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Technical Writing

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By Colin Ramsden, November 2005.

xyzTechnical writing is all about taking potentially complicated technical subject matter and conveying it in an uncomplicated manner so that non-technical people can understand and make sense of it.

Technical writing is not about writing technically, although it can contain technical detail where necessary and appropriate. Technical writing is about producing documentation with an appropriate level of technical detail that the intended audience can understand and make sense of.

The important elements of technical writing include not just the writing itself and its grammar and spelling, but also a proper understanding of its message—or fundamental intent—and its presentation appropriate for the intended audience. That necessarily involves the proper identification of an intended audience for the particular piece of technical writing and a focus upon addressing the needs of that particular audience.

Being a technical writer is not just a matter of having technical knowledge and an ability to write clearly. The professional technical writers of today have the added responsibilities of acquiring a multi-faceted skillset—which were considered completely separate occupations in the publication process of the recent past (last decade).

Traditionally in the publication process, the roles of authors, illustrators, graphic designers, editors, screen-based publishers, indexers, and printers have remained quite separate and distinct. However, these roles have become less distinct due to the advent of desktop publishing software programs, the widespread adoption and use of personal computers, and the advanced functionality of readily available desktop printers.

Nowadays, it is not uncommon for individuals to perform all the roles previously ascribed as separate occupations. They are now performed as separate tasks in the same occupation, commonly referred to as 'Technical Writer', 'Technical Communicator', 'Information Architect', 'Knowledge Worker', or even depending on the subject matter being written about, as 'Business Analyst', amongst other things.

Professional technical writers can provide detailed advice on the latest best practices in writing, editing, design and production.

They make it part of their job to keep up-to-date on current developments and regularly assess tools and methodologies. They attend technical writer conferences, and monitor writing and tool group discussion board email lists as appropriate to their current work related interests and needs.

Technical writers come from all walks of life, quite often having a technical background in one or more of the fields of engineering, electronics, military, manufacturing, computer sciences, or more recently, networking and communications.

Professional technical writers should properly understand the technical subject matter being written about. That's one of the factors which distinguishes a professional technical writer from other types of writers—their technical understanding of the subject matter being written about.

How else could they properly determine which information is pertinent or not to achieve effective communication with their intended audience?

Unfortunately, my personal experience is that there are some (and the unfortunate part is that there are all too many) inexperienced (and subsequently ineffectual) people (also unfortunately in positions of management and authority) which do not fully appreciate the skillset of a professional technical writer. Many intelligent and well educated people (who should really know better) appear to give little consideration to the quality and effectiveness of the documentation they produce, which a professional technical writer would have properly targeted for their intended message and audience.

Consider this:

To properly perform technical writing, several independent factors must come together to create effective communication. It is the responsibility of the technical writer to coordinate and orchestrate these factors to produce the desired outcome—effective communication.

The difficulty with technical writing is that most technical matters require a technically knowledgeable understanding of the technical details and intricacies of the subject matter, and depending upon the skillset and experience of the particular writer, one of two possible outcomes arise:

In an age when complaint and potential litigation is a prevalent and viable option, (for most Western consumers, users, and those that consider themselves unfairly treated by corporations and governments) it is totally inappropriate and ill-conceived for corporations and governments to knowingly present misinformation in their product and service documentation. The responsibility ultimately rests with the technical authors getting it right the first time, and that necessarily involves them being provided with the correct information to include in the publication.

It is not the writing and publishing tools that are used which measure the professionalism or accuracy of technical writing. It is the professionalism and accuracy skills of the individual using the tools which determine the accuracy of the writing. Experience and practise counts for much which cannot be learnt in a textbook or in a lecture room.

Unfortunately, many employers and employment agencies (with inappropriate good intent) decide upon a required experience with a particular writing toolset when advertising for experienced technical writers, and so limit their potential employees at their own expense. Anyone who has developed documentation and progressed to the level of consistent style application (where the formatting information is stored separately to the text of the document) has the ability to adapt to any of the current document formatting tools on the market within hours of use with an unfamiliar tool.

That's the advantage of employing an experienced technical writer. One that is worth their salt ration is one that is worth using and making use of. I have used MS Word, Adobe PageMaker, Adobe FrameMaker, WinHelp, HTML Help, MS Help2, Adobe Illustrator, PaintShopPro, PhotoShop, Paint, CorelDraw, and other software tools. The point is that the author is not limited by the tool, and the tool is just one means of delivering the goods.



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Jump across to separate topic Effective Communication | Jump across to separate topic Effective Managers | Jump across to separate topic Advanced Technical Writing | Jump to site home page Lotech Solutions' Tips, Tricks, and Procedures

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