From: Ian White <ian -at- IFWTECH -dot- DEMON -dot- CO -dot- UK>
Date: Fri, 16 Aug 1996 14:48:56 +0100

Bob Morse wrote:
>Anybody here do any tech-comm work for consulting engineering firms? I'm
>an independent who's been doing mostly software docs for years, and am
>tempted to probe eng firms as a new market

It's relevant to ask whether your own background extends beyond
software, because many of the answers to the following questions depend
on your being able to deal accurately with whatever the engineering
firms throw at you.

>1. What's the process? I know that most/all eng firms have some marketing
> staff in house, but don't know how common it is for the mktg people to
> play a role in editorial reviews of formal proposals, presentation scripts,
> project reports, and other tech docs. Is there an industry standard or
> "typical" scenario, or does it vary widely depending on the firm?

My own experience is in the UK, but wherever you are, the responsibility
for tech writing will vary widely between firms. Large firms probably
have established departments with opportunities for steady contract
employment; smaller firms probably don't have a continuous need for tech
writers, but tend to think about each separate task as it arises.

>2. How much do eng firms (typically) even value editorial quality in their
> tech docs? Is it even an issue/concern for them?

It varies enormously, from the fastidious to the oblivious. You can't
create an opening unless the firm has some glimmering of understanding
that it needs professional help.

Don't contact the Engineering manager. Talk to Marketing manager, who
can see the benefits of clear user manuals; or to the Quality manager,
who has formal responsibilities for documentation.

>3. Does anyone know of any existing surveys that would shed some light on
> clients/prospects' attitudes toward editorial quality of formal proposals,
> project reports and other tech docs? (Any good ammo for my sales pitch,
> to show 'em that writing quality DOES matter?)

Sorry, nothing that would be relevant to your country.

>4. I've heard (and experienced) that many sci/tech professionals who are
> perfectly competent in their own specialties but decidedly weak in writing
> (pervasive passive voice, run-ons, syntax monotony, wordiness and such)
> tend to believe that their writing is just fine, thankyouverymuch. I'm
> curious how skilled technical editors get past the ego obstacles? Or
> don't they?

Yes, they do - or at least, I do. I have enough technical background to
be able to appreciate what the engineers have produced, and initially I
spend a lot of time *listening*. This is partly to accumulate more
background information, but mostly to build up the personal
relationship. For that reason, I insist on being shown the product by
the designer, rather than accepting second-hand information. When the
time comes for me to ask detailed questions, and often to make
constructive suggestions about improving the product, any "ego
obstacles" are down and everything goes well.

I *never* criticize the writing of engineers whose work I'm trying to
document. On the contrary, when no longer feeling defensive they usually
admit to a very low opinion of their own writing skills, and need
encouragement rather than criticism.

>5. Any sense for whether some/many eng firms might be receptive to in-house
> remedial composition workshops for their tech professionals?

Not until you've earned the trust of both the firm and the individuals

>I'd think
> that just two or three one-hour sessions and a couple of independent
> exercises ("homework") could do a world of good, even if only to discuss
> passive/active voice, wordiness, and a few usage notes. Your thoughts?

Nobody can transform someone else's technical writing ability in so
short a time. It needs experience with solving real-life writing
problems. Engineers are too busy for "homework". For that reason, I
would build-in a strong element of individual support by telephone, fax
or e-mail; and once again I would treat the initial face-to-face
sessions as a means of building up the necessary personal relationships.
That's how it works for me.

Ian White | IFW Technical Services, Abingdon, England
| Clear English for high-technology companies

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