Right now, you’re probably excited to get writing. But before you start galloping off into the tech writing sunset, know this: most of the manuals and guides out there are written by people who have no firsthand knowledge of the subject matter. We think that’s a problem.
It takes more than just writing skill to write a good manual: it also takes understanding. There are two laws of tech writing:
The first requirement for tech writing is knowledge. You can’t teach someone how to do something until you’ve done it yourself. If you’re writing assembly instructions, put the product together. If you’re writing about software, use the program. If you’re writing a product manual, you should know the product inside and out. Use it, take it apart, figure out how it works and what it’s meant to do.
Once you think you know the process, try to teach it to someone else. Teaching is a great way to solidify your knowledge, and what you learn from watching your student struggle will make your manual better.
If you’re not an expert at what you’re writing about, talk to someone who is. Chat with the developers, technicians, or designers. Ask them to give you a walkthrough of the product, process, or software. Ask them how it’s made, how it’s done, and why things are the way they are. Then, keep asking if you need more help.
Glean as many stories from them as you can. Understanding the process that goes into making something will clarify your understanding.
Tech writers create a first draft based on initial functional specifications. Of course, the real product barely resembles the spec by the time the manual is written. The first draft is a total waste of time. As part of the frustrating review process, engineers give the writers hand-scribbled notes. Tech writers assemble another draft, which engineers promptly rip apart. And the process starts over again. Finally, the document is published.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. The faster and more frequent the interactions between engineer and writer, the better the final product will be.