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Technical Writing: A Layman’s Gateway to Software Use

By Mainak Biswas September 08, 2006 - 816 views

In an era when the e-world is reaching beyond the material Universe and almost everything turning digital, it becomes a duty of the Elite to give the plebeian an essence of the technological advancements. However, the Elite do understand a layman’s limitations, both psychological and existential – and is perhaps the only time when he agreed with the Technocrats worldwide. It was the Technocrats who longed to market their high-end technical innovations but was not knowledgeable enough to break down the tech-lingo into a simpler form. Upon their quest for a solution, they met the Elite who just loved studying technology, but this time he had to study the subject with the prime objective of explaining it to the common man in the easiest way possible. Nothing comes without a price, so technology had to face the commoner without its armaments i.e. the jaw-breaking terminologies and jargons through an inscribed gateway. The gateway under discussion is today’s Technical Writing, which marked the Second Coming of Technology.

What is Technical Writing?

A detailed or persuasive form of writing to convey information for technical or business purposes, technical writing needs to be useful and the presented information must be easily understood and acted upon. Highly under-rated as just what-to-do and how-to-do-it instructions, it is a difficult task demanding an easy and lucid style while writing about technical subjects. Very often technical writing has flat edge making documents, difficult and tedious to read. But there’s no reason why technical writing shouldn’t be lively and interesting.

Technical writing must follow certain guidelines, which are:

  • An Intelligent architecture – The style of writing must allow the reader a prompt understanding of the subject.
  • Avoidance of Confusion – Technical writing should be devoid of any expression whose meaning cannot be determined from its context.
  • Choice of Words: Malapropism (misusing a word) or the usage of difficult words should be avoided as a rule of thumb.
  • Conciseness – The writer should be capable of expressing a great deal in just a few words.

Needless to say, apart from the points mentioned above, grammatical rules should be given prime importance.

How does Technical Writing Work?

The sole idea of Technical writing is to convey information to the mass without the technical jargons associated through a three-fold process:

  • The Language: Technical writing involves easy-to-understand, lucid language.
  • The Instructions: Technical writing cuts short on technical complexity giving usability options the first preference.
  • The Precision: Technical writing excludes irrelevant information that offers nothing significant to users.

The above points are the grounds where technical writing really cashes in. However, we must also present here the related fields where technical writing has sown its seeds. The table provided underneath is intended to provide a clear vision on the topic.

Sub Divisions
Field of Application
User Groups
Basic Technical Writing Installation Manuals Step-by-step guide for installing/setting-up an equipment/software. Novice end users.
Casual Users.
Maintenance Manuals Step-by-step guide for maintaining a piece of equipment.
User Guides and Product Manuals Descriptive, step-by-step guide for learning how to operate an equipment/product.
Quick Reference Guides Troubleshooting/additional information delivering books.
Computer-based Training Subject specific step-by-step guide for learning computers.
Online Help guides Troubleshooting guides available on the Internet.
High End Technical Writing Software/Code Documentation A form of documentation embedded within the source code of software, describing the various aspects of the codes intended operation(s). Should be easily accessible to a user. System Administrators
Database Developers
Project planning & Management A process that identifies the lifecycle and visibility of the tools a project may use and describes the essential planning i.e. organization plan, risk factors, test plans, installation plan etc. Development Managers, Project Managers, System Administrators, Test Managers.
Indexing of Printed and
Online documents.
A detailed topic analysis of any given text or a condensed overview of related texts in the form of a conceptual map. Indexing helps readers to navigate easily through the information provided in the main content(s). End users and consumers.

Since we started off this topic with the prime intention of explaining how technical writing aids the plebeian to comprehend the binary universe, for the time being, we shall concentrate only upon one of the aspects of basic technical writing, User Guide. A definition for the term is a must and it’s something, which should come first.

Primarily written for non-technical individuals; User Guides are technical communication document or instruction manuals that explain in layman’s terms how to use a software and are generally a part of some other documentation like System Administration guides or some other related material. These guidebooks are meant for a basic, if not a proper understanding of an application or system. Simple language with short sentences and accompanying graphics are considered key factors for any of these User Guides, the sole reason being to help the user as much as possible while he tries to muster in his head the different aspects of a given application. User Guides are generally read in a hurry; they only come out when one is frustrated and losing patience with the software. This is where the easy and lucid style of writing and illustrations come handy. A user guide comprises of several sections that help in getting the most out of the extensive functionality and content available. Usually, a user guide comprises of the following sections:

  • A preface, containing details of related documents and information on how to best use the user guide.
  • A contents page, listing the contents of the user guide.
  • A guide on how to use at least the main functions of the system.
  • A troubleshooting section detailing possible errors or problems that may occur along with how to fix them.
  • A FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions).
  • Where to find further help and contact details.
  • A glossary and, for larger documents, an index.

The Mindset:

The common man is not interested in knowing the steps of an operation; his preference is always the result obtained by the click of a mouse. A user guide makes it easy for him to understand and gather the required information on how all of features in a software work.

What it offers:
Since user guides cut out on complexity, therefore, they:

  • Make a piece of equipment popular among end users acting as a form of alternative advertisement.
  • Add value to a product.
  • Builds a better brand image.
  • Conclusion:

    We have finally arrived at the Event Horizon where extremities have finally met. User guides have taken up the initiative to literate the entire mass, which so far shirked from the idea of getting technically endowed. The primary solution being provided and Artificial Intelligence taking its form, should we wait for the program which shall read human thoughts and execute the software functions, accordingly? Let the fastest pace of web content and human intelligence come up with the answer.

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