist highlights the task with a red checkbox and moves it to the top of my to-do list.
I also mention the “every weekday” keyword, so Todoist makes this item a recurring task.
Finally, I click “Add website as task” so Todoist includes a link to Jira in the to-do item. This helps me reduce the number of open tabs in my browser, so I’m more productive.
As technical communicators, how do we ensure that our user instantly gets what the topic is about?
Here are the answers to that question, based on my reading of “Simple,” the central chapter of Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick.
Making something simple does not mean dumbing it down.
To make our content simple, we must:
Find the core idea and present it first.
Use the remaining content to support the core idea.
Eliminate everything else.
To illustrate this, Made to Stick describes a problem the US Army had a with orders: By the time commanders in the field received the order, it was outdated and the commanders had to choose between ignoring the order or implementing an order that no longer made sense.
To solve this problem, the US Army improved its communication protocols in 1980 by adding a commander’s intent (CI) to each order. The CI is “a crisp plain-talk statement, [to] the top of every order, specifying the plan’s goal, the desired end-state of an operation.” As a result, field commanders could act on the intention of the order, its core idea, despite changing circumstances in the field.
For a procedural topic, use the shortdesc to “explain what the task information helps users accomplish, the benefits of the task, or the purpose of the task.”
For a conceptual topic, use the shortdesc to, “introduce the concept and provide a concise answer to the question ‘What is this?’ and in some cases ‘Why do I care about this?’ If the concept is unfamiliar, you can start with a brief definition.”
I know some of you feel ill when you hear DITA mentioned in tech writing discussions. Even if you’re not using DITA, you can’t deny that it makes sense to give your readers a clear statement of the core idea at the beginning of your topic.
The opposite of identify the core idea and putting it at the top is:
Burying it somewhere else in the content.
Presenting multiple competing ideas.
Including tangential or irrelevant information.
We don’t do these things on purpose. They happen because we are either blind to them or lack the time and energy to revise them out of existence.
The ugly; revising to good
For me, words are like stepping stones that mark a path through a garden of information. When I revise a topic I’m working on, I reread the words and retrace the path I laid out earlier.
As I do this, I notice odd spots:
If I notice a misplaced stone, I move it to a better better spot or toss it out.
When I find a gap, I fill it with a stone from somewhere else or I generate a new stone by generating the idea that belongs there.
Usually, these changes create new odd spots in the path. So, with each move or fill, I spend a bit of time working it into place and reworking the surrounding material. I keep doing this, developing my thoughts and moving them around until I feel like I’m done.
Then I come back the next day and see a whole new set of things that are out of place. This is more of a problem with blog posts like this one than with technical content, whose structure is more defined.
The trouble with “eliminating everything else” is that I’m still generating new ideas (stones) when I’m revising. To solve this, I have to force myself to stop creating and focus only on removal. This isn’t easy if I’m attached to interesting by irrelevant ideas in the content. The solution is to save off a copy of the document before I start cutting away the excess. That way, when I finish the current topic, I can review the copy and use the interesting bits to generate new topics.
This is the first in a series of posts on my journey as a technical writer to improve how I deliver ideas to readers’ minds and make them stick there.
You never know where you’ll discover a gold nugget. I found Chip and Dan Heath’s work by chance in a Google docs slide template called Making Presentations that Stick.
Intrigued, I googled “Chip and Dan Heath” and found their New York Times bestseller, Made to Stick, why some ideas survive and others die.
I was amazed to see that Amazon’s preview of Made to Stick generously gives away the “big secret” at the very heart of the book! It’s right there, free for anyone to read and use!
Most books keep their core ideas hidden away so you have to buy the book. Here, the authors flip that approach on its head. They give away the core idea for free, like open source software. They know these ideas are so simple and useful that they’ll find a much larger audience than if they were hidden. Then, that audience will turn right around, buy the book, and mention it to everyone they know. That’s what I’m doing right here.
The principles of the book boil down to an acronym, SUCCES:
I know, I know, you might be thinking – “ugh! Yet another business book with a catchy acronym!” But this book is SO much more than that. It’s a deeply researched and thoughtful work. Each principle is explained and demonstrated with a fascinating collection of stories – examples and anti-examples that give weight and depth to each principle. I’m amazed I didn’t hear of this book sooner. I wish I had read it years ago.
This book has had such a profound effect on me that I’m completely reworking the Explain Better talk I proposed to Write the Docs – Portland 2021 last month. I’ll hear back in a couple of weeks whether it was accepted. Even if it isn’t, I’ll hold an unconference on Explain Better.
In the following newsletters, I’ll discuss how I apply each of the SUCCES principles to technical writing.