Re: Non-technical, Technical Writers

Subject: Re: Non-technical, Technical Writers
From: Andrew Plato <aplato -at- EASYSTREET -dot- COM>
Date: Mon, 11 May 1998 01:42:07 -0700

>>If you don't know how something works, how, pray tell, can you tell me how
>>it works?

>>Technical writer is two words. You need to be both to be a good one.

>Isn't there a distinction, however, between how knowing how something works
>and knowing how to use it?

>I am a skilled automobile driver, and as a writer, I could write a clear,
>organized manual on how to operate my car and provide basic maintenance. I
>have little knowledge of the internal workings of its combustion engines

>As a technical writer, I am clearly unqualified to write a repair manual,
>but am quite qualified to write a operator's manual.

In my opinion, you really are not qualified to write and operator's manual
(or a repair manual). Merely knowing how something is operated is half the
picture. Part of explaining how to operate something is being able to
communicate fundamental technical knowledge about the product in question.
While the final manual may only include a lot of instructions, those
instructions should come from the mind of a person who understands the inner
complexity of the technology. Moreover, a GOOD manual will include a lot of
conceptual and background information which, again, can only come from the
mind of a person who can comprehend the inner workings of the item in

For example, about 8 years ago, my brother owned an old 1966 Cadillac. For
awhile, starting the vehicle was quite an experience. You had to prime the
carb (with raw gas), short out the ignition, and then manually adjust the
float. I borrowed the car from him one day. He gave me very terse, very
well-organized instructions for starting the vehicle.

I followed his instructions to the letter. The first time it worked okay.
But the second time, something went wrong and my brother was not around. I
was hopelessly lost. I knew all the instructions for starting the car, but
that knowledge was useless when I was stuck with a problem that did not fall
into narrow realm of those instructions.

Therefore, a good operators manual, attempts to consider those issues and
arms the reader with knowledge that will help them make intelligent
decisions about the product. Hopefully, the manual will arm the reader with
enough knowledge to work their way out of sticky problems.

If my brother was a good technical communicator, he would have given me a
lesson about what I was doing as well as how to do it. That way, I would
KNOW to open the damn carb vents so air could get in. Normally, they are
open, but when I tried to start it the second time, they had lodged shut.

Being clear and well organized is nice -- for an editor. But a TECHNICAL
WRITER, as the previous person mentioned, should be both technical and a

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