Techwriter skills

Subject: Techwriter skills
From: "Peter Ring, PRC" <prc -at- PIP -dot- DKNET -dot- DK>
Date: Sat, 14 Sep 1996 12:30:05 +1

Some days ago, I had this point on my list of tech writing skills:

7. Basic graphical knowledge - and preferably some sense and talent,

Robert Plamondon anwered:

> What technical writers need is formal training in technical
> illustration. Basic graphical knowlege, sense, and talent are all
> beside the point. Sure, they can be brought to bear, sort of, in
> the same sense that experience as a poet prepares you for a career
> as a technical writer. But technical illustration is precisely
> what technical writers need to know in order to illustrate their
> technical manuals. Nothing else even comes close.

> Any idiot can learn technical illustration. Really good
> illustrators are few and far between, and mere mortals cannot
> aspire to their level of wonderfulness, but anyone can learn to
> put together attractive and useful illustrations for technical
> manuals. Technical illustration is taught as a series of specific
> mechanical skills. You don't need to be able to draw a straight
> line -- you use a ruler. You don't need to have a good eye --
> everything is measured.

> Technical illustration is taught at the community college level.
> That's where I took it. It was the most useful course I ever
> took.

Three important points:

1. There is a significant difference between the capability to make
technical drawings using rulers, AutoCAD, and/or other tools, and
the capability to make good free hand illustrations. In between
there is what I understand by technical illustration, which is
e.g. a technical perspective drawing combined with a (maybe
clip-art) hand.

Almost everybody can learn to make technical drawings, and I
learned it on the Technical University, too, incl. perspective.
But free hand drawing is an ART, where you also need a lot of
talent, but it can to some extend be learned, and my skills here
was significantly improved by taking evening classes in drawing
and painting. Especially the life drawing (croquis) classes were
extremely useful to get the right proportions on humans, faces,
hands, etc. They certainly did not make me an artist, but they
made me a lot better to do technical illustration. However, when I
need really professional strips for a manual, I use an artist,
which may work e.g. from my less artistic sketches or from photos.

2. A techwriter's needs for free hand drawing capabilities depends a
lot on what kind of product, (s)he is making manuals for, and who
the manuals are written for. If the product is a complicated
product for normal household users, good free hand drawings is a
very important element. If it is software, it is in most cases
absolutely unimportant. But a good collaboration between a
skilled technical writer, who knows his/her pedagogics, and a
skilled and talented artist, can do almost as good as one of the
very rare persons who are able to do both on a high level.

3. What I meant with "Basic graphical knowledge - and preferably some
sense and talent, too" was something else. The technical writer is
in many cases involved in decisions on: number, content, cropping,
and type of illustrations, where to place illustrations, their
size, selection of text fonts and sizes, margins, indents,
selection of icons, and sometimes even printing technology. In
some companies (mainly big ones) there is a company style guide,
which may give some directions, but graphical knowledge is still
important. In most smaller companies, however, there is no style
guide for their manuals, and here some graphical know-how can make
the difference between an awful graphical mess and something
acceptable or even nice.

Thanks, Robert!

It was a good extra point, and I will include drawing and technical
illustration skills on the next list as skills, which may be very
desirable, but in many cases isn't a must because somebody else can
do it if needed. (Like proofreading - which by the way is so hard to
do on something you wrote yourself because you read it on your
"inner screen").

Greetings from Denmark

Peter Ring
PRC (Peter Ring Consultants)
- specialists in user friendly manuals and audits on manuals.
prc -at- pip -dot- dknet -dot- dk
- the "User Friendly Manuals" website with links, bibliography,
list of prof. associations, and tips for technical writers.

Searchable archives located at
ALL questions or problems concerning the list
should go to the listowner, Eric Ray at ejray -at- ionet -dot- net -dot-

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