Archive for September 10th, 2011

I haven’t written a manual for over seven years, so perhaps my opinions about technical writing don’t count for anything. All the same, I’m disappointed to see that writers are still being steered towards distractions such as writing personae I can think of little that could do more to waste a writer’s limited time or cause them to be held in lower regard.

A persona is an imaginary profile that represents one segment of your audience. The ones I’ve seen are usually 200-700 words long, and typically include not simply the segment’s subject matter expertise, but also the kind of detail more suitable for a character in a work of fiction. Age, gender, job title, hobbies, dining preferences, personal likes and dislikes – all these and more can find their way into each persona. Since the audience for technical writing can have several segments, creating personae is demanding, fun – but largely a waste of time.

Admittedly, the exercise of creating a persona can help a write fix audience segments in mind. Should they need to refresh their sense of the audience, they can simply re-read the persona. But for the most part, each of the personae that I have seen has been a nugget or two of information lost in irrelevancies.

The blunt truth is, the main facts that tech-writers need to know about their audience is their technical background and reading ability. Possibly, writers may need to know a few other facts – for instance, the audiences’ languages can affect page layout – but not much more.

And even expertise and reading ability are largely irrelevant, because, rather than trying to second-guess the audience, it’s easier to explain fully and write simply. After all, you never know who might use your manuals, or if the information you’ve received about the audience is accurate.

Under these circumstances, better to stick with the basics. After all, even experts appreciate a brief explanation of context, or may need a reminder of some aspects of your subject. Write a short, coherent explanation of the tasks at hand, and you can’t go far wrong. But spend your limited time on writing personae, and you may guess wrong or find that the context changes. In other words, writing personae just isn’t efficient time management.

My impression is that personae are favored by those who stress the writing in their job title at the expense of the technical. Desperate to have developers and managers take them seriously, they champion arcane embellishments like personae in the hopes of appearing experts and gaining the respect of those around them.

Nine times out of ten, however, such efforts fail, because they are usually made at the expense of actually learning the subject matter, and of writing and editing. The result? You’re left looking pretentious and turn in a finished manual that only reinforces everybody’s impression that you are a lightweight poseur.

If that’s your idea of being a tech-writer, fine – go ahead and fritter away your time on personae But don’t be surprised when you don’t get the respect that you think you deserve. You’ll only get that by mastering the subject matter and presenting it usefully, not by engaging in pointless intellectual exercises.

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