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Technical Writing, What is it?
Technical Writing, Two Types
There are two types of technical writing: Procedural and Narrative.
Procedural writing is writing step-by-step procedures on how to operate or control something. It is organized into a series of actions and results expected as result of the action. The table below is an example of a procedure, with action and response. Click on the table to enlarge it.
Narrative writing is used to write anything other than procedures. This includes theory of operation where the reader is told how a particular things works or what a process involves. It may include block diagrams and/or flow charts.
What Skills are Needed?
Obviously a technical writer needs technical skills and writing skills, including an excellent command of English and grammar. Technical writers are employed in many fields including computers, aviation, science, chemistry, and petroleum. It really is any field that requires documenting of processes and procedures. Technical writing is not only a creative process, but also an analytical process.
Part of the writing process involves interviewing subject matter experts (SME) for information. This might include design engineers, field engineers, marketing specialist, field trainers, or anybody that possess the knowledge that is needed to perform the job. So a technical writer needs enough of a technical background to feel comfortable with the SME they are interviewing.
They must have a working knowledge of various publications and graphics software.
The Technical Writing Process
Below is a flow diagram that shows the technical writing process in a simplified form. The following paragraphs describe each of the stages.
Determine the Comprehension Level of the Audience
After getting assigned a project, it is necessary to determine the comprehension level of the audience you are writing to. For example, if you are writing a programming users manual, you want to make sure that your audience has the prerequisites for understanding that programming language.
You should always have a mission statement that is consistent with what the project objectives are. A good way to write one is: This document is being written so who can do what. Then you fill in the who and what. For example, I'm writing this article so that those curious about technical writing will have a better understanding of what it's about after reading this article.
Research and Analysis
You will always have to perform some type of research and analysis to establish a learning curve about the project. Sometimes struggling with the learning is good, because then you will appreciate it from the lowest level of understanding. This can sometimes help in reaching the best level of presentation. Research and analysis prepares you for the next step which is interviewing SME's.
Interview the SME's
Interviewing the Subject Matter Expert. This can be a daunting experience depending on your knowledge of the project and how willing the SME is to providing the information that you need. The best thing you can do is earn the respect of the SME by what ever means it takes.
Write Draft In Accordance with Standards or Specifications
Many companies have standards or specifications for writing and publishing documents. This is so they can specify formatting and style standards and also requirements required by the project.
SME Reviews the Draft
After producing the first draft, it should be reviewed by subject matter experts for technical accuracy. Some companies even have editors that will check for proper use of the language and adherence to standards.
In most cases there will always be changes. Technical writers are always writing to schedules and in most companies products change as they they are getting ready to be manufactured or released. So you can count on many iterations of revisions.
Produce the Document and Send to Printer
Finally after everybody is happy with all the revisions, the document can be produced. This may involve coordination with the graphics department to get artwork finalized and other departments to determine the quantity and distribution. After it is all done, it can be sent to the printer and if required copied to disks for further distribution.
Types of Documents
The following is a list of the more common types of documents that are produced by technical writers.
- Installation and Operation Manuals. That tell a user how to install a product and how to operate it.
- Quick Reference Guides - Provide abbreviated instruction for a process or operation
- Theory of Operation - Tells how something works, may include block diagrams and/or flow charts
- Maintenance Manuals - Tell how to troubleshoot and repair a product, may include troubleshooting flow charts.
- Illustrated Parts Breakdowns - Show exploded view of the product and parts numbers for ordering replacement and/or spare parts
- User Manuals - How to program a system or device.
- Policy and Procedures - Provide rules and regulations for departments and/or companies
- Marketing, brochures and flyer's - Used to promote a product
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