Five Quick Diagramming Tips For Tech Writing

Used to be that writing was enough and those of us in the publishing biz followed a pretty simple formula: Writers write, artists make. Things began to change in the late-’90s with the dawn of matrix-balanced metering and balanced fill flash for photography. Suddenly writers and editors could shoot tack-sharp and perfectly exposed photographs to support their stories. A quick crop in Photoshop made creative imagery that much easier. I remember how, almost overnight, the photo budgets at my magazines dropped by tens of thousands of dollars.
A half-decade later mobile photography became the rage – sort of the same way the shakycam grew to dominate TV cop shows and mockudramas. So we’ve come full circle and now, if you want to make a living writing, you need to also make a living making.
One tip I have for anyone who wants to be a professional writer is to learn to shoot excellent photography – especially understand what it means to shoot the creatively correct exposure – and learn to digitally edit your own photos.
But if you make the jump from creative or popular-media writing into tech writing, as I have done, then you’ll need an additional skillset: The ability to create, edit and embed digital illustrations and drawings of various types. Here are some tips to get you started:

  1. Learn The Big 3. In everyday tech writing you’ll primarily deal with three different programs – Visio, Gliffy and PowerPoint. Visio is the gray lady from Microsoft, Gliffy is the new rage (and runs natively in a browser and within wiki), and PowerPoint is loved by the same management that okays your projects and writes your checks (so you love it to!). Hunt out online tutorials and learn these tools. You’ll need them.
  2. Get The Original. Flattened JPEGs and PNGs are no good to the tech writer – you can’t edit them. So do whatever it takes to get hold of the original versions diagrams. These will have file extensions like .vsd (Visio), .gliffy (Gliffy) or .ppt (PowerPoint) and will allow you to add and remove arrows, edit text, delete boxes and all that other great stuff. Most times the diagrams for legacy technology are stuffed away on somebody’s desktop in a forgotten folder. Take the time to hunt around.
  3. Download and install as many shape libraries as you can. Shape libraries are constantly updated with new icons and shapes for different types of networks, machines and appliances. Work with the latest and greatest and your illustrations will stay contemporary. That’s the way to impress.
  4. Don’t get frustrated. I’ve known a lot of writers who shiver and quake the first time they can’t get their arrow to point straight or their text to sit inside of a shape instead of behind it. If you have a problem with a diagramming tool or function, do a bit of research online – just like you would for the written portion of your project. Use a natural-language query in your favorite search engine and you’ll find the solution in a few clicks. Example: “How do I change my arrow color in Powerpoint?”
  5. Harness the power of Shift-Select. Writers use Select-All so much it’s second nature: CTL-A, CTR-C, CRT-V. Works with diagrams too, sometimes. More often, though, you’ll need to highlight and copy certain elements of a diagram. To do this, hold down shift as you click to highlight. Once you’ve highlighted what you need, hit copy and then paste as you wish.

I’m curious: Does anyone out there have any other quick diagramming tips for writers? Let me know with a comment below.