Before you begin to learn about a subject, it is natural to make assumptions about it. It is important not to act on these assumptions unless you can prove that they are correct.
Writing for Work vs. Writing for School
The main assumption that most people have about technical writing is that it’s like writing for a class: You start with a thesis, perfect it, build structural sentences, eliminate first person viewpoint, add an intro, body, and conclusion, and so on. What isn’t taught in schools is that writing memos, proposals, business letters, and instructions is different than writing an academic essay. When writing at work, you don’t build up to your main point–you get to it immediately. Your boss isn’t grading you on how well you wrote your business memo, they’re looking for pertinent information without filler and ‘fluff’.
‘Redos’ in the world of Academia
Try to remember that when you write a memo, that memo can be changed after it is sent. This gives you the option to resubmit almost anything if you don’t think you did a good job with the first submission. This option is rarely offered in school–once you submit a paper, there are no ‘redos’. Your professor will more than likely ignore your efforts. Your boss on the other hand, expects revisions. If you send a memo for a meeting for Tuesday and the meeting gets canceled, people are going to be angry if they show up on Tuesday. Resubmission is important in business because business is always changing. However, when sending out your first draft of a memo, make sure it is as close to perfect as you can get it. Even if you redo this memo, people may still have already opened it, or my still open it to see the differences in changes. So, if you write a new memo saying the meeting will no longer take place on Tuesday, that is not necessarily a redo, but a whole new memo in itself. The new subject would be meeting canceled instead of meeting on Tuesday. But if you are redoing a memo on a progress report, your boss still may choose to read the first draft as well as your second. Also, be sure your second draft is better than your first. A lot of people think that if its a second draft it will obviously be better than the first but this is not always the case. Be sure to read and re read your memos.
Education vs. Practicality
When you are at school, your teachers expect you to show that you are learning. In order to best demonstrate that, you prepare reports, papers, projects and take exams. Few teachers will give you the benefit of the doubt that you know something without proving it. This is why writing in school serves an educational purpose. You are expected to write about everything you know, and if you leave something out, your teacher is going to assume that you don’t know it.
However, writing something at work serves a completely different purpose. Your readers are coworkers and clientele who don’t know as much as you do about the things you are writing about, and look to your writing as a guide. This is called writing for a practical purpose. Because your readers are trying to reach their own practical goals, they expect your writing to be clear, concise, and to the point. By including essential information only, you are helping your readers find out what they need without getting frustrated, bored, or overwhelmed.
Relationships Between People
Writing in school is often much more direct than writing for a business. When you write a paper, you only have one communicative relationship: The one between you and your professor. Since this is the only social situation you encounter with your assignment, you don’t experience as much of a variety of relationships as you do with technical writing. When you look at your writing at work, you realize that you are connecting with many different people. There is the relationship between employee and employer, between supplier and customer, and between coworkers. You may often be competing with other people, or you may be working alongside them on a project.
Use of Graphics
Graphics in technical writing are not only encouraged, they are mandatory. A colorful graphic can be highly convincing when you’re presenting something, especially if it gets the point across visually. Some examples of graphics are:
Not only are graphics visually appealing, but they also make a presentation easy to navigate. Usually, they are discouraged in school papers. In the business field, visuals can be the determining factor in getting a job, securing a deal, or impressing the boss. However, when using graphics, make sure they are appropriate and relate to the topic. It is very unprofessional to send inappropriate graphics to your work force, and it may cause confusion if the graphics do not relate to your topic. Graphics are used to enhance the document, not take away from it.
Many schools are starting to encourage writing in groups to get a sense of the teamwork that you will experience in the workplace. Collaboration at the office is common; even if you aren’t part of a team, you might still consult coworkers and readers. You may also submit drafts that are constantly being revised.
Conventions and Culture
Another assumption you may have about technical writing is that it almost never changes. But if you look at the word “technical” as it relates to “technology,” you may find that technology is always changing. That is why before you can become a successful technical writer, you must learn about your organization’s style and about the social and political factors of your writing.
Your Company’s Style
Technical writing is not a constant. Each company has its own way of promoting itself, from a liberal and casual style to a conservative and formal style. You will need to adjust your writing based on how the company wants you to represent it.
One of the major assumptions that many people who begin technical writing have is that the standard for their company in their city is the standard that should be in use all around the world. In fact, this is a huge mistake to make. Even if these assumptions are unconscious, they are still insulting. Geoff Hart speaks about this in his article, “Cross-Cultural Communication Requires Us to Test Our Assumptions.”. He mentions that there are many obvious traps that Americans miss when traveling, especially when they are in situations that they have experienced before, but with other American businessmen. Verbs can also pose problems, as do metaphors and phrases. Complex sentences are some of the largest problems–it is when we use big words and long sentences that we can most often be misinterpreted. Writing things that are short and sweet may not seem professional, but keep in mind that you are writing for a select audience who is looking for familiar words and doesn’t have the patience to appreciate your grasp on the English language.
One of the most important things to keep in mind when writing for a different audience than you’re used to is to never assume anything. If you reread something from another perspective and think, “Maybe my audience wouldn’t get this,” it’s probably true. Technical writers should never think that their writing does not need to be edited. By learning to edit your own writing, you are conceding that it is not perfect. By doing this, you prove that you are trying to make the audience understand your message.
If you choose to be a technical writer, you will face many complications (potentially). For the most part, they have to do with a changing world, changing beliefs, and changing cultures.
Technology is huge in technical writing because many writers are responsible for creating guides, instructions, policies and procedures, training materials, and so on. Since we have entered a digital age, we are becoming more dependent on machines to assist us and the variety of these machines changes every month. Since one of the main goals for tech writing is to anticipate any questions or problems that arise, it can be very difficult for a writer to adjust to shifting tastes.
Ethics are huge in technical writing. Usually, ethics codes are present at the workplace (even if they aren’t always enforced, they exist). Ethics aren’t in black and white and many people are apt to disagree with them, potentially complicating ensuing writing.
Working in Teams
I have included this section because many technical writers may find themselves working in many teams over the course of their careers and it’s a good idea to know well in advance what you’re in for.
You and your teammates may not always agree on the best way to approach a problem. You may think that you have the best ideas, but get angry when you find yourself doing all the work. However, working in a team to collaboratively edit writing is the best way to get your work done because you’re not just listening to yourself–you’re listening to your team members, which can help disperse subjectivity. Although you may feel that you work better alone, that won’t always be the case. Whether you like it or not, you will usually be in teams for most of your working life, so get used to it soon.
Losing Focus of Your Goal
As you can see from this complex Wikibook, you need to remember a lot of things in order to become a successful technical writer. Remember, when it comes to technical writing, the more concise and understandable your text is, the better. You may tend to wander off topic if you’ve been working on a project for a long time, but this can severely damage your end result. Keep focused and remember to leave any shred of an opinion out of your work. Just take things one word at a time.
- Hart, Geoff. “Cross Cultural Communication Requires Us to Test Our Assumptions. STC-Montreal, September 30th, 2008