Basics of Technical Writing: Evolution, Scope, Qualities, Process

What is Technical Writing?

Technical writing is the process of interpreting and translating dense and difficult information for easy comprehension of the potential users of such information.

Thus technical writing may be defined as writing technical information for the benefit of someone who does not have technical background know-how in that area.

A technical writer communicates information clearly and directly to the target audience. Technical writing never aims at impressing the audience rather it informs them by minimizing the “noise” factors. Technical writing minimizes the gap between technical experts and end-users.


Evolution of Technical Writing

There are different arguments about the genesis of technical writing. Some opines that Cro-Magnon people who drew cave pictures are the first technical writers! Some others think that the works of Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, are the earliest forms of technical writing.

However, Geoffrey Chaucer, who is known as the father of English poetry, is considered to be the first technical communicator in English. His work “Treatise on the Astrolabe” detailed the purpose and operation of a navigation device.

Innovators like Copernicus, Hippocrates, Isaac Newton, and Leonardo da Vinci in Europe and Aryabhata, Charaka, and Sushruta in India wrote explanatory notes for their inventions.

The industrial revolution was another reason for the growth of technical writing. A lot of inventions paved way for the production of complex machines. People started to live in a machine age, where technical literacy was inevitable.

It created awareness and knowledge about machines and also developed the skills to operate them. Thus indirectly technical literacy multiplied the needs of human beings to enter into a machine age. Technical writing reached the boom stage in the war years. It became an authorized and recognized job during World War II.

The need for self-learning instructional materials increased in the fields of medicine, military hardware, and computer technology. Post World War II witnessed technological advances in all walks of life.

Another turning point was the invention of the transistor which heralded the age of electronics. The electronic age produced several machines which are cost-effective and useful. This further increased the need for technical communication.

The introduction of transistors reduced the size and cost of computers. Thus in 1949, Joseph D. Chaplin produced the first computational document in America. He wrote an instructional manual for the BINAC computers. It was the humble beginning of modern technical writing.

The major milestones in the evolution of technical writing can be as follows:

  1. 1949 – Joseph D. Chaplin wrote a user manual for BINAC computer.

  2. 1951 – The first advertisement for a technical writer :”The Help Wanted” advertisements are published.

  3. 1952 – Joseph D. Chaplin developed a technical documentation for UNIVAC Computers.

  4. 1960 – Sustained growth of electronics and aeronautics resulted in large scale demand for technical writers.

  5. 1971 – The first issue of the Journal of Technical Writing and Communication published.

  6. 1980 – U S Department of Justice established technical communication as a recognized profession.

  7. 1987 – Desk Top Publishing (DTP) became popular. Several software like Corel Venture, Publisher, Interleaf, Adobe Frame Maker, PageMaker etc. were developed.

  8. 1999 – Introduction of XML made an impact on software development. The need for construction of help menu and menu driven software increased the requirement of help menus and technical documentation.

  9. 2002 – Introduction of Sarbanes Oxley Act (SOX) insisted companies to generate financial reports. Such reports include infographics, flowcharts, policy manuals, accounting manuals, procedural write ups etc. This created a boom in the technical communication scenario.

Scope of Technical Writing

Technical writing has been evolved with the innovations in technology. Though the need for technical documentation emerged with industrial revolution, it gathered momentum since the invention of transistors. Afterwards integrated chips (ICs) made the concept of personal computers (PCs) a reality.

The conventional user manual in printed form became digitized. The network technologies further improved the transfer and storage of contents. The chances of interactions made technical documents more vibrant than they used to be.

International trade and multinational operations on production and distribution of goods and services facilitated single source publishing. It is a content management method which enables an enterprise to use and reuse the same source content for different media.

Translation and localization are the latest trends of technical writing in the globalized context. Social collaboration is yet another factor that makes technical communication more dynamic.

Internet-savvy end users frequently involve in the creation and maintenance of information through queries, suggestions and online reviews. This real time communication results in social collaboration which enables the users to give instant feedbacks.

These feedbacks are beneficial for assessing the effectiveness of the content.Today, technical writing is a highly paid and promising career option to those who have a taste for science, technology and writing.

The person should be equipped with flawless language, an inquisitive mind in learning technology and expertise in software publishing tools.


Qualities of a Technical Writer

When technical writers write a memo or a letter, they work as business correspondents. While they design an instructional manual for a new product, they enjoy themselves as creative writers. As they explain people about the working of a machine, they play the role of a teacher.

When they release a brochure during the launch of a product, they become PR men. Thus it is obvious that technical writers have different roles in the same costume.

The intensity of the hard work depends on the educational background, experience and work culture of a technical writer. The qualities of a technical writer are:

  1. Language Skills
  2. Quick Adaptation to Different Roles
  3. Technical Skills
  4. Updading of Knowldge
  5. Teaching Skills
  6. Interpersonal Skills
  7. Open to Criticism
  8. Professionalism

Language Skills

A technical writer should convey ideas in short sentences. Language skill means the ability to convey ideas easily and concisely. If any error occurs in the text matter, it may have a negative impact on the goodwill of the company as well as the product.

Quick Adaptation to Different Roles

Technical writers may have to take different roles in a corporate environment. They sometimes become narrators, creative writers, corporate communicators, teachers and so on. Technical writers should adapt themselves to the changing environments naturally.

Technical Skills

The technical writer must know the jargons of the industry and how to render it to a technologically illiterate end user.

Updading of Knowldge

The world of technology grows rapidly. New tools and vocabulary evolves every minute. Technical writers should update their knowledge of the ever growing industry. They must learn new things that confront them in their professional environments.

Teaching Skills

While writing something, the writer should have a clear idea about the subject matter. One must master the subject with the aim of teaching someone else. The ‘learn to teach’ approach is helpful for technical writers.

Interpersonal Skills

Technical writers will have to interact with professionals having diverse tastes and interests. To get information from such people, technical writers need to possess good interpersonal communication skills.

Open to Criticism

Technical writers may also face harsh criticism from the technocrats. They must listen to the critics and make necessary changes. They should take lessons from others and correct mistakes to make things positive and constructive.

Professionalism

Good technical writers understand the industrial needs and show patience in solving problems and interact with the maintenance engineers and colleagues smoothly. They develop the ability to write clearly. They enjoy the techniques of showing the ideas in graphics.


Process of Technical Writing

The process of technical writing is both technical and creative. It is divided into three stages:

  1. Pre Writing
  2. Drafting or Writing Stage
  3. Post Writing or Editing Stage

Pre Writing

Before beginning to write you should invest some time planning what to write and how to transmit the information. In order to do this you should consider:

  1. Audience and purpose (who you are writing to and why).
  2. Tone and style (how you transmit the information).
  3. Gathering of information (brainstorming, analysing sources of information, etc.).
  4. Outlining (organization of information).

Drafting or Writing Stage

Once you have gathered and organized the information, you can begin writing a first draft. At this stage, it is important to consider the main parts of the text, paragraph development and coherence as well as genre conventions.

As you revise and consider all these aspects, it may be helpful to use representative models as a reference. Drafting is the actual writing process. In this stage technical writers generate language and discover content and format of the technical document. The major aspects of writing are:

  1. Language Appropriateness.
  2. Conciseness and Flow.
  3. Maintenance of Impersonal and Formal Language.
  4. Bias Free Language.
  5. Maintenance of Style.
  6. Adaptability.
  7. Clarity.
  8. Word economy.
  9. Sentence Variety

Post Writing or Editing Stage

There is a mythical belief that echoes in the mind of some writer : “I am the author and creator who never fails! And I need no editing”. This is a mere belief and not accepted and practised in the writing profession. Revising is considered as the third stage in the writing process.

It is an imperative stage since a good writer spends 50 percentage of his entire writing schedule for revising! The final stage of the writing process involves:

  1. Revising Content and Organization.
  2. Checking for Grammatical Accuracy.
  3. Editing for Style.
  4. Proofreading and Peer Review.

These steps will help you spot any inconsistencies in your document so as to produce a flawless final version. Some of the benefits that can be obtained from adopting this process approach are outlined below:

  1. It helps the writer overcome the blank page syndrome and therefore get started.

  2. It serves the writer as a guide to writing since it suggests possible steps to follow in the writing process.

  3. It makes the writer aware of contextual considerations such as audience and purpose.

  4. It promotes awareness of the writing process.

  5. It accounts for individual variation, that is, it encompasses different learning styles and preferences.

Structure of User Guide

A user manual is an elaborate account of a product. It describes the installation, operation and maintenance of a product. The size of a user manual depends upon the use and complexity of the product.

A user guide has:

  1. Cover
  2. Precautions
  3. TOC
  4. Introduction
  5. Abbreviations
  6. Technical Specifications
  7. Warranty
  8. Accessories

Cover

The cover of a user manual is the identity of the product as well as the company. The cover may contain the name, serial/model number, the logo and slogan of the product.

Precautions

Cautions are meant to warn the user about the hazards that may occur while operating the machine or product. Precautions generally detail the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’.

TOC

The table of contents directs the user to locate his required information in the manual.

Introduction

The company addresses the customer by thanking or congratulating the customer in choosing the product. The Positive expressions like ‘welcome’, ‘valuable customer’ etc. leaves lasting impressions and the readiness for the messages is created in the minds of the readers.

Abbreviations

Abbreviations are created for lengthy technical jargons or phrases. These technical terms are to be explained well enough in the document. A glossary of abbreviations is usually given at the end of a technical document.

Technical Specifications

Technical specifications introduce the product and its important parts to the user. Here a diagram is shown in which the important parts are marked visibly. Each part is numbered and defined in the same page.

Warranty

Warranty is a statement that contains the agreement showing the responsibility of the company on a product. It states that in case of malfunction or serious damage occurring within a designated period the product will be replaced or repaired at the cost of the company.

Accessories

The list of accessories given in a user manual is the business diversion of the manufacturer. At the same time it is useful for the consumer since he or she gets value added services from the product.


Design of an Instruction User Manual

Instruction manuals have pre-determined structure in order to present the information systematically and effectively. They usually begin with the definitions of their audience or technology of the product. A headline which follows gives directions to the readers.

Topics are stated through different modes of headlines. The manual moves further with situations, stages of priority, list of tools, narration of processes, warnings and conclusion.

  1. Definition of Audience
  2. Headline
  3. Introduction of Situations
  4. Prioritize Different Stages in a Task
  5. List of Tools
  6. Narration of the Process
  7. Warnings
  8. Conclusion

Definition of Audience

By defining the audience, the company gets the picture of the real targets and the writers may focus on their communication aiming at the real targets.

Headline

Headlines give directions to the readers. They help the audience for the easy location of the immediate needs of audience regarding the user manual. They add colour, typographical design, white space and provisions for smooth navigation throughout the document.

Introduction of Situations

Introduction of situations give an opening to a specific task. It sets a platform for explaining the status of such operations. Sometimes the introduction may briefly explain the status of the company in the use of a particular technology or product.

For example some refrigerator companies claim that they are the first to introduce CFC free gas emission. They may add this sentence when they give instructions as how to refill the gas.

Prioritize Different Stages in a Task

Setting priorities in the execution of a task is very important. Each process is to be followed systematically to complete a task. A wrong order of operational step can lead to serious damage. Give the order of priority with due care and consultation with experts so that the task is achieved by the end user without complications.

List of Tools

A list of tools helps the user to equip for the execution of a task. It may be impossible sometimes to go in search of a tool in the middle of an operation.

Narration of the Process

Narration describes the action. A well written document describes each stage of the task in detail. The step by step narration should lead the end user to the successful completion of an operation.

Warnings

Warnings are given at the beginning or end of the manual depending on the nature of the product.

Conclusion

Like any other document instruction manuals also end with a conclusion. They make a note of positive attitudes about the product, company and the users. The conclusion may contain a reassurance about the company’s assistance in the future.

This portion gives the contact details of the company for communication, name of dealers, service networks, online help sites, official websites and so on.


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