Best-practice strategies for your documentation projects

Starting up the MFLC? Grab your climbing buddies!

One of my favorite scenes from the movie Finding Nemo is when Marlin and Dory have been traveling the East Australian Current (EAC). Crush, the sea turtle dude, alerts them that “Your exit’s coming up, man!” Marlin asks, “You mean that swirling vortex of terror?” Ever laid back, Crush continues, “First, find your exit buddy. Do you have your exit buddy?” and then introduces “Squirt here (who) is going to give you a rundown of proper exiting technique!”

For some Flare newbies, the MFLC™—that is, the MadCap Flare Learning Curve—can appear from the bottom to be pretty steep! Flare is hugely feature-rich, and coupled with learning CSS and perhaps even learning topic-based authoring for the first time, it’s no wonder that some newbies get anxious. There’s a lot to learn!

Climbing buddies

Just as Marlin and Dory benefitted by being each other’s exit buddy, Flare newbies can benefit from having climbing buddies to show them the ropes.

So if you’re about to start your climb up the MFLC, let me channel Squirt and offer my personal rundown of proper climbing (aka Flare-learning) techniques.

First, if you have to beg or barter, get some training! (But please don’t steal.)

MadCap Software offers traditional classroom training in Flare fairly often, as well as the periodic web-based training course. I took the web versions of the basic and intermediate courses taught by official MadCap trainer Neil Perlin way back at my start up the climb, and it was well worth it.

If MadCap training is too expensive for you (and for some, it certainly is), there are other options. Paul Pehrson offers a series of MiniMad courses, very reasonably priced. I’ve not taken one, but I’ve heard Paul in person, and he’s an excellent presenter. Additionally, some expert Flare users (Paul, me) offer custom training as a service.

If you or your company can swing it, get yourself to the MadWorld learning conference next April. Besides being one heckuva good time, it’s also a conference swarming with expert MadCap users downright giddy to share their expertise. I heartily recommend the Hospitality Suite, staffed at any one time by several tech support reps ready and very happy to help you. (Here’s my review of MadWorld 2013.)

And, of course, there are the free webinars offered by MadCap on a wide range of subjects. If you miss a live webinar, you can watch a recording any time.

Besides Flare training, you’ll need to study up on CSS. If you’re into teaching yourself, check out the CSS tutorials at You can fiddle all you want with different classes and attributes and see the results immediately. When you’re just learning, it’s a lot easier and less time-consuming than fiddling with a stylesheet in Flare. And you’ll find tutorials on other subjects, such as HTML and Javascript. The more you know, the more sophisticated your use of Flare will be.

Second, find an MFLC community!


Your first community of virtual climbing buddies hangs out at the MadCap peer-to-peer user forums. There are lots of folks there who generously offer answers to questions, no matter how basic—and many quite complex and sophisticated.

Your second community of virtual buddies is on LinkedIn in the Users of MadCap Flare group. Although (in my opinion) it’s not intended for the kind of problem-solving that the forums provide, it’s a great place to ask a question. (And some folks have solved problems by posting there.)

Your third community of virtual buddies is the growing body of bloggers who post wonderful tips-n-tricks about Flare and its companion programs. I recommend Laura Johnson’s A Flare for Help,  Thomas Tregner’s Flare for Programmers, and Paul Pehrson’s blog. (Check out my blog roll for more.)

With luck, you might have access to a community of in-the-flesh buddies: a local user group. As of early November 2013, fourteen Flare user groups have formed in Canada, U.K., and U.S., and I’ve heard from two other users interested in forming groups in their respective locales. (And, while getting ready to publish this blog post, I learned that a 15th group is forming in Vermont! Go, Steve!) MadCap keeps the growing list of user groups, including contact information for their organizers/managers, on its Community page.

And if you aren’t lucky enough to have a user group in your locale, start one! I firmly believe that a newbie Flare user can just as easily organize a user group as an expert Flare user.

Next, RTFM!

Yes, you heard me. Read the Flare manuals! Or perhaps you prefer to read the Flare Help system (which you can view directly on the web, outside of Flare).

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a question posted at the forums whose answer, I know, is very clearly and thoroughly covered in the Flare documentation. As an MVP on the forums, I admit to a little frustration with those posts. But I still offer a friendly but brief answer and then just point the poster to the relevant topics in the Flare Help.

But don’t limit yourself to the official Flare documentation. There are some terrific third-party books, too, very reasonably priced.

Especially for newbies is Five Steps to MadCap Flare, by my dear and long-time friend Lorraine Kupka. She offers a wonderful introduction not only to Flare, but also to the principles of topic-based authoring.

Once you’re well up the climb and ready to tackle specialized Flare features, be sure to pick up a copy of Neil Perlin’s Advanced and Unfamiliar Features in MadCap Flare 9: What Does That Do? And keep your eye on Neil. He’s got other books as well, including one on MadCap Mimic.

There are more third-party books, too. Read about them on MadCap’s Recommended Books page.

Finally, keep your wits about you—and relax!

Learning any new skill takes lots of attention and practice. You might be alone climbing the MFLC. Or you may be part of a team that’s learning together.

In either case, keep your wits about you. And relax. Accept that it takes time to acquire new expertise.

To reduce your newbie stress:

  • Allow an abundance of time. I urge you not to try to learn Flare when you’re under the pressure of a deadline. Especially if you’re migrating from an old tool to Flare, do the migration as a separate activity from getting out an update.
  • Use a phased approach. If you know that eventually you’ll produce both print documents and online Help with Flare, concentrate on learning how to do just one first. Likewise, if you work on documentation for multiple products, migrate just one product’s docs to Flare at a time, and use your old tool for the others for the time being.
  • Write things down. As you learn Flare and experiment with its many, many settings, take notes—a lot of them. Out of these notes will eventually gel an overarching design, a realistic workflow, and standards you can readily follow.

So find your Flare climbing buddies, strap on your propeller beanie, and embrace the MFLC.

Before you know it, you’ll be feeling comfortable, confident, and accomplished!

© 2013 Nita Beck. CanStock photos used under license.


MAD Certified in Flare

MadCap Advanced Developer (MAD) certified in Flare since 2009

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