Skip to content

On Document Templates: Searching for Sample Docs

This week I’m talking about how we turn plain copy into effective documents. As I said yesterday, the key to it all is understanding the elements of a document template.

When it comes to professional writing, I start nearly every project with access to the appropriate template for the document type I need to build, and then I just write some copy to fill it. Sometimes, though, I’ve got to build my own template.

Whether you have a template or not, if you’re working with a document type that’s new to you, your best shot at ending up with an effective document is to find some good models to imitate. The process of finding those samples is pretty basic research, but probably worth a review.

Find a Friend

As a professional Tech Writer, I’ve got it easy. If I need a sample for a document type I haven’t encountered before, I can go to my supervisor or either of the two Tech Writer colleagues in my cubicle row, and ask if they’ve got one handy. Even when they don’t, I can check our publishing team’s website for hundreds of published documents in every format we produce.

I end up on the other end of that, too, both with colleagues and with friends. When someone I know needs to write a business letter or format a resume, I’m often the first place they go to get advice. And the first thing I do is give them a good sample of what it should look like.

If you’re a student, ask your professor. Find a paper that got good grades and model yours after that. There’s a huge different between copying organization and style, and plagiarizing content.

Search the Web

Of course, the world’s great archive now is the internet, and if you can’t find a friend or mentor who’s written the document you need, I guarantee you can find someone on the internet who has. The challenge these is finding (and recognizing) a good one.

That’s where yesterday’s lesson comes in (and, for that matter, everything else I say around here). When you know which pieces make up a template, you can look at half a dozen different samples of the same document type, and compare and contrast to reverse-engineer the template behind them all.

If five out of six use the exact same set of section headings, you should probably include those sections in your document, too. If most of them have a cover page, you should build a cover page with most of the same information.

And where they’re different, you get to use your best judgment. Decide which ones are most effective at communicating their messages, and design your own document to match that style.

As I said before, there’s a big difference between copying content and copying organization and style. In the end, as long as you’re not going to run afoul of copyright law or plagiarism rules, it’s worth remembering the immortal words of my high school creative writing teacher:

A good writer is always ready to steal anything that isn’t nailed down.

Comments are closed.