Discovery Docs Part 3: Voice and Style

This is Part 3 in a series about the Discovery Docs initiative, which I will present about in my upcoming GUADEC talk. In Part 1: Discovering Why, I laid the groundwork for why I think we should focus our docs on discovery. In Part 2: Templates and Taxonomies, I talked about how to structure topics differently to emphasize learning. In this post, I’ll talk about how we should write to be engaging, but still clear.

One of the main goals of Discovery Docs is to be more engaging and to create enthusiasm. It’s hard to create enthusiasm when you sound bored. Just as your speaking voice can either excite or bore people, so too can your writing voice affect how people feel while reading. Boring docs can leave people feeling bored about the software. And in a world of short-form media, boring docs probably won’t even be read.

This post has been the hardest in the series for me to write. I’ve been in the documentation industry for two decades, and I’ve crafted a docs voice that is deliberately boring. It has been a long learning process for me to write for engagement and outreach.

To write for engagement, we need to adopt a more casual voice that addresses the reader directly. This isn’t just a matter of using the second person. We do that already when giving instructions. This is a matter of writing directly to the reader. Think about how blog posts are often written. Think about how I’m writing this blog post. I’m talking to you, as if I’m explaining my thoughts to you over a cup of coffee.

This doesn’t mean our writing should be filled with needless filler words, or that we should use complicated sentences. Our writing should still be direct and concrete. But it can still be friendly and conversational. Let’s look at an example.

  • #1: Some users need to type accented characters that are not available on their keyboards. A number of options are available.
  • #2: You may need to type accented characters that are not available on your keyboard. There are a number of ways you can do this.
  • #3: Maybe you need to type an accented character that’s not on your keyboard. You have a few options.

#1 is stuffy. It talks about hypothetical users in the third person. It is stiff and boring, and it uses too many words. Don’t write like this.

#2 is more direct. It’s how most of our documentation is written right now. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it doesn’t feel exciting.

#3 is more casual. It uses the fewest words. It feels like something I would actually say when talking to you.

Using a more casual and direct voice helps get readers excited about the software they’re learning about. It makes learning feel less like grunt work. A combination of exciting material and an engaging writing style can create docs that people actually want to read.

What’s more, an engaging writing style can create docs that people actually want to write. Most people don’t enjoy writing dry instructions. But many people enjoy writing blogs, articles, and social media posts that excitedly show off their hard work. Let’s excitedly show off our hard work in our docs too.

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States
This work by Shaun McCance is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States.