If You Don’t Understand, the Customer Won’t Understand

Has anyone ever said to you with a condescending smile, “Well, you don’t need to understand that.” The implication is that you are just a technical writer (and not really part of the design team, after all), so it doesn’t matter whether you understand the product all that well.

The truth is that if you don’t understand (whatever it is), the customer won’t understand. You can’t write clearly about a subject unless you understand what you are writing about. Whenever possible, it’s your job as a technical writer to become a subject matter expert. This is achievable when you are documenting a software program or when you are writing about your area of expertise (for me, that includes publishing, writing, editing, and training).

Sometimes, however, it’s not possible for you to become a subject matter expert because the subject is too technical or requires specialized knowledge that you don’t have. In that case, you must rely on the subject matter experts for the content. If the rough content you receive doesn’t make any sense to you, rewrite it and let the experts check your rewrite for accuracy.

I was assigned to produce a manual describing how to install a wireless telecommunications network in an underground coal mine. Because this is definately not my area of expertise, four engineers provided nearly all the technical content. But even so, I made a significant contribution to this manual as project manager and technical editor. Here’s what I did:

  • Increased my knowledge of the subject by attending a network installation training class.
  • Talked to the lead installation engineer about what he wanted in the manual.
  • Created the manual outline by extracting topics from the training handout.
  • Organized, edited, and rewrote content received from the engineers.
  • Placed the revised content into the outline.
  • Incorporated comments received from engineers during numerous review cycles.
  • Resolved the inconsistencies that arose from different contributors working on the same book.
  • Prepared diagrams and photographs to enhance comprehension of the text.
  • Edited and formatted the manual to provide a consistent writing style and look.

When I was finished with the book, I had a better grasp of network installation than anyone else on the project except the engineers. But I still remembered when I knew nothing, which helped me simplify technical explanations and act as a “translator” between the engineers and the customers.

© 2013, Sandra Elam. All rights reserved.

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