Process of Writing a Technical Manual
by Ron Kurtus (revised 15 October 2006)
The process of producing a technical manual usually is a team effort. In most situations, a Technical Communicator is only given one portion of the whole project. Other parts go to the Graphical Designer, Editor and such. The "whole picture" is usually only seen by the Project Manager.
Whether you are doing the whole job, have been assigned a critical part of the project or are managing the production of the technical manual, you need to know the process involved.
Questions you may have include:
- What is the breakdown of tasks on a technical manual project?
- What are the details of each of these tasks?
- What is the final product from each task?
This lesson will answer those questions.
Tasks for a technical manual
A standard technical manual is one that is text-based with illustrations. It is usually delivered on paper, although it may also be an online manual. Technical manuals are usually considered user, service and training manuals or guides. Marketing material may follow the same steps or tasks as a technical manual. (See Types of Documents Needed by Companies for more information.)
The tasks required in producing a standard technical manual are typically:
- Research and interview to get information
- Outline and organize technical material
- Draw or obtain pictures and graphics
- Transform technical material into common language
- Edit written material
- Print and bind manual
- Deliver final product
Details on tasks
What these tasks consist of is fairly straightforward.
1. Research and interview
The writer must get the necessary information on the subject matter. Some research may consist of hands-on work. For example, Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company requires their technical writers to be able to disassemble and assembly their motorcycles. They also prefer their writers own and drive Harleys.
Often the writer must interview the user to find out what is wanted or needed, as well as a subject matter expert (SME) to get detailed information. When writing software documents, that means interviewing or talking to programmers. For writing about hardware, the SME may be an engineer, technician or manager.
The method to interview may be simply talking with the person and taking down notes, or it may involve tape recording the conversation. A list of questions is often handy to use.
Example using video
Sometimes there are other ways to get information. For example, I once wrote a marine transmission service manual from a videotape of Japanese technicians disassembling and reassembling one of the company's transmissions. An American engineer explained the operation and gave the names of the parts on the videotape during the disassembly procedure.
The explanation was then transcribed and edited. Screenshots were made from the video to include with the steps in the service manual.
2. Outline and organize
Once your have gathered your research material in the form of notes, transcriptions and documents, you can organize it. Since technical manuals are usually very logically ordered, outlining the material is a good idea. In this way, you can modify the order of sections to suit the real need of the document.
There are other ways to organize of technical manual. One common method is to break sections of material into separate files, either in your word processor or desktop publishing application.
3. Draw or obtain pictures and graphics
A graphic artist or the technical writer may gather pictures and gather or draw illustrations and graphics for the document. In software user manuals, screen shots are often captured and inserted in the document. For hardware, photographs may be taken and digitized. A photograph may be used as is or it may even be changed into a line drawing though the use of graphics software.
In engineering environments, drawing may be obtained from engineering drawing and computer-aided design (CAD) software. Defense projects follow military specification for the drawing formats.
One important thing is that you should have a good system for naming and filing your graphics files.
4. Transform into common language
Often the experts speak in terms that are not usable in a manual. You want to simplify the language and to define any acronyms used. It is better to have a document a little below the level of the reader's knowledge than above what they can understand.
The use of illustrations and graphics helps to simplify the language and to enhance understanding. "A picture is worth a thousand words."
5. Edit written material
Another writer or and editor, as well as other personnel should check over the material for content, as well as grammar and form. This is usually an iterative process, fine-tuning the document.
6. Print and bind manual
The technical manual is then printed on bound. This may be as simple as making a photocopy or the pages or of sending the files to a printer to do the job professionally. Since the manual is often going to the customer, a quality job is worthwhile to enhance perceived value of the product.
7. Deliver final product
Delivery of the manual is the accomplishment of your goal. Celebrate that delivery.
Interim products in complex project
In good business practice, the end result of a task is a product delivered. In a complex project, with many people involved, interim products may be passed from one person to another.
Considering the tasks involved in producing a technical manual, the interim products developed and delivered in each phase are as follows:
- Research and interview document or notes
- Material logically organized or outline
- Pictures or graphics, organized and entered into document
- Text of technical material in common language
- Final draft after editing
- Packaged product that you deliver
The process for writing a technical manual consists of research, organizing, graphics, clarifying language, editing, printing and binding, and delivery. One technical communicator may do all of these steps, but usually it is a team effort.
Developing skills in your trade increases your feeling of confidence
Resources and references
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Process of Writing a Technical Manual