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Step-by-Step Documentation

So you've created something you're proud of and want to enter it in a competition. But people keep talking about the "D" word. Documentation. Your heart beats in fear at the sound of the word and it's got your stomach tied in knots. But it's really not the big monster people make it out to be... you just need to dedicate the right effort towards it.

Change your Attitude

One of the big mistakes people make when they document their work is they think of the documentation entirely in terms of something that is being demanded of them. Instead, the creator should view documentation as a gift they give to the viewer of their work. It explains the work, gives a background story for it and makes it more understandable to the viewer. It is your spokesperson when you can't be there.

Good documentation makes it easy for the viewer to find answers to the questions they think of when they look at the item. If the information they want to know isn't there, or isn't easy to find, they may get frustrated. So you need to change your attitude to one of being a host...  take charge and look forward to the opportunity to guide viewers towards understanding your work.

Make Your Item

If you haven't finished making the entry yet, you are at an advantage. The best time to start thinking about documentation is at the beginning, in the planning process. Challenge yourself to find out more about the item before you start making it, and you will naturally have plenty of information for your documentation later. Make notes of all the books you look in, copy pictures, and use the photocopier. For now you can just shove all the information into a folder, or keep it in one physical location for inspiration (like on a table or desk where you work on the item).

While you work, jot down things that occur to you, such as "wonder if they would have used barley flour?" or timelines like "1 hr - steaming... 3 hrs - smells awful... 6 hrs - took off stove, might be overdone". Pay special attention to things that don't go as planned and analyze why, or what you might try next time.

Research and Back-documenting

This article won't tell you how to research... but it's something you'll have to practice if you want to produce good, clear documentation. You need to get the facts straight in your head before you can adequately explain them to others. Research is important, and should be fun if you are genuinely interested in finding out how "they" did things.

If you can't find much information on the item you want to focus on in your research, you have a couple of options: do more research from a different angle, give up on entering the item in a competition, or try to put together a reasonable case for the item's existence, materials, form, etc. The last option is the most difficult and should really only be tried if you feel you have a really good grasp of what judges look for in documentation.

Back-documenting is when you have an item that has already been made or you've already made choices about how you will make it, and then you research to find out if you can rationalize your choices as "period". Sometimes this is unavoidable, but in general it's a bad practice because your natural inclination will be to make the facts fit your conclusions instead of vice versa. Sure, you might be able to establish that someone could have made the item the way you made it, or with those materials, but it may not have been their first choice. If you find yourself doing too much back-documenting on something, reconsider whether the item still reflects your best work or if it's worth creating a different, more easily documented item to enter.

Get Questions

When you're ready to really think about writing the documentation, start out by coming up with a list of questions your viewer might have when looking at the entry. Here are some generic questions that apply to most cases:

  • What is it?
  • Where is it from?
  • What time-period is it from?
  • What is it made of?
  • How was it made?
  • Where did you get the ideas of how to make it?
  • Did you consider making it other ways?
  • Why did you choose to make it the way you did?
  • What did you learn from making or using it?
  • Would you make it differently next time?

If you're having problems coming up with more questions that are specific to your item, get a friend to help. Have her ask you questions about the item you made, and you give her the answers. You should be taking notes or recording this conversation on tape so you don't forget what the questions and answers were. It's OK at this point if you give vague answers or don't quite know.

Get Answers

Once you have your questions, now it's time to get answers to anything you think might be interesting or important to the viewer but didn't know off the top of your head. If you already went through a research phase, this will be easy. If you based the entry on a recipe, copy down the exact recipe, where you found it (full bibliography), and who created it or what manuscript it was originally from. If you used a picture to help you figure out what something should look like, photocopy or scan the picture.

I recommend entering all the questions and answers (or at least the answers) into a word processing document. That way you can use the exact text later, whether you simply rearrange it in the same document file or copy & paste it to a new document file.


Now that you have answered most of the questions you think the viewer will have, group them into categories. The grouping will have to make sense to you, so I can't tell you absolutely how it will go, but here are some groups I sometimes use:

  • Design (what research showed it should look like, be made from, etc)
  • Materials Used (explain choices)
  • How it was made (including mistakes)
  • Finishing
  • What I learned (how I would do it differently next time)

These groupings will become headings in your documentation. Feel free to add anything you think will "round out" the information. Don't document general things like "they used soap in the Middle Ages"; rather explain things specific to your item like "15th C. Germans used wood ash/lanolin soaps for washing wool fabric".

If some information seems extraneous or too detailed, put it aside (don't delete it completely unless you have a back up copy!). Be matter-of-fact in your explanations. Don't apologize or plead for understanding, just explain what you did, why, and what you might do differently.

Remember to include pictures when you're sorting, and if possible put them in the text areas that refer to them. If you can't scan your pictures in and actually include them in the document file, put a placeholder on the page so you don't forget where they go later. Full page images can go in between two pages of your documentation, and smaller pictures can be taped into a blank area on a text page. If possible, photocopy the page after taping pictures in and supply the photocopy as the documentation. You may also want to use a highlighter on photocopied pictures to draw the reader's eye to the important parts.

Cite Sources

Now take any bibliographical information you have and put it together at the end under a heading like "Bibliography" or "Sources". Back in the main text, add citations that point viewers to that section. Remember that those citations are not for you, but for the reader who is really interested in the information and wants to find out more for himself. Ideally, someone armed with your documentation should be able to find all the sources you found when doing research, right down to the very page you read or picture you viewed.


Now you have a better idea of what your documentation contains. Write down the very most important items as a summary at the beginning. It should at least include:
  • Description of the item
  • When/where it is from
  • What it's made from

Keep in mind that often judges don't have time to read your whole documentation. So the summary should be very clear, and should communicate the bare bones information that a viewer needs to understand the entry. No more, no less.

If you haven't already done so, come up with a concise description of your item and put it in large letters as the title. Use the exact same title when you register your item in the competition to avoid confusion.


You should now have the basic outline and information all together. Go back and put incomplete thoughts into sentences, and organize sentences into paragraphs. As much as possible, try to make the information flow so it is easy for the reader to follow. Use bulleted lists and add sub-headings to make information easier to find.

I've heard a lot of competing theories on what the best possible documentation consist of, especially when it comes to length. Some people say you should fit all your documentation on one page, others insist a highly detailed notebook with tabbed dividers for each section is best. One thing they all agree on, however, is that the information should be easy to read.

  • Typed, not hand-written
  • Large, standard font (NOT a script or calligraphy font)
  • White or very light-colored paper, no background design
  • No loose pages for multiple-page documentation; Stapled together or all in one report cover or binder
  • Do not include your name for competitions!

Allow a few days to pass, and then re-read it to see if you missed something or can make it clearer. Don't be afraid to totally re-arrange the document or add or delete sections. USE SPELLCHECK!!!

Also make sure you have at least one other person proofread it and insist that they not only correct your grammar and spelling, but also give you good, hard criticism about the content. If they find it difficult to read, they need to tell you before you give it to a judge!

Congratulate yourself!

No matter how your entries do in the competition, remember to be proud of your accomplishments. Writing documentation and entering your work into an Arts and Sciences competition takes a lot of effort, and you should reward yourself.

All content copyright the author, Jennifer Munson munson.jennifer@gmail.com The author makes no guarantees for instructions and recipes on this site; neither does she accept responsibility for their outcomes. Verbatim copies may be made for educational purposes only provided they contain original copyright marking.

This page created August 4, 2001

Last updated February 18, 2003