“I’m training to be an aerospace / mechanical / biomedical (you get the gist) engineer. I’m pretty sure I can write.”
So, then I have to take the rest of the term to make the case that I’m sure they’re fine engineers with expertise in many areas, but writing ain’t one of ‘em. (Of course, I say it much more eloquently.) So, they can either train to writer better or buddy up to a tech writer in their firm.
Today, I came across a great example over email of why this interaction with technical writing or writers is so important. Here’s the email, in its entirety except for sign off (names have been changed to protect the guilty).
Yesterday afternoon, the facility in which OARnet’s point of presence (POP) is located experienced air conditioning failures on redundant systems causing some heat-related issues. OARnet provides network backbone service to the University of Nowhere, and their POP is what connects UN’s network to the rest of the Internet.
As a result, please be aware that there is now a potential for Internet outages throughout the day.
Once the air conditioning unit has been replaced and the facility has returned to a safe temperature, OARnet’s engineers will replace any suspect equipment. UN engineers will also be monitoring the university’s equipment located in the POP to minimize outages and to determine if hardware needs to be replaced. UN engineers will coordinate planned outages with OARnet engineers to the extent possible.
We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause and ask for your patience as we work to remedy this issue.
So, for those who are not technical writers, I thought I would break down how we would approach something like this if an engineer sent it our way.
What’s the purpose?
Why am I receiving this communication? Well, from what I can gather, it’s to inform me that I may experience Internet outages today. Why is that the second paragraph of the email? Purpose needs to be clear in the beginning—especially in email. I don’t want to have to read more than the minimum to process and understand the information. I’m a reader, and I’m lazy. Writers need to write for that. Why?
Because who is your audience anyway?
Let’s face it. The majority of this email’s audience could care less about OARnet, POP or the facilities. It may be sad, but it’s true. Understanding your audience is absolutely key when working with technical content. This particular email went to all faculty, staff and students. I guarantee Joe Smith in Anthropology or Susie Student isn’t going to spend time trying to figure out what the heck is going on in the first paragraph with oars and pops. They might not even make it to the second paragraph where the real meat is. It’s safe to make the call here that the average reader of this text will not be inconvenienced if those details are simplified or left out altogether.
So how would I write it?
Here’s my revision (I’m happy to take comments with additional revisions…love collaborative writing!):
Throughout the day, you may experience temporary Internet outages due to overheating of some connection-related equipment.
The University of Nowhere is part of a larger consortium that uses the Ohio Academic Resources Network (OARnet) service. This service provides the fiberoptic backbone that connects UN to the rest of the Internet.
Yesterday OARnet’s facility experienced an air conditioning failure causing some heat-related issues to some equipment. Once the air conditioning unit has been replaced and the facility has returned to a safe temperature, OARnet’s engineers will replace any necessary hardware. UN engineers will also monitor the university’s equipment to minimize outages and determine any necessary replacements. UN and OARnet engineers will work to coordinate any required outages.
We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause. Thank you for your patience as we work to resolve this issue.
This revision is not meant as a knock on the writer’s expertise. While the IT expert who wrote this original email was obviously quite familiar with the equipment and process, the readers were not. It’s an example of why collaboration between technical writer and subject matter expert are so important. It’s a testament to why technical writing courses should be requirements for any engineering, scientific or computer-related major.
Taking a technical writing course can help those technically-minded future engineers, technicians, medical professionals, etc. translate their message into an effective communication for non-expert readers. And, they can train writers to take murky, overly-complicated content and turn it into something understandable. The ability to translate and deliver knowledge is critical to any successful career.
So, engineers and writers shake hands and become friends. Close ones.