Mistakes by Non-Writers: Not Communicating What is Required

Communication skills is not about just about grammar or writing skills. As a technical writer, your thoughts should be presented in such a way that the person you are communicating to, easily understands what you want them to understand. The most common problems that usually arise in the documents written by non-trained writers (including subject matter experts or language experts) are described here:

Thinking Like the Creators of the Product

Most of the time, the SMEs/engineers are the creators of the products/software.

  • They usually think that people want to know how technology works. Since they themselves have the in-built curiosity or urge to learn the internal operations of the products, they believe that users may want similar information.
  • The engineers know the application too well and are likely to provide technology centric information. This happens because it is probably impossible for them to step back and look at the product from the users point of view.

The users are interested in the task centric information and they usually want to know how to do a particular task or why something should not be done. They may not care about the complexities of the code/product/software.

Making Assumptions

The SME know the product inside out (after all they created it). They are very comfortable with the jargon, assumptions, work arounds, shortcuts, and trouble shooting methods. Hence they make logical assumptions that are not understood by non-experts.

They miss the obvious, forgetting that the users do not perceive the obvious. Writers are not experts and hence they are likely to make the same mistakes and assumptions as the users. They also ask the same dumb questions that the novice users may sometimes ask. Hence, the writers can translate those information into troubleshooting tips, warnings, notes, etc. These dumb questions turn out to be useful information in the document.

Having Specialized Knowledge and Focus

In some cases, the SMEs concentrate on a certain function/feature of the product or software. They do not know much about the other functions or features. If the SMEs are to create the documentation, each would create the documentation for the functionality they are working on (i.e. the part of the product they are familiar with). The result would be a patchy document put together by different individuals.

A technical writer has an overall idea and some knowledge about the entire product and can interweave the information to create accurate and usable user documentation.

Expressing Wrong Information

The most important job of the document is to convey the required information to the users. Unfortunately the subject matter experts express the wrong things and may not document the required information. Not knowing what to document and how to document that makes them poor communicators, not poor language skills.

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