Monday, November 3, 2008

Eight Steps To Simplifying Technical Writing

When was the last time you picked up an instruction booklet or a technical manual, and wondered what the author was trying to communicate?

There is a real skill to technical writing and, if you can master it, this could become one of the most financially-rewarding forms of writing available to you.

Here's eight ways you can prepare yourself for the task:

1. Understand your objective

If you've ever written PR or marketing materials, you'll know that before you type a word, you must understand the objective of the communication. The same applies to technical writing. This will help guide what you need to communicate and the way you do it.

2. Know and understand your reader

Another rule of marketing is to know your target audience. When you know specifically who you’re targeting, you can better understand their needs. And that allows you to tailor the communication to match their working knowledge, education, prejudices, preferences and any other relevant criteria.

3. Before you start

The first thing you need to do is to establish ground rules with your clients.

Start by meeting the developers of the product or service as well as management to establish internal objectives, deadlines and a format for the document. Determine the size and style of the document, the audience, and the list of people who will be involved with the project.

4. Laying the foundation

Once you know your audience and your objective, you can begin gathering, structuring and drafting the information so that it can be presented in a logical, easy-to-understand manner.

5. The first draft

Here are my three golden rules for solid gold technical writing:

Write to impress: Just because you’re writing about a technical subject doesn't mean you should always write like a technician. Present information in an interesting, clear and warm manner.

Use some discretion in your delivery. Employ a more conversational style when writing a software manual for the consumer market, as opposed to a specifications sheet on an air-conditioning system for engineers.

Write for clarity: Modify the KISS axiom to 'keep it succinct and simple'. That means using active language rather than passive, substituting every-day words for jargon and eliminating verbose phrases.

Be specific: Whether you are writing for management, an industry specialist or the general public, technical writing requires technical information, such as facts, figures and recommendations. Wherever possible, be specific ~ support your claims with hard data.

6. Test it

If you've written an instruction booklet on how to operate a piece of machinery, it’s now time to put it to the test. Select someone who fits your audience profile and have them follow your instructions to determine the validity of the communication.

This procedure will help iron out any bugs in your system and also help you hone your communication.

7. Technical review

Once you've incorporated the necessary revisions into the second draft, your manual is now ready to be validated by a company technician and any other relevant personnel to ensure it covers all aspects.

8. The final test and the final draft

Following the third draft incorporating any technical, legal or corporate changes, the final phase is to test the document to ensure it continues to meet the readers' requirements. This can be done through focus groups, surveys and questionnaires.

Your technical communication has now gone full circle, and is ready to go out to the real world.

If you've applied the above principles, you shouldn't have any readers scratching their heads, trying to figure out what you're saying and what they're supposed to be doing.

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