Guest post: Technical writing: The craft of word workingJune 6, 2011
Today’s guest post is from Peter Sanders, an Australian technical writer.
‘Wood work’ and ‘woRd work’ differ by a single character.
A very strong analogy can be made for the craft of the technical writer and that of a fine woodworker. The art or craftsmanship in both pursuits is initially invisible.
The perception of the pieces of wood that are cut, sized, shaped and glued together to form that fine piece of furniture are seen as the object itself. The work — the labour of the craftsman — is not seen. The talent, the nuances coerced from the raw timber, are not so readily considered as we admire the fine wooden object before us.
As with the wood worker, we woRd workers will cut, size, shape and paste our text to produce our masterpiece of technical writing wizardry. The inability of others to see the work of the word craftsman within the presented technical document is something that I would consider beneficial. Just like the wood worker, our object is seen and admired, or, more realistically, used for its intended purpose. This defines the job as successful. The reader and user of our work sees and uses the object — our document — and it performs its function flawlessly.
The talent and ability to use and manipulate words, to impart unambiguous descriptions and instruction, are not readily available to all writers. The ability to write as taught at school does little more than give us the ability to guide our handheld implement across a sheet of paper (or press keys to make our marks on screen). To some, what we learnt at school may have a stimulating effect and may perhaps invoke a desire to write (as in create something), maybe even instil a desire to become a technical writer.
I think the ability to write technically or creatively involves a love of words and the ability to do so much with them. To really know those words and to work intimately with them requires a strong background in the language used in the document. This is where, in some cases, the use of offshore personnel or non native speakers and writers of the language, leaves something to be desired in the final result; the document may do what it is intended, but perhaps with less clarity.
Incorrect fonts, sizes, paragraphs and spacing in our documents would be like disjointed and wrongly sized pieces of wood to the wood worker. Good grammar is the grain of our documents.
The next time your documentation is accepted and used without question, think of it as a success. The craft work and the art behind its creation will probably still remain invisible to those ‘admirers’.
Peter arrived in Australia as a teenager, after receiving a good Technical education in Liverpool, UK. A certified fitter and machinist at 19, Peter had for two years, already been training younger apprentices. He has a passion for anything mechanical and after a three-month trainee program on mechanical business equipment, began teaching fault-finding techniques to his instructors. This lead his to his first written instructions, developed for business equipment and targeted at equipment dealers across the state. As mechanical business equipment transitioned to electronic systems, Peter developed and documented computer hardware and software interfaces to enable incompatible hardware devices to work together. A self-taught photographer and software developer, he has provided hands on training and written instructions for computer systems and software. Peter is currently providing documentation and training services to the Australian-based subsidiary of a global manufacturer of mining machinery, so it is back to mechanical equipment for him, but on a much larger scale.
Peter can be contacted at: peter AT infpos DOT com DOT au
[This blog post was originally an email posted to an Australian technical writing list in a discussion about offshoring and outsourcing technical communication functions. Peter gave his permission for me to post it here. Thanks Peter.]