10 Strategies to Optimize Technical Information

Even video game instruction manuals are examples of technical communication.

Even video game instruction manuals are examples of technical communication. (Sony)

One area of professional writing that I am particularly interested in is the technical communication field. This interest stemmed from a course I took at Seneca College called “PWR 381 – Digesting Technical Information.” The course was particularly valuable because the professor, Bernard Aschwanden, had tons of work experience.

The course was quite comprehensive on a content level. However, it differs from Duncan’s course in the sense that Bernard specifically taught us how to make documents functional. These types of documents are not necessarily prose (which can be personal or academic). Instead, they are user-guides or other sources of information often produced for professional organizations. Often, professional writers make these documents in attempt to simplify difficult technical information and make it accessible for an audience.

So, if you’re interested in producing these types of documents, I recommend undertaking all of the following strategies:

1. Identify your Audience: As I mentioned in an earlier post, the audience is a priority in any professional writing job. This does not change in technical communication, especially considering that the audiences of these types of documents is often not knowledgeable about the topic which you are describing. Consider your audience with every word that you write.

2. Give Your Document a Clear Goal: Remember, technical communication is action-oriented, and often procedural. You want your audience to do something with your document. If you’re working for an organization, you’ll often know what the goal is, so you shouldn’t waste any time or energy on detracting from this goal (going out of your way to make your document sound intelligent, for example). Make sure that your document solves a problem.

3. Prioritize Minimalism: Audiences usually don’t read technical documents for fun; they read them to learn information quickly and efficiently. Naturally, audiences don’t want to sift through pages and pages of documentation. In this case, less is more, and technical writers minimize the size of their documents so that audiences are more inclined to read them.

4. “Chunk” Your Information: We, as people, tend to retain information easier in groups, or “chunks,” as they’re called in technical communication. “Chunking” can include using lists or groups of headings to clearly distinguish important information. An individual scanning a document will usually remember or at least make a point to remember the items in a properly formatted list, so “chunking” can definitely help your document reach its goal.

5. Avoid or Define Jargon: “Jargon” contains phrases that only a specific audience knows; even a term like “gross income” might seem like jargon to someone who has no business experience. When technical communicators attempt to make information accessible to general audiences, the last thing they want to do is confuse these audiences. Jargon can be confusing, so it should be avoided or at least defined.

6. Predict Potential Problems: Truly excellent technical documentation has a good troubleshooting section. Writing a procedure can be simple; predicting a user’s potential problems when undertaking the procedure is a mark of intelligence. So, make sure to figure out these problems and include their solutions in your documentation. Remember, technical documents solve problems; they’re not supposed to produce them.

7. Be Sure to Introduce and Summarize: Bernard had an excellent saying for this point: “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, then tell ’em, then tell ’em what you told ’em.” Clarity is a very important principle of technical documentation, and the use of repetition in a technical document clearly communicates the message. Make sure that you introduce the goal of your document at its introduction, and remind your users what this goal was at its conclusion.

8. Adhere to Style Guides: If you’re hired by a company and really want to impress them, try to get a head start and study their style guide, if they have one. For those of you that don’t know, style guides are “handbooks” that contain rules about grammar and syntax which are normally subjective in the English language (capitalization of certain terms, certain forms of punctuation). Many large organizations have their own style guide, as these companies produce a lot of documentation every year. Style guides enable organizations to stay consistent, and chances are that they also enjoy consistent employees.

9. Study Your Genre: There are many different genres of technical documentation. Government tax documents, scientific reports and corporate hardware guides are just some of them. If you really want to produce efficient technical documentation, study the structure of existing documents of whatever genre you plan on producing yourself. You can see what some of these documents do well, and what mistakes you can avoid.

10. Consult With Subject Matter Experts: Sometimes, technical communication can be too intense for just one writer, especially when dealing with fields that used advanced terminology (such as the scientific field). Don’t hesitate to seek the help of a Subject Matter Expert (SME) to help explain whatever it is that you’re having trouble with. An engineer or an investment banker are excellent examples of this. The difference between you and them, however, is that you’re an SME yourself; your subject is writing and communication. Technical communication isn’t a one-person job, so make sure you do what you need to do to make your document as good as it can be.

I really enjoyed PWR 381 for its practicality and it definitely helped me with my own technical documentation. I am planning on continuing my career in technical communication.

If you would like to discuss this topic more, leave a comment here or get in touch with me on LinkedIn for more information.

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