How to write Knowledge Base articles

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There are a lot of competing things to balance when writing or editing a Mozilla Support ("SUMO") Knowledge Base article. You want to be complete, concise, factual, and engaging, all at the same time! It's certainly not the easiest thing in the world to do. Here are some guidelines to help make that balancing act a little easier. Also, this is a wiki and we can always revise something if we get it wrong.

Write for a general, non-technical audience

We want our articles to be usable by everyone, not just advanced users. This means we're writing for a general audience rather than one very familiar with computer techniques and terminology. Assume the person you're writing for doesn't know how to change preferences or add a toolbar button without step-by-step instructions. Also, we should assume that they haven't changed any of the default application or operating system settings.

Pick a good title

The article title along with its summary are the only things that the user has to judge whether or not an article will answer their question. We call this "User Confidence" and it directly impacts click through rates. Even if we serve the correct article at the top of the search results list, the user needs to make the mental connection between the search query and the results we display in order for them to click through to the article.

An article's title should try to describe what the article is about. The important thing is for the first few words to be as understandable as possible, filled with keywords that are important. This will allow users to recognize what the article is about and click confidently. In addition, a title should follow these guidelines:

  • Title length: Google's search results page will display up to 70 characters. Your title can be longer than this if necessary but make sure your important keywords are included in the first 70 characters.
  • Capitalization: The first word and proper nouns in the title should be capitalized, not every major word (use "sentence" style, not "headline" style). See the SUMO style guide section below for other rules on capitalization.
  • Do not use a colon in the article title since it prevents creating a wiki link to that article (bug 749835).
  • Make sure you don't have extra spaces in the article title. This also prevents wiki links from working.
  • Try to vary the way you name articles. Don't use the same verbs or phrases in every title.
  • Try to not use “-ing” words.

Remember that the entire explanation doesn't have to go into the title. You can use the summary to give the user additional information about what is in the article.

Fix the slug

When you create a title, SUMO will automatically create a slug (the end of the URL for the article). The slug has a 50 character limit. Spaces are rendered as dashes. The slug should be consistent with the title, but given the tighter space restraint, doesn’t need to be the same. Be sure to check the end of the auto-generated slug. Sometimes a word gets cut off or it ends in a dash. Please fix things like that.

Categories, products and topics

For the most part, an article belongs in either the How-to or Troubleshooting category. Occasionally we write "How To Contribute" articles (like this one) or something in one of the other categories.

Articles are also "relevant to" at least one product. They also belong in one main "Topic" and, optionally, a "sub-topic".

Keywords

The keywords field in an article can be used to improve search results on SUMO. It should be used only under specific circumstances though, as misuse can actually hurt search. We rarely need to use keywords. For details, see When and how to use keywords to improve an article's search ranking.

Write a good search summary

The article summary along with the title are the only things that the user has to judge whether or not an article will answer their question. We call this "User Confidence" and it directly impacts click through rates. Even if we serve the correct article at the top of the search results list, the user needs to make the mental connection between the search query and the results we display in order for them to click through to the article.

A summary for a how-to article should include the topics covered in the article. A troubleshooting article should try to include symptoms. In addition, a summary should follow these guidelines:

  • Short and to the point. Remember classified ads? Write it like that. Search engines may cut off anything longer than 140 characters. If you use a longer summary, keep the important information at the beginning. Note: The KB software will show 20 characters remaining when the summary reaches 140 characters because the internal search limit is 160.
  • Don't use wiki markup.
  • Don't use "This article explains" in every summary. Vary it when possible. Some other phrases to consider:
    • We'll show you
    • We'll explain
    • This page explains
    • This article describes
    • Learn how

Make your writing engaging

The Knowledge Base is a repository of technical information about the operation of Mozilla applications. The documentation lists the functions of various features, troubleshooting procedures and instructions for resolving common problems. The documentation can be accessed by using the search function on each page or you can just throw your computer across the room where unicorns will use their rainbow powers to turn it into magical candy which, once consumed, will make you a level 70 computer ninja.

Are you awake now? Good.

That paragraph sounds like a boring lecture, at least until the unicorns show up. Using humor and emotion (SURPRISE!) are some of the techniques we can use to engage people. These techniques, which are listed below, all aim to get your brain to pay attention by recreating what this interaction could be if it were happening in person. When we do that, information is easier to understand and to remember.

  • Conversational writing style – Use an informal, active style similar to the way you'd speak to someone in person.
  • Humor and emotion – Using humor is great but it's sometimes hard or impossible to localize. Emotions like surprise and "I didn't know that!" (not sure what to call that emotion) might be easier to include.
  • Multiple learning styles – Just like in school, people learn differently. Also, everyone benefits from seeing the same content expressed in multiple ways.
  • Repetition – When you explain something in a different way with different media, you're also, obviously, repeating it which is another good way to help people remember what's important.
  • Images and video – Using images and video to explain things along with text is not only the next best thing to being there to help in person, they are an easy way of including multiple learning styles and repetition.
  • Activities – Especially in a tutorial, it's good to give people something useful to accomplish. It's one thing to read instructions and understand the process, but it's often helpful to remind and enable people to try things out.

Write a good introduction

Along with the title and the table of contents, the introduction is what people will use to quickly determine if they are in the right place.

  • For a tutorial or how-to article: Give a brief summary of what things can be learned.
  • For a reference article: Give a brief explanation of the feature.
  • For a troubleshooting article: Give a brief summary of the problem and its symptoms.

A good introduction can usually serve as a good search summary. Often you can just copy it into the "Search result summary" field and you're done.

Organize the article effectively

The general idea here is to try to build skills from simple to complex while trying to keep the information needed by most people near the top. So a simple, common solution would usually come before a complex or edge-case solution.

Use descriptive heading titles

Our articles are usually comprehensive so it's important to use descriptive headings to help people find the part of the article that they need. Take a look at your table of contents. Does it work with the introduction to give you a nice overview of the scope of the article?

Make step-by-step instructions easy to follow

The main thing to keep in mind when writing step-by-step instructions is to be careful to include all the actions needed to complete the task. If, for example, you have to click "OK" after selecting a preference in order to move to the next step, be sure to include clicking "OK" as part of that step. Some additional things to consider:

  • There are always multiple ways to achieve a result. We should always pick the most user-friendly way by using the graphical user interface and menus when possible.
  • Use full sentences when describing how to access the user interface.
  • Include expected results when giving instructions (for example, Click "OK" and the window will close.).

SUMO style guide

Like we talked about earlier, you should use an active, conversational style when you write. So you should avoid saying things like, "If a user's bookmarks have been lost..." and instead say, "If you've lost your bookmarks..." Here are other common style issues you may run into when writing support articles:

Always use terms the way they appear in the Mozilla interface. For example:

  • Plugins does not have a hyphen.
  • Add-ons does have a hyphen.
  • Home page is two words.

General computing terms:

  • The Internet is uppercase.
  • Website is one word.
  • Log in and log out are verbs. Example: "Log in to the website."
  • Login and logout are nouns (usually used as adjectives). Example: "Click the login button."
  • Use email instead of e-mail.
  • The plural of CD-ROM is CD-ROMs.

Links to mozilla.org should not contain the locale:

Capitalize the following items:

  • Proper nouns
  • The first word of a complete sentence
  • The letters of abbreviations and acronyms unless they are normally lowercase
  • The first word in numbered or bulleted lists
  • The name of a key on the keyboard
  • The first word of a complete sentence following a colon
  • The first word in a heading or title

For the sake of clarity, don't use i.e. and e.g.

We have special visual styles for a number of items that can be achieved by adding the proper wiki markup around the item (see the Markup cheat sheet for the most common styles).

We have a special wiki markup – {for} – that allows you to target information for specific versions of Firefox or specific operating systems. For example, you display one set of instructions to people running Windows and another to people using Mac OS X (see How to use For for details).

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