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Documentation vs. The Wikitorial

posted Dec 11, 2011, 8:21 PM by Jen Brass Jenkins   [ updated Dec 13, 2011, 8:58 PM ]

Worries of a Sewing Tutorialist

Yes, you read that right. You see I’m coming up on that epic experience of every individual’s life (whether you experience it formally or through the “school of life”): the Master’s Project. Because of my background as sewist (I have seen this word used and it does seem fitting), sewing teacher, stitcher (professional costume sewist), costumer, alterationist, tailor-in-waiting—you get the picture—I have a plethora of experience in teaching sewing; hence, I have decided to design a tutorial for my Master’s project, specifically a sewing tutorial. While this may not seem as technical an art as software documentation or engineering wiki management, I find it plenty challenging. Sewing, as some of you may know, is far more technical than the occasional observer may guess.

Now, it also just so happens that I am taking a class in professional and technical writing this semester as my last, ever, class in grad school. Little did I know it would become so fundamentally helpful in my tutorial crafting process! Covering such epic topics as genre revision of technical writing texts (video, screencasting, podcasting, anyone?) and the scholarly identification and analysis of the current technical evolution (Selber, 2010), this class has seriously altered my thinking on the crafting of tutorials. For example, Selber writes about the following rhetorical formats in technical writing today:

  • Self-Contained Instructions Sets
  • Embedded Instruction Sets
  • Open Instruction Sets

Incidentally, I have been able to identify each of these formats with the available methods of sewing documentation and instruction. Here are the equivalent instruction sets from the sewing universe:

  • Pattern Instructions (Heaven help us.)
  • Pattern Instructions

  • CDs and other expertly crafted instruction websites (do I really have to buy that product to make my project look that way?)

  • Nancy's Notions

  • Self-created blogs and video tutorials uploaded to YouTube (another case of: “Heaven help us.”)

Do It Yourself Tutorials

As a sewing professional and teacher, all three of these instruction sets set my teeth on edge. As a general rule, I look over pattern instructions and throw them to the side (OK, I don’t really even do that anymore unless they are complicated), I certainly can’t stand the commercially produced videos and websites (Sewing with Nancy, Husqvarna’s Sewing Room) that mainly push products (with some acknowledgement of the user), but I shudder most at the DIY blogs and tutorials that you can find on every single sewing and crafting blog out there. This wikitorial approach to tutorials is often a far more interactive experience for the user, but the quality! I often wonder if users have any clue as to what they are getting.

So here I am, stuck somewhere between hard-core, product-centered documentation and the mires of user-centered wikitorialism. What is a sewist to do? To date, with my class lessons in mind, I have identified these features as being necessary for a teaching-centered tutorial with users in mind:

  •  Written instructions delineated from project and machine actions
  •  Graphics that enhance the instruction modules
  • Navigation including easily recognizable entry and exit points
  • Video tutorial inclusion
  • Elements of information design

Hopefully, these will put me ahead of the wikitionaryists and on the more favorable side of the documentationists. I have also conducted a round of surveys asking potential users what they would like to see in a sewing tutorial and what would be of most help for them (with several more rounds of usability testing in the foreseeable future).

But still, I worry. Will I be able to maintain a balance between documentation and outright, unstructured wikitorialism? Can I craft tutorials that are compelling, consistent, and easy to use? Will I survive the video-tutorial shooting process? (Pardon the digression, but the idea of shooting video tutorials terrifies me.) These worries are, however, all the same ones faced by other technical writers today. From our background as writers of self-contained instruction sets we must set forth into the wild west of the wiki or, to remain relevant, strike a balance somewhere in between. From documentation to wikitorials, the technical communication world is in flux. Thank goodness it’s not just me caught in this evolutionary activity.

So to all of us, may the best communicator win.


Selber, Stuart A. (2010). A Rhetoric of Electronic Instruction Sets. Technical Communication Quarterly, 19(2), 95–117.