What is Technical Writing?
As a subset of technical communication, technical writing is about simplifying the complex in order to communicate it to those who need to accomplish some task. A whole range of skills and techniques is required to put technical information into easily understandable language:
- technical knowledge to understand the product or process
- good knowledge of the language (e.g. avoid long sentences, passive voice and nominalisation)
- ability to structure information and cut it into easily digestable portions
- ability to create accurate, focused, clear, understandable sentences
- knowledge about the intended audience and what they know about the subject (entry or pro users)
- knowledge about translation-oriented writing to reduce the cost for localisation (see Translation & Localisation)
- knowledge about document design, layout and typography
- knowledge about technical standards and legislation applying to the product and documentation
- knowledge about and experience with the relevant software tools to use them efficiently, save time and streamline further processing (like translations)
And there's still more.
In smaller companies, user manuals are often written by the product designer or product manager. This does not necessarily mean the result is bad. Certainly they know their product best. A well-trained and experienced technical writer, however, can offer all the other skills required to create clearly understandable instructions and explanations.
Legally safe documentation
Legal aspects must also be considered. User manuals in Europe, for example, are legally regarded as part of the product (in Germany regulated by the Equipment and Product Safety Act). If they don't comply with standards and legislation (safety information missing, not clear or given in the wrong place, for example), they could even lead to the product being confiscated by market authorities. This means in detail: The instruction manual shall impart to the user the intended use of the product, warn against any remaining risks and reasonably foreseeable misuse and enable the owner to make use of all functions and features, easily and without trouble.
The latter can also be found in German Contract Law which introduces specific warranty obligations for misleading, confusing or otherwise insufficient manuals and instructions. Other EU member states have similar legislative standards.
We often hear arguments like “our products are safe, we don’t need all this”. Sure? Even in the Pro Audio field, dangerous situations may arise if users are not instructed accurately, clearly visible and in the right place. Heavy loudspeakers could fall from the rig if not mounted correctly or dangerous voltages of power amplifiers or badly grounded equipment could even lead to fatal injuries. Only one such accident could ruin your brand forever.