The most important aspect of any technical document is how it’s being formatted. The format differs based on your industry and organization, but also on what kind of documentation it is. Documentation formatting can be done based on industry standards, examples, or using templates.
The best way to go about it is to use templates. However, every company works slightly differently and has different products. That’s why it’s best to use existing templates and documentation formatting examples to custom format your own technical documentation.
In this article, we’ll go over technical documentation formatting best practices and some documentation formatting examples and tips you can use.
Let’s dive right in.
Technical Documentation Formatting Best Practices
Depending on who is writing the technical documentation, the best practices for documentation may be slightly different. That’s because a subject matter expert will talk about the product as they normally do. However, someone who’s trained to translate complex concepts will be able to convert complicated information into easy-to-understand documentation.
In any case, following a 5-step process is usually the best way to go about writing technical documentation, regardless of the format.
- Step One – Start working on doing the necessary research on the subject matter so you can develop a documentation plan. The plan usually includes goals, style guides, topic outlines, existing resources, tools, management software, and a deliverables schedule.
- Step Two – Decide on the documentation structure and design, including the on-page design and the flow of the document. You can use templates for this part, and based on the template; you can create a simple navigation structure.
- Step Three – Start working on creating the content for the documentation based on the documentation plan and structure. Work on a rough draft and try to make it sounds like a conversation. Some technical writers use the 30/90 rule for feedback; however, you should also get peer reviews so you can make revisions and edit accordingly.
- Step Four – Start to deliver and test the documentation to check its safety, ease-of-use, and usability/UX.
- Step Five – Develop a complete maintenance schedule to maintain the documentation’s integrity. Then develop an updated schedule to routinely modify the document according to new developments, feature updates, and more.
The formatting of your technical documentation should always be such that it maximizes its efficiency while providing up-to-date information. More importantly, there is a need for a consistent design and structure to maximize its accessibility around the world.
4 Documentation Formatting Examples
Technical writing has a lot of different types of documentation, each with its own documentation formatting types. For example, journal essays can either be written in MLA or APA style. Furthermore, they have specific requirements for the header, footer, line spacing, filename, indents, page numbers, commas, capitalization, using asterisks, using parentheses, quotation marks, and more.
Similarly, if you’re writing API documentation, it would have different rules for using italics, underlines, checkboxes, table of contents, and more. There’s also a slight change depending on the organization and industry you’re working in.
However, the typical documentation formats tend to remain the same for the most part. The following four documentation formatting examples are usually the industry standard in most cases.
One of the most widely known formats is Doc – an abbreviation of ‘document.’ You’ll find that it’s a filename extension for all word documents.
It started out as an extension that was used to signify any documentation that only had plain text. However, today Microsoft Word and other word processing software allow you to use pictures, graphics, diagrams, and more, making it more than just a plain text document.
The Doc format is a great option if you’re looking to develop a relatively small technical document. Also, if you only need to add text and graphics, you’re well off using the Doc format.
However, if you need to develop technical documentation with hundreds of topics, it may be unwise to use this format. That’s because small inconsistencies can mess up the overall document formatting. As a result, when you get on to printing the document, it may cause unwarranted formatting issues. If you move to fix one page, you may mess up the entire document.
Other than that, Doc files don’t support videos or GIFs; therefore, if you want to add any of those, you can only hyperlink it or provide a direct link for it. In any case, the user would have to open another app or browser to watch the video or GIF.
The PDF (Portable Document Format) format was developed in the 1990s by Adobe as an alternate way to present documents that can include text, images, and graphs, regardless of the operating system, hardware, or application software.
Every PDF file contains a top-to-bottom description of a fixed-layout flat document that includes unique fonts, text, vector graphics, raster images, and other information. It’s crucial to maintain the syntax of English while developing the PDF since a lot of people find it hard to edit afterward.
Nowadays, PDFs have evolved to include different forms of content that also include logical and interactive structuring elements like annotations, form-fields, layers, videos, and 3D objects, among other things.
Furthermore, PDFs also provide additional encryption options, and you can include file attachments, digital signatures, and metadata.
The fact that PDFs allow all forms of content now make it great for document formatting when it comes to technical documentation. Most importantly, PDFs can be opened on practically any device, regardless of the operating system.
For a more technical look into documentation, you have the CHM format that’s a Microsoft proprietary online help format. It includes HTML pages, an index, and various navigation elements that act as a table of contents.
CHM files are compressed and used in a binary format with the extension. That keeps the document size extremely small while ensuring faster loading times.
Otherwise known as Compiled HTML, CHM is used for software documentation. For example, it is normally used for CSS and PHP tutorials, software manuals, and legal documentation like the details of a Creative Commons license.
Despite being designed by Microsoft, CHM formatted files can be opened and viewed by various applications.
It allows for all the basic features like italicize, bold, markup, markdown, and more. More importantly, using a template for CHM format is much more convenient compared to other software documentation formats.
In any case, CHM is a great technical documentation formatting example because of the navigational properties.
4. Online Documentation
Online documentation is usually topic-based information that users can access online for any assistance or information regarding the software. Such documentation can be opened on any browser, regardless of the operating system and software.
The following are the key aspects of online documentation.
- As long as the user has a stable internet connection and a browser, they can access the documentation online.
- Online documentation officially supports all forms of visual content elements, including graphics, vectors, diagrams, GIFs, videos, and more, that can be played inside the document immediately.
- After publishing, your documentation formatting will remain the same from when you designed it. Other formats can mess up your formatting when you’re about to publish or print your documentation.
- Exporting documentation online is easier because you can get several formats for the document. That will help make documentation access easier for different kinds of users with varying systems.
- It’s much easier to use a professional technical writing tool for online documentation. Furthermore, you can make use of other online writing tools like Grammarly to quickly fix any issues.
Lastly, attribution is much easier when using online documentation formatting. You can directly link to other sites, documents, and tools in the documentation itself.
Choosing the Right Documentation Formatting
Technical documentation and technical writing can take on various forms, but it mostly depends on what your objective is. For example, if you’re creating software manuals, it would be best to use CHM documentation formatting. On the other hand, if you’re developing product manuals, you’re better off with PDFs.
Similarly, if you have a web app, cloud-based software, or a website, your best bet is online documentation.
In any case, while you can use any documentation formatting example above, it’s best to stick with the industry-standard because that’s what the users are familiar with.
Depending on your industry, your product/software, and your organization, choose an appropriate documentation formatting example and go with it.
If you are new to technical writing and are looking to break in, we recommend taking our Technical Writing Certification Course, where you will learn fundamentals of being a technical writer, how to dominate technical writer interviews, and how to stand out as a technical writing candidate.