I have contributed a lot to the company’s internal documentation. I also wrote 210 blog posts on this website and gained about 1 million page views. Therefore, I want to share my experience with you about how to write technical documentation.
Writing technical documentation has many benefits: it allows users to understand how to use your framework without jumping into the source code; it clarifies the needs and the goals of your project; it helps teammates to understand the system and succeed in their missions.
After reading this article, you will understand:
- What are the different types of documentation?
- Who are your readers?
- How to improve each page?
- How to write fewer documents?
- How to organize multiple pages?
- How to go further from this article?
Before continuing, I want you to let know that I am a backend software engineer and a site reliability engineer (SRE). My primary tool for writing documentation these days is Confluence. Because of the differences in our backgrounds, my experience may not apply to your cases. Leave me a comment if you have any suggestions :) Now, let’s get started!
Types of documentation
The first thing to clarify is that there isn’t just one type of documentation: there are multiple ones. In this talk “The four kinds of documentation, and why you need to understand what they are”, Daniele Procida explained that there are 4 kinds of documentation:
- learning-oriented tutorials
- goal-oriented how-to guides
- information-oriented reference material
- understanding-oriented explanations
Structuring documentation according to its four distinct functions helps ensure that each of them is adequately served. It also makes it far easier to write and maintain.
Tutorials are designed for newcomers and beginners. They are learning-oriented. Your users are new to your framework and don’t know much about it. You need to ensure that the documentation explains the terminologies, highlights the architecture of the framework, and avoids dive deep into implementation. The primary goal of these documents is to let your readers achieve something with your framework. It does not matter if you cover all the details, the most important is that your readers find it enjoyable and learn something from your documentation.
How-to guides target more intermediate users. They are goal-oriented. Your readers know the basic concepts of your framework, but they need to know more to solve a specific problem. The key difference between tutorials and how-to guides is that now your users know exactly what their problem is. Therefore, your document should focus on their problem and tries to solve that. Solving the problem means describing the problem properly, the context around the problem (upstream, downstream, timeline, …), the relationship between this component and other components in the architecture, the coverage of different scenarios, etc.
Reference materials are detailed documentation about the specification and implementation of your framework. They dive deep into technical details and describe the behavior of certain components, functions, etc. They are information-oriented.
Explanations are discussions that illuminate and clarify a particular topic. They are understanding-oriented. It provides different kinds of background knowledge of the topic, explains why it was done this way, and provides alternative solutions.
Who are your readers?
Once we know the types of documentation, it’s time to understand who are your readers. How your documentation can help them? In my working environment, my readers can be my teammates, managers, leaders (VP+), and engineers in other teams. Depending on the readers, they have different goals when reading the documentation and it’s important to write the documentation to serve the purpose.
- Your teammates are probably the contributors of the framework. They care both the theoretical and the practical parts of the framework. You can write documentation to explain the concept and decisions about the system design; write a reference guide to describe technical details; write troubleshooting articles to debug some problems that happened in production; etc.
- Managers and leaderships care less about the practical side of the project since they don’t participate actively in development. They are more focused on high-level things: the overview of the project, the progress of the work, the important decisions made, or some critical pieces. Therefore, we should emphasize the connections between components, the impact, the indention of the project, the reasons, or anything else that can be easy to read and follow.
- Engineers in other teams are probably users of your framework. You need to write tutorials, and how-to guides to help them to use your framework.
It’s important to think about your audience before writing new documentation. It makes the intention much clearer. Also, try to think about “what can I do to help them solve their problems” rather than “what I want to write” makes it easier for readers to understand your doc. Obviously, everyone’s situation is different but I believe that the general concept of “thinking about your readers” remains the same.
How to improve each page?
Now, focus on pages, how can we improve each of them? Here are some ideas that I want to share.
Choose the type of documentation. In the previous section, we mentioned that there are tutorials, how-to guides, reference material, and explanations. Choosing the type of documentation lets you, the writer, focus on what you want to write and drop what you don’t want.
Define your readers. In the previous section, we mentioned that we need to understand who are your readers and what are their goals. This also helps you for structuring your content.
Keep the read time under 10 minutes. I believe that a long document is very hard for readers. It’s hard to navigate and hard to keep focus for a long time. Depending on the type of document, it may be better to split a big one into smaller ones, each of which serves a different purpose. For example, if an article is mixed with high-level concepts of your framework, a detailed explanation of some components, and a section for describing potential issues. Then, it may be worth splitting it into 3 documents: one focus on describing the high-level concept (tutorial); one focus on the detailed feature of some components (reference materials); and the last one on the troubleshooting (how-to guides). Therefore, it’s easier for your readers.
Having a common thread running through different sections. A common thread is an idea or theme that is consistently present in those sections. It makes the logic easy to follow and keeps the attention of your readers. This common thread can be in one of these dimensions: the timeline, the project development lifecycle, different aspects of the project, upstream and downstream, … It is also a good practice to write the outline before writing the whole documention.
Using diagrams to express your idea. A good diagram is worth a thousand words. It allows you to better express the relationship across multiple dimensions: time, components, exchange protocols, system boundary, object’s lifecycle, synchronization, etc. Also, it is more visual and easy to understand. I use a lot of diagrams in my documentation. To draw and maintain diagrams, here are two important aspects that you need to know:
- Types: there are many types of diagrams, such as flow chart, sequence diagram, class diagram, state diagram, entity relationship diagram, and more. You can choose the type based on what you need.
- Tools: there are many tools that help you to draw diagrams. In my work, I
mainly use GitHub and Confluence. Both of them support
Mermaid: a framework to
draw diagrams from code using a simple syntax. On GitHub, just use
mermaidas the language syntax for your code blocks; on Confluence, there is a Mermaid Diagrams plugin that allows you to describe diagram in code and generate the results for you. For quick drawing, I also use Excalidraw, a whiteboard tool that lets you easily sketch diagrams that have a hand-drawn feel to them. There are other paid tools like Lucidchart.
Using templates to structure your idea. Using templates can help you better structure your document without too much effort. In Confluence, there are Confluence Templates that allow you to bootstrap your document with a predefined style: how-to article, retrospective, troubleshooting article, or product requirements, … they allow you to write documents faster and in a more consistent way over time (both for you and for your team). Here, I am using Confluence as an example, but you can imagine similar things for other documentation products.
There are probably much more details that we can discuss but I want to keep this section concise. I can write another article about this if you are interested. Now, let’s go to the next section, where we are going to talk about how to write less documentation.
Documentation can be really useful, but we don’t write it for its own sake. It’s here to help people to get stuff done. And often through writing documentation, you discover much bigger problems. Maybe the procedure you’re writing is really complicated and messy. Maybe you’re building something that has a concept that is really hard to explain, or maybe you find out that things don’t work in the way that you thought or they should. If you find yourself documenting around the problem, try to fix it may be a better solution. This is what Beth Aitman explained in her presentation Writing effective documentation - YouTube in the conference “Lead Dev” in Berlin. She is a technical writer working at Google.
Now you wrote some pages but it starts becoming hard for readers to find information. So what should you do? It’s time to think about the organization of the pages.
Structure documents into domains. You can put pages into multiple domains, each of them having different purposes. Therefore, when people are looking for pages related to one domain, it’s natural to go to that domain to find it. For example, in a data engineering team, you can imagine having domains: processing, storage, operations, etc. If the team becomes bigger, consider having sub-domains under the top domain, such as processing (service P1, service P2, service P3), storage (writer W1, writer W2, reader R1, reader R2, …), CI/CD (build, release, deployment), operations (alerting, on-call, automation), etc. You can also think it as a file system:
Therefore, it helps people to understand how to find your documents. In Confluence, you can achieve that by using child pages.
Tags. Sometimes you need more ways to group pages. For example, if you want to organize your documents in non-technical aspects (team, project, …). You may need other tools to help you as well. One possible way is to use tags. In Confluence, you can use the macro “Content by Label” to achieve that. You need to add labels to each page that you want to be selected and provide those labels as a query in the macro. Then, you can see them being displayed on your page. Therefore, you can link to multiple pages easily.
Make the title searchable. You need to make the title of the page comprehensible. People do not always look into your documentation through the links that you provided. They may search the title using the search engine (either Google, Confluence search, or anything else). Therefore, the title of your articles plays a critical role in the documentation. People won’t be able to read the awesome content you wrote if they cannot find it in the search engine. See Writing technical documentation (16:00) - YouTube, made by Fredrik Christenson, for more details.
If you want to go further from this article …
- To learn more about Mermaid Diagrams and its syntax, visit the official documentation https://mermaid-js.github.io/mermaid/#/
- To learn more about the four kinds of documentation, watch Daniele Procida’s video “What nobody tells you about documentation” on YouTube.
- To learn more about how to write effective documentation from a Google’s technical writer’s point of view, watch Beth Aitman’s video “How to write effective documentation” on YouTube.
- This article does not mention the maintenance effort, doc versionning, doc generation from code, doc hosting, and more advanced topcis. But they are important aspects to be considered as well.
In this article, we talked about how to write technical documentation, including the 4 types of documentation, the audience, improving each page, how to write less documentation, and how to organize multiple pages. Interested to know more? You can subscribe to the feed of my blog, follow me on Twitter or GitHub. Hope you enjoy this article, see you the next time!
- Beth Aitman, “Writing effective documentation”, Lead Dev Berlin, 2019. https://youtu.be/R6zeikbTgVc
- Daniele Procida, “The four kinds of documentation, and why you need to understand what they are”, Write the Docs Prague, 2017. https://www.writethedocs.org/videos/eu/2017/the-four-kinds-of-documentation-and-why-you-need-to-understand-what-they-are-daniele-procida/
- Fredrik Christenson, “Writing technical documentation”, YouTube, 2018. https://youtu.be/a4L9GhldTHo