Manage Progress

Lead Writer: Kieran Morgan | Peer Reviewer/s: Amanda Butler | Managing Editor: Kieran Morgan

This chapter provides a comprehensive guide for tracking and managing progress in technical writing projects. It explores various tools and methodologies, including Checklists, Status Trackers, Visual Management Boards, and Project Schedules, offering practical advice on their application. The chapter equips writers and managers with strategies to efficiently manage milestones, adapt to changes, and ensure timely completion of technical documentation tasks.

Audience Icon Who Should Read This
• Beginner Technical Writers
• Career Advancers
• Managers of Technical Writers
• Project Managers
• Cross-Domain Professionals
• Consultants
Table of Contents: Technical Writing Process
Previous: Chapter 24: Publish
Table of Contents: Project Management for Technical Writers
Previous: Chapter 8: Develop ScheduleNext: Coming soon!

1. Introduction

Imagine steering a ship through a misty sea without a compass—that’s what tackling a technical writing project without tracking progress can feel like. In the ocean of tasks and deadlines, it’s easy to lose sight of your destination.

This chapter is your compass. From the chaos of unmanaged tasks to the calm of a well-organized project, we’ll guide you through the essentials of managing progress. Whether you’re juggling multiple documents or focusing on a single, critical deliverable, the tools and techniques presented here—Checklists, Status Trackers, Visual Management Boards, and Project Schedules—will illuminate your path. You’ll stay on course, meet your deadlines, and keep your sanity intact.

Whether you’re a solo writer tracking to someone else’s deadline or a senior writer managing a complex project, this chapter will be valuable. It will equip you with the knowledge and skills needed to navigate the waters of technical writing project management with confidence.

Tip Icon Tip
Integrate Your Workflow With the Project Team
As technical writers, we’re often part of larger projects, making it essential to align with the project team’s workflow and tools.

Consider these examples:
• You’re part of an Agile software development project where the team uses issue tracking software for development. Align with them by using the same software for tracking your documentation progress. Participate in sprint meetings and daily stand-ups to stay informed and add your input.
• Your project manager organizes regular status meetings to keep the Project Schedule up-to-date. Make sure you’re a consistent attendee. Keep them informed about your progress and any potential delays in meeting documentation milestones.

Being integrated with the project team’s tools is vital. This brings more visibility to your efforts and ensures they’re in line with the overall project objectives.

1.1. When Do I Start Managing Progress?

Managing progress underpins all other activities in the Technical Writing Process—it’s an ongoing activity throughout the duration of your project. This is why we depict it along the bottom rung of the process diagram in Chapter 7: Tailor the Process | 2. [Theory] The Technical Writing Process.

It’s an essential step in any well-run documentation project, but it’s something you can’t begin before you’ve done your homework. Before managing progress, you’ll need to set up the framework so you can do so effectively. This revolves around two activities: defining your high-level workflow and breaking down the scope of your project into detailed tasks.

These two activities go hand-in-hand:

  1. Structuring workflow. Defining your writing process helps you understand the macro phases of your workflow, creating a structured framework for each topic and task to progress through, such as Design > Write > Edit > Review > Approve > Publish. You’ll use these high-level phases as the stages in your progress tracker. For more information on how to do this, see Chapter 7: Tailor the Process.
  2. Estimating scope. Breaking down your project’s scope into more detailed topics and tasks is an essential step in managing progress. It allows you to view your project as a series of smaller chunks of work, which can be marked off in your progress tracker one by one, giving you a more accurate view of progress. For more guidance, see Chapter 13: Estimate Scope, Time, and Cost.

2. [Theory] Checklists, Status Trackers, Visual Management Boards, and Schedules

This section introduces some straightforward tools you can use to manage progress. For each tool, we’ve provided a template or example: Technical Writing Process Checklist, Status Tracker Template, and Sample Documentation Project Schedule.

Read the sections below to learn more about each tool.

2.1. Checklists

Checklists are a simple yet effective way to manage progress for an individual document or topic. They consist of an itemized list of tasks or checks that each document must undergo, typically organized under various headings. Once all checks are complete, the checklist can be moved from an “In Progress” to a “Done” state.

Simplicity: Straightforward and easy to use.
Efficiency: Help in quickly identifying completed and pending tasks.
Clarity: Provide a clear view of what needs to be done, reducing the chance of missing steps.
Over-simplification: May oversimplify complex tasks, leading to insufficient planning.
Checklist fatigue: Frequent use can lead to complacency, where items are checked off without proper attention.

How Does It Work?

We’ve created a Simplified Technical Writing Process Checklist for a single document or topic, following the phases of the Technical Writing Process. If you’re looking for something more detailed, check out our comprehensive checklist. It includes detailed tasks and deliverables. You can find it at Technical Writing Process Checklist.

Insight Icon Insight
From Paper Trails to Digital Footprints
Once upon a time, completing checklists was a physical task, involving moving a checklist from an in-tray to an out-tray (yes, an actual wooden or plastic tray!). The presence of a checklist in the in-tray signaled to the team that new work was incoming. Moreover, the size of the in-tray served as a clear indicator of the team’s backlog size. These days, many teams—especially those comprising knowledge workers—have shifted to using virtual systems.

2.2. Status Trackers

At its core, a Status Tracker is a straightforward yet effective tool for keeping an eye on the progress of your writing tasks. Usually set up as a spreadsheet, it lets you monitor various stages of your documents or deliverables. It’s perfect for those who like their project management tools simple and to the point.

Here’s an example of a Status Tracker in action, using our Status Tracker Template:

Ease of use: User-friendly and easy to set up.
No special software required: Can be created with common spreadsheet applications.
Team accessibility: Shareable with team members for collaborative updating.
Customizable: Can be tailored to fit the specific needs of your project.
Lacks automated features: No built-in workflow routing or notification systems.
Manual updates: Requires regular manual updating to maintain accuracy.
Limited scalability: May become cumbersome for very large projects with numerous tasks.

How Does It Work?

Status trackers work by assigning statuses or percentages to various stages of your project. In the example below, we’ve used milestones from the Technical Writing Process to monitor the progress of deliverables such as documents and topics.

As well as tracking percent completion, the risk to the delivery of each milestone can be visually represented by assigning a “RAG” (Red, Amber, and Green) status. This provides a clear visual cue indicating whether a deliverable is on track, or if it has encountered issues and requires closer management or escalation.

2.3. Visual Management Boards

As the name suggests, Visual Management Boards provide a more visual way to track progress and manage tasks, making them a great choice for managing writing projects. Though they require a little more effort to set up than a Status Tracker, they offer numerous advantages. These include improved visibility, easier collaboration within a team, and the satisfying sense of accomplishment you get when moving cards to a “Done” state.

These boards originate from methodologies like Lean and Agile. They’re driven by the need to reduce waste, improve workflow, and enhance team collaboration. You might have heard of them already—common types are Kanban Boards and Sprint Boards. They can be physical or digital, with tools like Trello or Microsoft Planner offering online platforms that are easy to use. These options are affordable and scalable, suitable for small teams and startups as well as large organizations.

Visual clarity: Offers a clear overview of the project’s current status at a glance.
Flexibility: Easily adaptable to changes in project scope or priorities.
Enhanced collaboration: Facilitates team communication and coordination among team members.
Focus on efficiency: Helps in identifying and reducing workflow bottlenecks.
Potential over-simplification: May not capture complex dependencies between tasks.
Requires discipline: To be effective, it must be kept up-to-date.

How Do They Work?

Visual Management Boards use columns to represent workflow stages and “cards” to represent tasks. Tasks are moved from one column to another as they progress to completion.

Below is an example of one particular type, called a Kanban Board. This sample uses the phases of the Technical Writing Process as its workflow stages, and topics in a technical document as cards.

Each card on a Visual Management Board can include more detailed steps, facilitating a rigorous quality assurance process. The sample card below shows a hypothetical sequence of tasks—effectively a topic-by-topic checklist—for developing a single topic, from planning through to publication.

2.3.1. Kanban Boards vs. Sprint Boards in Technical Writing Projects

Kanban Boards and Sprint Boards are related but uniquely distinct variations on Visual Management Boards. The main difference lies in how tasks are moved and managed, rather than in the use of the visual tool: Kanban focuses on a concept called continuous flow,1 while Sprint Boards operate within the defined timeframe of sprints.

  • Sprint Boards: These are typically used in Agile project management and center around short, time-boxed periods called sprints, where specific tasks are completed.
  • Kanban Boards: These are more flexible, focusing on continuous delivery without the time constraints of sprints.
Kanban BoardsSprint Boards
Kanban, from the Japanese word for “signboard,” was developed in the 1950s by Taichi Ohno of Toyota to enhance manufacturing processes.2 It’s particularly effective for projects that evolve and require flexibility. Kanban boards visually represent work at various stages using columns and cards. They focus on the prioritization of tasks, allowing for a continuous flow and adjustment based on current priorities. This method is excellent for promoting collaboration, tracking progress, and identifying bottlenecks. Kanban is particularly suitable for projects where tasks evolve over time and where deadlines are flexible.Central to Agile project management, sprint boards revolve around sprints—short, focused periods of work aimed at completing specific tasks. Originating in software development, they are now widely applied in numerous fields for managing time-sensitive projects. Sprint boards encourage a structured, goal-oriented approach, where tasks are tackled intensively within the defined timeframe of a sprint. This method fosters a sense of urgency and focus, making it ideal for projects with clear goals and tight deadlines. Sprint boards are effective for ensuring rapid progress and adaptability in fast-paced, collaborative environments.

2.4. Schedules

If you’ve built a Project Schedule and feel confident in your project management abilities, schedules can be a powerful tool for tracking a project’s overall progress. They’re especially valuable in managing complex projects where the workflow has numerous dependencies and involves multiple team members.

Detailed oversight: Allows for tracking detailed aspects of project progress, ensuring nothing is overlooked.
Predictive planning: Aids in forecasting the impact of task evolution on deadlines for proactive management.
Complexity: Maintaining schedules can be challenging, particularly for large projects with numerous elements.
Time-consuming: Regular updates to the schedule can be demanding in terms of time and effort.

How Does It Work?

In Chapter 14: Develop Schedule, we explore the basics of developing a Project Schedule using fundamental project management techniques. There’s also a customizable Sample Documentation Project Schedule available for you to tailor to your project’s needs.

Already developed your schedule? Great! Managing progress then revolves around consistently updating tasks and milestones as they’re completed. It’s also important to stay adaptable, introducing new tasks and milestones as your project progresses. This helps in accurately forecasting how changes might affect your deadline and lets you proactively address potential delays.

2.5. Advanced Options

For those of you ready to dive deeper, there’s a world of complex options out there for advanced users. If you’re familiar with these systems and have the time to invest, you can create much more intricate workflow management systems than what we’ve covered. Platforms like Atlassian Jira and Smartsheet provide seasoned users with a range of features, including customizable workflows, automated notifications and reminders, role-based permissions, and more.

3. [Practice] Manage Progress

3.1. Step 1: Define Your Writing Process

Before you can start managing progress, you’ll need to identify the high-level phases in your writing process. These provide an overall framework for tracking progress, creating meaningful workflow stages such as Design > Write > Edit > Review > Approve > Publish for each topic and task. For an in-depth discussion about creating a tailored writing process unique to your requirements, see Chapter 7: Tailor the Process.

3.2. Step 2: Break Down Scope

Now that you’ve defined the macro stages of your workflow, you’ll need to break down your documentation project’s scope into more detailed tasks, such as writing an individual topic, conducting a review, obtaining approval, and so on. This is called estimating, and it’s a precursor to all the steps below—an essential element of the overall planning process. We discuss estimating in depth in Chapter 13: Estimate Scope, Time, and Cost.

3.3. Step 3: Choose Your Progress Tracker

Next, identify the tool that best fits your project’s needs for managing progress. Think about your project’s complexity, how many writers are involved, and how comfortable you are with various tools. You can either begin from scratch or customize one of our templates to meet the unique needs of your project:

3.4. Step 4: Set Up Progress Tracker

After selecting your tool, customize it for your project:

  • Checklists and Status Trackers: Establish workflow stages and tasks mirroring your writing process.
  • Visual Management Boards: Adapt your board with columns representing various project phases.
  • Project Schedules: Align your Project Schedule with the project’s key milestones.

3.5. Step 5: Populate With Tasks

Now, it’s time to populate your selected tool with tasks. Use the breakdown you developed in Chapter 13: Estimate Scope, Time, and Cost, or your Project Schedule, as the basis for this. Make sure each task is clear and stands on its own.

3.6. Step 6: Manage Progress

Now that you’ve set up your tracker, it’s time to manage it. Regular updates are key. Set a reminder to routinely update the status of your tasks—for example, every week or two, or aligning with sprints if you’re working in an Agile development project. If you’re leading a team, establish scheduled check-ins to ensure everyone’s tasks are progressing well. This practice not only keeps the project moving forward but also encourages team accountability.

Insight Icon Insight
Ensuring Project Continuity
Regularly updating your tracker is important for visibility for the rest of the team and your stakeholders, and to maintain continuity. If you need to step away from the day-to-day management of the project for any reason—say, you’re on vacation, sick, or called away to work on another higher-priority project—someone else may need to step in to manage your project. Having a regularly updated tracker will facilitate a smooth handover.

3.7. Step 7: Manage Issues

“We spent six months documenting a product, and then we were told, ‘Thanks for all your hard work; we’re going to sunset this product now.’ That was literally my first job as a manager. I built a team, and we documented the product, and no sooner had we done it than it was announced it was cancelled. Even now, I’m still in disbelief. But it was good practice in learning how to manage a backlog!”—Robert, Technical Documentation Manager

Even in the best-planned projects, things can go wrong—often through no fault of the technical writer. Regardless, this can be a very frustrating experience. Below, we’ve listed some common issues that arise in documentation projects, delaying or even derailing them. If you’re experiencing one of these issues, make sure to raise it with your manager as soon as possible, as per the next step.

  • Unanticipated feedback. Feedback from a subject matter expert who wasn’t part of the original review team now needs to be incorporated into your documentation. Similarly, sometimes a member of the review team will take a second look at your documentation (perhaps when they finally have time to review it properly), resulting in a number of fresh, yet poorly timed insights.
  • Product testing. Testing sheds new light on a particular feature of the product (for example, it doesn’t work as expected), requiring significant changes to the feature, and a corresponding update to the product documentation. Although changes following testing are expected, sometimes the scale of the changes can be substantial.
  • Scope creep. Changes to the product scope require adding or removing a new feature, resulting in changes to the product documentation. These changes may be last-minute or the result of scope creep: the common phenomenon where a product’s scope continues to evolve throughout the development lifecycle. Note that engineering effort is not always proportional to documentation effort. For instance, a one-line code change can completely change a product’s user interface, necessitating the retaking of every screenshot in the documentation and generating many hours of rework for the writer.
  • Underestimation/overestimation. You’ve done your planning, carefully breaking down the scope of a new documentation project, only to find that your estimates for something are wildly off—to the point that they impact your overall schedule. Perhaps you didn’t fully understand a feature when you sat down to sketch out a draft table of contents, and it turned out to be something much more significant than you thought, or vice versa. Despite your best efforts, predictions can go awry.
  • Organizational change. Changes in the organization’s systems, processes, or organizational structure occur midway through the project, requiring updates to your process and procedure documentation. Companies are constantly evolving to stay competitive, and these changes can sometimes be abrupt.
  • Project cancellation. The product or project gets canceled—and so do your docs. There’s nothing more frustrating than laboring on a project, pouring your heart and soul into developing documentation, and going the extra mile to hit critical milestones… only for the project to be canceled, negating the need for your carefully crafted documents. Unfortunately, this does happen!
Insight Icon Insight
These Issues Sound Risky—What Can I Do About Them?
Do any of the scenarios above actually happen? Absolutely, they do. This section was compiled using feedback from technical writers and documentation managers. If you’d like to see some sample mitigation strategies for the issues described above, check out the Risk Management section in our Documentation Plan Template. Note that in project management jargon, an “issue” is referred to as a “risk” until it occurs.

3.8. Step 8: Report Progress

The next step in managing your project’s progress is to consistently report your accomplishments and challenges. This communication should be scheduled regularly, such as weekly or biweekly, with key stakeholders including your project sponsor, line manager, or project manager.

Use these meetings as opportunities to demonstrate the value you or your team are contributing. Regularly update on completed work, and involve them in resolving issues by promptly informing them if something is going off track. Don’t hide problems! They’ll appreciate your transparency and early warnings, setting the stage for a positive working relationship where you proactively collaborate to solve problems.

3.9. Step 9: Analyze Data

Status tracking tools are treasure troves of data, filled with insights that shed light on productivity trends for individuals and teams alike. By tapping into the analytics of your status tracking tool, or by integrating additional data fields, you can extract meaningful metrics. These include Cycle Time (the duration from work start to completion for a workflow stage), Work in Progress (WIP) (the number of tasks being handled at any given time), and Review Loop Interval (the time taken to review documents).

Insight Icon Insight
Guidance for Analyzing Tracking Data
Our forthcoming book, Technical Documentation Management, explains how to use metrics to measure success in your writing projects. You may wish to use these to assist in analyzing and interpreting your tracking data. These chapters will be progressively released to subscribers of Boffin Education’s website over the course of 2024.

4. [Sample] Simplified Technical Writing Process Checklist

Simplified Technical Writing Process Checklist

5. [Template] Status Tracker Template

Status Tracker Template

Looking to Level Up Your Project Management Skills?

Explore our specialized courses tailored for technical writers. Master the art of crafting a Documentation Plan, constructing Gantt charts, budgeting projects, pitching business cases, and more.

  1. Liker, J. (2020). Chapter “Connect People and Processes Through Continuous Process Flow to Bring Problems to the Surface” in The Toyota Way, Second Edition: 14 Management Principles from the World’s Greatest Manufacturer. (2nd ed.) McGraw Hill. ↩︎
  2. Liker, J. (2020). Chapter “A Storied History: How Toyota Became the World’s Best Manufacturer” in The Toyota Way, Second Edition: 14 Management Principles from the World’s Greatest Manufacturer. (2nd ed.) McGraw Hill. ↩︎
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x