The Best Technical Document in the World

This past weekend I served as a consensus judge at STC’s International Technical Publications Competition (ITPC). I’ve participated before, as a telephone (remote) judge, on-site judge, and Best-of-Show judge. This year STC conducted an experiment in cost cutting. The Boston and Northern New England chapters, which (if I do say so myself as a member and local participant) jointly run one of the strongest local competitions, were asked to host the judging and provide the bulk of the International judges. We rose to the challenge, and In the Publications competition more than half of the 12 on-site judges were local members (who yet had International experience).

The competitions themselves are one of the major events in the Society. Winners of Awards of Distinction at local competitions in publications, art, and online categories are eligible for the International competition. Winners of Awards of Distinction in each of the three categories in the International competition are eligible for the Best of Show awards.

Each category has slightly different criteria, but broadly speaking we looked at writing and organization, copyediting, and visual design and production–corresponding roughly to the work products of writers, editors, and illustrators. The criteria are hardly rocket science. They’re highly practical questions, such as how concise the writing is, whether there are copyediting mistakes, whether graphics are crisp and clear, and whether the work product is free from defects. We’re not awarding prizes for the longest entry, or the most colorful, or the fanciest print job, but whether entries are well designed, well executed, and effective.

I had ten entries to judge, including annual reports, magazines, quick-reference job aids, training materials, and software manuals. They were all good. solid, professional pieces, and I would be proud to have created every one of them. As always, I learned a few things from each, and like the other judges I took pains to critique each entry as objectively, thoroughly, and constructively as possible, as if the entrant were a colleague asking me face-to-face for my opinion. It took me a at least a couple of hours to go through each entry, and another hour or two to complete each judging form. So it’s a significant commitment of time. A PDF sample of the judging form is here.)

The value to entrants at both the local and international level is multifold. I worked in a group that won a high international award, and when the company issued a press release announcing our win, the stock went up, increasing our capitalization $1 million in a day–not bad! And it’s great to be recognized by your peers with an award. But there’s also the value of feedback. How else can you get at least three–more if you’re lucky!–professional technical communicators closely examine your technical document and provide thorough feedback, and for a good price at that?

A conmment on the best-of-show process: If you think it’s hard to compare a quick-reference card with a 300-page software reference guide, try picking the best of show! It’s like comparing apples, oranges, and chocolate cakes. Sometimes the consensus process is long and arduous, but sometimes, believe it or not, the winner jumps out at you as being obviously superior to the other entries (distinguished winners all).

This year’s winners? Come to the Summit and see them!

Published by Steven Jong

I am a lifelong technical communicator, a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), a former STC board member, and chair of the first STC Certification Commission. I occasionally blog about these and other topics.

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