What is the value of technical writers and editors?

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It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words. As technology simplifies products and attention spans shorten, this is truer than ever before. And yet, some products and services are too complex to be explained with a simple graphic. Some consumers, depending on generation and education, prefer words. They relate and respond to—in fact, sometimes require—information that goes beyond illustrations. Anyone who’s struggled to assemble furniture or install a dishwasher simply because instructions were poor knows this all too well. How can brands effectively communicate critical information that is clear, concise, and user-friendly?

They can start by using professional technical writers. Professional technical writers are a rare breed. They are user advocates, researchers, and testers in ways that many others aren’t. They make an effort to understand consumer needs, preferences, and behaviors. They talk about products and services in terms that the target audience understands. They translate the technical language of engineers, SMEs (subject matter experts), and manufacturers into something comprehensible. They understand, if not share, the typical user’s first language. For example, heavy use of scientific health jargon in instructions for a blood pressure monitor could confuse older users. Professional technical writers understand that and will write in a way that eliminates confusing terminology and makes sense to the target audience.

Technical writers are curious by nature. They possess a technical aptitude that makes them able to grasp products they have never used themselves. They can chunk a long and complicated procedure into bite-sized and easy-to-understand steps. They help set proper expectations so end users understand both what a new product can and, perhaps more importantly, what it cannot do.

Professional technical writers help end users get the most out of a product. They understand how users might interact with a product throughout its lifecycle, and work to facilitate a positive customer experience throughout it. One example of this might be a tablet. From the time they open the box, to initial setup, and ongoing use, first-time tablet owners may have different questions at different points. They may need help with a WiFi connection before exploring any other features. A printed setup guide might be effective. After initial setup, they may wonder how to navigate pre-installed software. A video might help with this. As they get more familiar with basic functionality, customers may have questions on more advanced features, in which case, online FAQs might fill the need. A professional technical writer understands this and will work with a documentation development team to provide customers with what they want, when they want it, and how they want it.  

Seasoned professional technical writers empathize with users. That insight enables them to identify procedures that might create confusion or could cause damage, personal injury or death, if not performed properly. That insight helps drive a content architecture plan that organizes information with care and precision to improve ease of use and provide quick access to desired material. Technical writers follow rigorous guidelines and standards not always required of other writers, such as fiction authors or journalists. In a collaborative environment, many work with graphic designers to create graphics that support text, with usability experts to create a user-friendly document, and with editors to refine language that makes sense to and resonates with end users.

Professional editors complement and add value to a technical writing team. Like the writers they support, they possess a technical aptitude that enables them to jump in and understand complicated concepts. They are able to recognize potential problems but aren’t in the thick of development so provide an objective look at language and content. That fresh look empowers them to ask questions that the production team may not have considered while in the thick of development. It enables them to provide alternative suggestions for improved usability, where appropriate. They help ensure consistency and clarity and an overall approach that’s designed with end users in mind. They may, for example, catch that the product name in a user guide is different than what’s on packaging or a companion setup guide. They might notice that an LED is labeled “red” in text, but “amber” in graphics.

Simplicity is critical to effective technical documentation. As user advocates, professional editors know and drive this in every document they review. Experienced editors never use two words when one will do. They refer to brand and style guidelines to help ensure compliance with brand voice. They stay on top of current language and terminology trends. They work to help the writer communicate technical details clearly, concisely, and without jargon. This is why they’ll suggest “symbol” rather than “glyph” and “disk” rather than “hard disk drive system.” It’s why they avoid passive voice that tends to be longer than active voice.

Professional technical writers and editors add value through clear, concise, and user-friendly communications that reduce tech support calls and product returns. Their efforts help drive positive reviews and high ratings that influence others and, ultimately, impact on how a brand is perceived. A picture might be worth a thousand words but words do matter and effective product documentation starts with solid language and user-centered communication skills. That is what professional technical writers and editors bring to the table and, in the end, contribute to a memorable customer experience.

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