Documentation plans–Part 2

There are six basic sections of a typical documentation plan:

  • overview
  • marketing
  • production information
  • staffing requirements
  • schedule
  • outline

Note: You can use the same general structure for documentation plans for contract writing assignments, manuals, or online help. The information you include varies depending on the type of writing project, but the overall format is the same.

The overview section states the scope and purpose of the project, defines the audience, gives the relationship to any other projects, and identifies the responsibilities of you and the publisher. It also identifies the general details for the handoff of the finished product (how many copies and in what general form). What you put in the overview is not a binding legal description unless the information is included by reference in the actual publisher’s contract (some publishers may want to do this), but it spells out a lot of details that might otherwise get lost or misinterpreted.

The marketing section identifies ways in which the book can be marketed. (Most publishers don’t expect authors to lift a finger to help them market, so showing that you’re able and willing to supply marketing opportunities may impress them.) Be sure that you can also point to the competition in the field—no publisher wants to walk into a heavily populated field without warning—and how and why this book will beat all of them. Also mention if there are opportunities for co-marketing or bundling with the product. Dan Gookin’s classic book DOS for Dummies was already a bestseller even before Microsoft bundled it with their MS-DOS 6.2 release; in its day, there were millions of copies in print. Riding on a product’s coattails will help you, and can frequently help the product, too. Don’t be afraid to aim high with your marketing ideas.

The production information section discusses what the finished product will look like, and how you intend to get there. What style will be used for the book? What format and page size? Art requirements? Some of this is dictated by the publisher, but you should be able to estimate the number of pages and the type and approximate quantity of illustrations your book will have. You’ll probably also have an idea of what the book should look like overall, so mention this in the proposal.

The staffing section discusses who will be doing the reviews and which kind. It also identifies the technical editor (usually a reviewer with background in the field you’re writing about), illustrator, proofreader, indexer, and other related personnel. At the beginning of a project, most of these are likely to be unknown.

The schedule section lists the proposed schedule along with any assumptions about the schedule. Be as specific as possible. Budget for vacations, holidays, and life requirements (such as doing taxes, birthdays, and so on). Leave yourself as much room as you can near the end of the book to make up time—there’s never enough.

Finally, the outline section presents an in-depth outline of the book. A detailed outline is a requirement for a good book proposal! The editor can clearly identify the focus of your book and offer specific suggestions before you begin writing on how to change or improve the book to better fit the publisher’s marketing plans.

By the way, a documentation plan is best when it’s a living document. As a project progresses, you should make changes to the plan to reflect changes in staffing, schedule, or (most importantly) the outline. Whenever you make a material change, you should also send a copy of the revised documentation plan to your editor so they’re up to date as well.

BTW, don’t worry if this seems a little unclear to you. This is a brief discussion of the general information you need in a documentation plan. If you have a format you like that covers this, then you can use it. If you don’t or you’d like to try something else, I’m going to be posting a detailed series on how to create a documentation plan, including information on how to use it and a downloadable template, as soon as I wrap up this set of blog posts.

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