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2   Development Process

Planning the Project

Planning the ProjectNow that you’ve completed the manual plan and know what you’re going to do, you can plan how you’re going to do it. The project work plan is your plan of action for creating the manual. To do a work plan, you’ll need to:

  • identify the activities needed to complete the manual
  • establish the project team and confirm the availability of the people needed to carry out the activities
  • determine the time and expenses for each activity
  • prepare a work schedule (including project milestones)
  • determine the reporting and approval process

Once the project is underway, you’ll need to track the progress of the manual against the milestones you’ve established.

Identifying Project Activities

Plan out the sequence of activities that you’ll have to complete to prepare the manual. These activities typically include:

  • researching and gathering information
  • writing and revising drafts
  • editing the text
  • creating illustrations
  • formatting the pages
  • reviewing and revising the text
  • indexing the text
  • producing the manual (print and online versions)

In chronological order, list the activities needed to complete the manual. Set this list out as a spreadsheet or table (see Figure 2-4).

Figure 2-4: Sample activity breakdown and time estimate prepared at the end of the planning process for a 100-page policy and procedure manual and online manual

It’s sometimes useful to prepare a flow diagram of the planned process to show everyone how the manual will be developed. See the sample flow diagram we developed for one project (Figure 2-5). Yours may be different, but it should lay out the general process and responsibilities of the different parties.

Figure 2-5: Flow diagram of typical development process

Figure 2-5: Flow diagram of typical development process

Assembling the Project Team

Few technical manuals are developed entirely by a single individual. Usually, they are developed by a number of people working together in a team. Here are some of the typical roles of team members. Depending on your abilities and resources, you may find yourself serving more than one role.

Project manager – takes a leading role in planning the manual and guiding it through the various stages to successful completion. Usually closely involved with the work processes or functions being documented. Should have good management skills and the ability to motivate. May also be the lead writer.

Subject matter experts – provide technical content for incorporation into the manual, but may or may not draft sections. May simply be available for interviewing.

Writers – draft sections of the manual based on input from the subject matter experts. May be the subject matter experts. Good writing skills are essential.

Editor – reviews and edits drafts prepared by the writers for conformity to the styleguide and style sheet. May be one of the writers (hopefully, your best writer). Should have excellent writing and editorial skills. The editor can have final approval over editorial aspects of the text, or it can remain with the writer.

Production specialist – develops word processor and online authoring tool templates, and operates other specialized software, such as graphics software needed to prepare the manual. Formats the print manual and helps in setting up the automated table of contents, cross-references, and index. Converts the files and uses an authoring tool to set up and test the online manual. Must have excellent computing skills and experience with the software used to produce both print and online publications.

Reviewers – review drafts of the manual for completeness and accuracy. Should include representatives of the manual users. Clearly identify all reviewers and make sure they also review the document plan.

Approver – endorses the manual and approves it for release. Must have authority over the functions covered.

Plan your team so that all of the above functions are covered. Go through your list of tasks and activities and ask yourself, “Who’s going to do this?” Talk to them about their participation and make sure they’re available and interested.

Contractors and Consultants

If you don’t have all the skills you need in-house, think about using freelancers or outside firms. The writer, editor, and production specialist roles are those most frequently contracted out. Individuals can be brought in to supplement the skills on your team, or you can contract out the development of the whole manual.

Professionals specializing in writing and producing technical publications usually call themselves technical writers. Contact the Society for Technical Communication for references to technical writers in your area. Look for those with a track record developing your type of manual, review their samples carefully, and always contact their references.

Estimating the Time Required

Estimate the time needed to complete each activity. You’ll probably want to get the other team members to help you. As you become more experienced, this will become easier, but even experienced writers often have difficulty estimating their time accurately.

Using the activity breakdown and estimated number of pages of text and other materials developed earlier (see Figure 2-2 and Figure 2-4), estimate how long it will take to complete each activity. If you’ve broken the activities down well, you’ll be able to estimate each one with reasonable confidence. Create a column for each team member or role, including project manager, subject experts, writers, editor, reviewers, and production specialist. For each activity, estimate the number of hours of work that will be spent by each person or role. Total the rows and columns so that everyone can see how much time will be spent by activity and by person.

Most professionals estimate time using certain rules of thumb, such as the time per page to draft the text or to create illustrations. Table 2-1, Estimating rules of thumb, provides some guidelines. Yours may be different than these, but they will give you a rough idea of how long each activity takes.

Table 2-1: Estimating rules of thumb

Activity Time (per page)
researching and writing 1.5 hours
rewriting existing text 1 hour
editing 15 minutes
formatting 15 minutes
preparing flow diagrams 1 hour
designing and creating forms 2 hours
proofreading 5 minutes
reviewing 5 minutes
indexing 10 minutes

The time actually required will vary depending on the difficulty of the subject matter and the experience of the person. For example, an experienced writer may take an average of only an hour per page to write the text, while an inexperienced writer might take twice or even three times as long, and the results might also take longer to edit.

Identify clearly the assumptions you’ve used in your estimates. For example, if you’ve assumed that you’ll be using a word processor that you are familiar with, and not a new desktop publishing package that you haven’t learned yet, state this as an assumption. The formatting and production will probably take you a lot longer if you have to learn new software as you go.

Also be wary of the time needed to resolve issues that are not really part of your project. For example, in the course of writing a policy manual, it may become clear that your organization doesn’t have a policy on a particular subject and one should be developed. Or that the policy it does have needs to be changed. This re-engineering work is inevitable and should be factored into your time estimates.

If you’ve developed manuals before, revise the rules of thumb based on your experience within your organization. And continue to refine them or add other rules of thumb as you gain more experience.

Of course, the actual time required to complete the manual will probably vary from your estimate, but the estimate gives team members a good indication of what their involvement will be and lets them plan and schedule their other work priorities. It also lets managers know in advance the extent of staff involvement as they budget staff time and resources.

Estimating Online Manuals

The time required to write and produce an online manual is virtually the same as the time required to write and produce a print manual. Most of the rules of thumb provided earlier apply to online manuals as well. The primary difference is that instead of using word processing software to lay out the pages, you’ll use authoring software (you’ll probably still use word processing software to write the manual).

Of course, if you’ve never published online before, it will take you longer because you’ll have to learn new software. But once you’ve got some experience, you’ll probably find that there’s little time difference between publishing in print and publishing online.

If you’re planning to provide both a print manual and an online manual, it will take you longer. How much longer will depend on how different the two forms of the manual will be and the authoring software you choose.

Estimating Printing and Production Costs

Depending on the number of copies of the print publication, your printing and production costs can be significant and should be estimated for budgeting purposes. Estimate the costs for the following:

  • printing review copies
  • courier or mailing costs (if significant)
  • printing the text
  • binders and divider tabs
  • covers (if separate from binders)
  • contract services, such as editor or production specialist
  • software needed to complete the project (and hardware, if applicable)

Scheduling the Project

Your time estimate will tell you exactly how much time will likely be needed to complete each activity involved in preparing the manual. Now you can prepare a schedule showing the exact dates on which the activities will be started and finished. Most writers use a simple hand-drawn schedule diagram, but you can use project scheduling software if you have it.

No deadline is impossible to the person who doesn't have to meet it.

— William Horton

If you’ve already been given a deadline for completing a manual, then you’ll need to schedule backwards. Start with the delivery of the completed manual and work backwards through all the activities. Hopefully, you’ll have enough time to complete the manual. If you discover that you should have started months ago, then look for ways of speeding up the process, such as by getting more resources for the team. Beware, though: simply adding more people to the team doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll complete the manual faster, since coordinating the efforts of more people requires more and longer meetings, more editing, and better communications and coordination.

Figure 2-6: Schedule of typical development process

Figure 2-6: Schedule of typical development process

Indicate review points and other key milestones. Give yourself a little extra time for each activity—sometimes there are unforeseen delays that are beyond your control, such as sickness, or higher priority projects. The schedule will help you work out the critical path—the sequence of activities that will limit how quickly you can complete the manual.

Even though most projects don’t seem to work out the way they are scheduled, preparing a schedule is still valuable because it lets you work out the interconnections between the different activities and establish the interim milestones and final completion date. Schedules also let the other participants see and understand the deadline for their contribution. If your project slips, revise your schedule and re-issue it to team members.