These days, everyone is trying to sell you on the “next big thing” for improving content quality. From XML authoring tools, to new CCMS systems, to quality checklists and quality checkers, there is no shortage of tools on the market. And while many of these tools are extremely helpful, most come with a fairly high price tag.
Before you go and spend tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars, and disrupt your entire workflow, why not try using the tools you have at your disposal? Here are six quality improvement tools that I’m sure you already have:
1. Your spellchecker.
I know, it is ludicrous for me to start this list by suggesting that you should use a spellchecker. “DUH??” Yes, we all know that we should spellcheck. But if we do it so well, why do we still find typos in so many of our documents?
There are a couple of reasons for why you might be finding typos in your documents, even after you run your spellchecker. The first is that you simply forgot to spellcheck. That’s a fairly easy one to fix. Find some type of rhythm or some way of forcing yourself to run spellcheck each and every time you close the file. As Nike says, “Just do it.”
What if you ran spellcheck and you still have errors? If this happens, it is quite possible that you accidentally (or purposefully) put an incorrectly spelled word into a custom dictionary in your authoring tool. Not every authoring tool allows you to create a custom dictionary, but many of them do.
Have you ever run a spellcheck and accidentally clicked “Accept” rather than “Change” for an incorrectly spelled word? I know I have. It’s an easy mistake to make. How many of us actually go back to the custom dictionary to remove the misspelled word? I can tell you with a great deal of embarrassment, that I have rarely done this. I always mean to go back and correct the misspelled word. But, in the throes of getting a draft ready for review or production, the last thing I have time to do is stop and correct my custom dictionary. And then, of course, I completely forget about it. Or I remember, but I forget which word I need to fix.
If this situation has happened to you, take the time to clean out any custom dictionaries that you have. You should be able to find instructions for removing a word from the dictionary in the help system that came with your authoring tool.
2. Your style guide.
I know, another no brainer. But, when was the last time you actually looked at your style guide? Was it this week? Last week? How about “not since my third week of being employed by the company”? Let’s admit it, just like you don’t have time to correct a misspelled word in a custom dictionary, you don’t have time to stop and check the style guide. You certainly mean to, but you figure that after being with the company for 6 years, you have internalized all of the styles. And, of course, you are wrong about that.
Rather than thinking about the style guide while you are writing or editing, try reading through it when you are between projects or some during some other non-writing time. If you can, try “marking” it up, such as annotating a PDF or even using a highlighter on a printed version. If you go through the style guide with your own highlighter (electronic or physical), you are more likely to remember what it contains. You can also mark up the sections that are a big surprise to you.
3. A standard style guide.
What if you don’t have a style guide? Many companies do not. If you have no style guide and you are a lone author, I have good news. You can use a standard style guide that is available commercially. Most of my customers use the Chicago Manual of Style as the basis for their styles. But there are others available. Unfortunately, the commercial style guides tend to be enormous. The Chicago Manual has over 1,000 pages. This makes using a commercial style guide more cumbersome and tedious, because you have to wade through the things you don’t care about to find the things you do care about. Even so, it is important if you want to improve the quality of your content.
If you are a member of a writing team and you do not have a style guide, things can get rather messy. The best thing to do is create a style guide. Short of creating a style guide, your team can agree on which commercial guide everyone is going to use. Then, everyone needs to get a copy and take some time to go through it. If it is enormous (like the Chicago Manual), you will have to skim. Consider having a couple of meetings or even a series of brown bag lunches (or virtual lunches) to agree on which styles are the most important for your team.
4. A thesaurus.
My thesaurus is one of the most-loved tools in my quality tool box. I use it all the time. Whether I am trying to recall the “perfect” word, or I’m simply looking for a better way to say something, I consult my thesaurus almost every time I write. Some authoring tools have a built-in thesaurus. I tend to use independent online resources. There are a number of thesauruses available (yes, I looked up the plural of thesaurus). Merriam-Webster has one, dictionary.com has one, even versions of the old standby, Roget’s Thesaurus, are available online.
5. An editor.
It should go without saying. If you are lucky enough to work at a company that has editors, congratulations! The job of your editor is to ensure the quality of what you write. Sadly, many companies have eliminated their editors in order to save money. If you have an editor, be sure to appreciate him or her. Your editor can teach you so much. I remember when my editor taught me the difference between “since” and “because.” I was already a professional writer, yet I still had trouble with those two words. I’ll never forget it (Thanks, Amy).
A word to the wise: It can be difficult to read through edits without taking them personally. And though we all say, “Oh yes. I know. I never do that,” it can still be difficult. If you catch yourself getting defensive, stop yourself. You can discuss an edit without emotion. The only emotion that an editor deserves is gratitude.
6. Peer review.
The sixth and final quality tool that you already have available are your peers. Peer review is a very important step to help ensure the quality of your content. This is particularly true if you have no editors on your team.
If you are a member of a team, you can work with other writers to swap content reviews. I know what you are thinking. You are thinking that you don’t have the time to review someone else’s work and someone else doesn’t have the time to review yours. I understand. But, we are talking about ways to improve quality without spending money. Peer review can play a valuable role in the process. That means you and your peers will have to take the time to do the review.
If you are a lone author, it is more of a challenge to find a peer to review your work. Consider buddying up with authors in other groups. For example, the person responsible for developing training courses might be very happy to work with you on mutual peer reviews. Perhaps there is someone creating knowledge base articles who can help. Or one of the writers in marketing. I have one customer who uses their finance person, because she happens to be an excellent editor. If you don’t have a built-in team, it is definitely more difficult to find a peer to help you. But try.
Oh for a Quality Assurance Tool
If your company is considering the purchase of a quality assurance tool, that’s fantastic. I much prefer a bona fide content quality tool that is consistent and accurate. However, lack of money is not an excuse for poor quality content. Using the tools that you already have, I bet you will see the quality of your content improve.