Writing Technical Content
At MailChimp, technical content is mostly written by the technical content team. It appears in the Knowledge Base, throughout the app, and in a few other locations. This section will lay out the guiding principles of technical content, discuss the main types of technical content, and outline the process of writing and editing technical articles.
Someone reading technical content is usually looking to answer a specific question. That question might be broad or narrowly-focused, but either way our goal is to provide answers without distraction.
For each project, consider your audience’s background, goal, and current mood. Ask these questions:
- Is the reader a prospective user, a new user, or an experienced user?
- What is the goal of the reader? To complete a task? To research a topic?
- Is the reader in the middle of a task? Are they in a hurry? Could they be frustrated?
We don’t want to overload a reader with unnecessary information, choices to make, or complex ideas or phrases, when we don’t have to. This is particularly critical when a user may be new and/or frustrated. When relevant, prime the reader with a brief outline of an article’s focus in an introductory paragraph or section, and stick to the topic at hand. Keep sentences, paragraphs, and procedural steps focused and concise.
Technical content articles vary in target audience, goal, and tone. MailChimp technical content is built from 8 templates, which serve different purposes and readers.
|Article Template||User Type||Goal|
|Best Practices||all||Context. Make connections between MailChimp and email marketing as a whole.|
|Cheat Sheet||intermediate, advanced||Reference. Include all available scenarios.|
|Getting Started||prospective, new||Overview. Include brief outline of topic, uses, benefits, and related topics. Use links to best practices, cheat sheets, and feature overviews.|
|Policy||all||Education. Provide digestible information about critical legal policies and procedures.|
|Pathfinder||prospective, new, intermediate||Orientation. Bundle topics and provide links to relevant tutorials.|
|Troubleshooting||new, intermediate, advanced||Support. Outline expected behavior and include potential causes of unexpected behavior; group by cause or topic.|
|Tutorial||new, intermediate||Guidance. Briefly describe a task, provide a roadmap and pre-requisites, and clear step-by-step instructions.|
|Warning||new, intermediate, advanced||Assurance. Outline warning type, explain why something happened, and include next steps for users.|
Before you begin writing a new article, reach out to a subject matter expert at MailChimp (like an engineer, tester, designer, researcher, or technical support advisor) to get as much information as possible. You may only use a small portion of what you learn, but it helps to have more information than you need to decide where to focus your article.
Consider how many articles are needed and what article types will best describe a new feature or tasks to the user.
Outline your article, then write a draft. Stay in touch with your subject matter expert and revise as needed for accuracy, consistency, and length.
When you’re happy with a draft, pass it to another technical writer for peer review. Then show it to a lead technical writer for additional review and revisions. For new content or highly complex content, send last draft to your subject matter expert for final approval.
When a user clicks the title of an article, they expect to find the answer they want. Don’t stray too far from the title or topic at hand. Use links to make related content available. If you find you’re getting too far from the intended topic, then you may need to create a separate but related article.
Focused users often scan an article for the part that will answer their particular question. Be sure headlines are short, descriptive, and parallel, to facilitate scanning.
Technical content talks to users when support agents can’t.
Be as clear as possible. Use simple words and phrases, avoid gerunds and hard-to-translate idioms or words, focus on the specific task, limit the number of sentences per paragraph. If you must include edge cases or tangentially related information, set it aside in a Before You Start list or Notes field.
Screenshots and GIFs may not be necessary for every article or process, but can be helpful to orient new users. Crop screenshots tightly around the action to focus attention.
We edit technical content based on three goals:
- Cut or tighten redundancies, gerunds, adverbs, and passive constructions.
- Use the simplest word.
- Limit paragraphs to three sentences.
- Use the labels and terminology used in the MailChimp app.
- Use specific, active verbs for certain tasks.
- Choose basic words and phrases to facilitate consistency across translated content.
- Stay conversational, using contractions when appropriate.
- Avoid qualifiers that muddy meaning.
- Express understanding when appropriate.
- Craft clear transitions from section to section to orient the reader.
Technical content uses organization, capitalization, and other formatting to help convey meaning. Although different articles are organized differently, some formatting tips are consistent throughout all technical content.
Capitalize proper names of MailChimp products, features, pages, tools, and team names when directly mentioned. In step-by-step instructions, capitalize and italicize navigation and button labels as they appear in the app.
- MailChimp, Mandrill
- Campaigns page, Lists page
- Compliance Team, Billing Team
- Navigate to the Automation page.
- Click Save & Close.
Group article content with H2s and H3s. Use H2s to organize content by higher-level topics or goals, and use H3s within each section to separate supporting information or tasks.
- Upload a List
- Format your CSV File
- Import your CSV File
- Match Fields
- Best Practices for Lists
- List Collection
- List Management
- Email Content and Delivery
Only use ordered lists for step-by-step instructions. Separate steps into logical chunks, with no more than two related actions per step. When additional explanation or a screenshot is necessary, use a line break inside the list item.
Use unordered lists to display examples, or multiple notes in a Notes block. If an unordered list comprises more than 10 items, use a table instead.