The Handbook of Technical Writing says that “training manuals are used to prepare individuals for some procedure or skill” (333), so it shouldn’t really be surprising when student communicators may take their users’ prior knowledge for granted. For example, many technical communication assignments allow students to assume a monopoly of knowledge while, in reality, technical writers and editors often develop documents for users whose specialized knowledge may exceed their own.
So what’s a new technical communicator to do when their work takes them outside of their content comfort zone?
Under Pressure (Vessels): My Experience with Specialized User Content
Intergraph Corporation is a global provider of engineering and geospatial software. Featured amongst their software products is Intergraph® CodeCalc and PV Elite, design software that allows users to design, evaluate, and re-rate new pressure vessels for Fitness of Service (“PV Elite”).
While this software can greatly improve user experience, it still requires some training. When I contacted Intergraph about a potential editing project, Intergraph’s senior technical manager said that he would throw me in the “deep end” with portions of the software training manual. He explained that there was no need to “dumb down” the software training manual, but the manual could be improved with more concise, direct language.
Editing portions of the training manual to adhere to Intergraph’s document standards was indeed a “deep end.” The software requires a high level of specialized experience to accurately understand and explain. Editing the training manual draft was one of my most difficult projects as a technical communication student.
Re-Rating Your Editing Skills: Steps You Can Take When You Don’t Have Specialized Knowledge
Initially, I was overwhelmed by the training manual draft. Looking at all the specialized content, I envisioned a lot of research would be required in order to appropriately assess and comprehensively edit the document.
However, an editing project is rarely a solo endeavor. I was overwhelmed by the training manual’s specialized content, but asking questions helped me to better define the project goals-defining the project goals made my first experience with specialized content much less overwhelming.
Pay Attention to Text Other Than Body Copy
While headings, illustrations, and lists may contain errors, they may also offer clues about the significance of the body copy (Rude 199).
The training manual draft had “wordy” body copy. Though Intergraph’s document standards required concise copy, I was tentative in my edits due to the unfamiliar, seemingly important content. Examining the arrangement of headings and other formatting elements allowed me to better understand the essentials concepts that needed to be maintained in the body text.
Don’t Forget, You Have Specialized Knowledge, Too
After several readings, I began to notice grammar errors in the training manual draft. My knowledge of syntax came in handy as I used my understanding of sentence structure to condense essential, complex paragraphs.
While specialized content may be disconcerting, student communicators should remember that they also have specialized skills. An understanding of grammar, syntax, formatting, and visual design are just a few of the needed skills that student editors can bring to even the most complex editing projects.
Alred, Gerald J., Charles T. Brusaw, and Walter E. Oliu. Handbook of Technical Writing. 10th ed.
Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins, 2006. 333. Print.
“PV Elite.” Hexagon Intergraph. Intergraph Corporation Part of Hexagon, n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.
Rude, Carolyn D., and Angela Eaton. Technical Editing. 5th ed. Boston: Longman, 2011.