Piecemeal Editing in the Agile Environment

Last week, I had a detailed conversation with one of my regular readers. While chatting over a few miscellaneous items, we drifted into talking about technical writing in the Agile-based environment. That is when he asked the following question. My answer led the discussion to more questions. This post is about those questions and answers:

In a lot of companies, which either follow the Agile methodology or claim to have sprints that are designed inspired from the Agile methodology, the technical communicators don’t have enough time for reviews and edits. How do you address challenges that arise in such situations?

I answered: As a technical communicator, I do a lot of things that majorly fall under either writing or editing. In a lot of my previous professional stints where we worked in an Agile-based environment, we could not afford exhaustive edit iteration cycles. So, we ran short edit cycles; mostly, quick checklist-based scans. For the most part, as writers and editors, we implemented our own versions of piecemeal editing.

Hey, what is piecemeal editing?

When pressed for the documentation delivery deadlines, writers and editors observe increasingly shorter cycles of creating, finalizing, publishing, and republishing the technical content. In fact, mostly they only get to republish the technical content, and not create any.

I’d call piecemeal editing as considering working and finalizing on parts of technical content rather than focusing on the whole project. It is a conditional response – an ad hoc arrangement, or sort of, at least – which is subject to the change in the prevailing situations. When you are pressed for time, you tend to focus on what’s:

  • Urgent
  • Important
  • Not worth missing

So, piecemeal editing is focusing on producing “just good enough” parts of documents that can qualify as a document when put together. The documents may still not be complete, yet will certainly contain everything the customers need to get things done.

How does it benefit?

Piecemeal editing is breaking the documentation plan down by focusing on making the instructions in your documents workable. You don’t cover the details, but still get to list everything that matters. You also don’t get to fix bugs, but still create error-free documentation. So, you save a lot of time and effort by concentrating on what needs your attention. This makes the writing clearer and to the point.

Are there any challenges?

Yes; much like every other thing. In the Agile development environment, the technical reviews and technical edits aren’t exhaustive. The editors do not have a lot of time to repetitively (Or, at least more than once) run through the writing process/the written stuff. So, all they get to do is keep a check to not miss out on anything critical.

If, for example, your organization assumes implementing the Agile software development methodology, you will continue to run in similar shorter sprints. This means you won’t get time to look into your legacy documentation or be able to edit and improve the quality of the technical content.

Then there’s another big issue: Unification. Piecemeal editing is One Thing at a Time, and not the whole thing at a time. Because of this, the contextual information that derives cues from the unification of information fragments often gets missed.

However, the biggest threat lies not in the process, but in the way it is often perceived implemented. When rushed, most writers become blind toward their mistakes. They overlook the errors by mentally placing words and associating meanings that the actual documents often don’t reflect. In absence of sufficient time, writers release the unedited versions of their content.

How do you resolve such issues? Or, are there any workarounds?

Technical documentation is always a collaborative effort – even if you are the only technical communicator in your organization. Here’s what I’ve tried and have succeeded at achieving:

  • When I worked as the lone writer, I would share the documents with the development/testing stakeholders. They designed and tested the product. So, they knew its limits. Also, when there weren’t any developers or testers around, I would perform edits the next morning, read those documents aloud, or just review the write-ups on a projector. Believe me, the text looks entirely different when you read it on a projector.
  • When I worked in teams, we would perform peer reviews. We would cross check the write-ups to make sure that we didn’t miss out on anything critical. Although, the writers would still remain primarily responsible for the quality of their documents.

But, here is, I believe, the BIGGEST condition: You cannot have piecemeal writing, but you can have piecemeal editing. It is “one thing at a time” as far as only editing is concerned. Writing will still focus on quality. Writing will still require commitment: The commitment toward creating and communicating correct information; in parts and in the totality. What’s your take at that?