Teamwork In Technical Writing

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During their careers, technical writers come in contact with the management, research, and production divisions of their companies. Such contact emphasizes the fact that the technical writer is part of a team.

You may now be asking, what is meant by teamwork? In brief, it means contributing your skills as a writer or editor to a project at the same time that other people you are working with contribute theirs. Here are a few examples:
  1. You will undoubtedly have to work with nonwriters. By this term we don't mean uneducated people; we mean, simply, people who may do very little technical writing throughout their careers. They may be engineers, managers, personnel people, artists, or audiovisual experts. Always remember that they are experts in their fields. Sometimes you may have to call on these people to provide the basis of a report or a research project or to suggest an illustration to go along with an important piece of work. Sometimes these inexperienced writers will give you sketchily produced work: the sentence structure may be poor or confusing; the style may not be your idea of good writing; the grammar may violate what you have learned in school. Here is where you act as part of a team. You play down any feeling of superiority you may have acquired. You will soon learn that the illustrator is a far better illustrator than you will ever be; the researcher is a far better chemist than you will ever be. Each contributes his or her special knowledge and experience to produce a successful project.

  2. You will frequently work with people who have given little thought to the kinds of readers to whom they are supposed to appeal. In this case, it would be up to you to ask the author of a scientific paper you are editing such questions as: How much do your readers already know about the subject? How "technical" must your terminology be? Do you have to spell out everything? These are the questions of a teamworker, and they must be asked with much tact and a great deal of consideration for people's feelings.

  3. Lawrence T. Hammond, a research writer with Halliburton Services, brings up another situation where teamwork is essential. In brief, he says there is a phenomenon in communications management that many consider a mystery. What causes barriers in internal communication-that is, communication within a company? Some companies seem to spend a lot of time trying to get people to talk to one another pleasantly and profitably, yet they do not always succeed. This is a case for you to use whatever skills of cooperation you possess, to merge with the team, and to practice what we all mean by "communication."
Suppose you have been given the job of coordinating a proposal that is submitted to NASA. Your company thinks that it can pro-duce a superior electrical system for a missile, and NASA is definitely interested in hearing about it. It is up to you to get all the technical data on the electrical system from the engineers who have designed and tested it. Their data probably will be in the form of reports, test sheets, and innumerable calculations. Your job here will be to take this mass of information, sort it out, and retain enough to impress upon the NASA people that your company is well-qualified to handle the job.

But this isn't the end of your assignment. You will have to attend meetings of the sales force so they can help you put your proposal across, giving it sales appeal. Then somewhere in the process, probably after you have written the first draft, you will have to sit down with your company's top administrators, who will want to scrutinize your proposal backwards and forwards, inside and out. They must pass final judgment on what you have written, for the reputation and strength of the company depend on your effort, at least in the eyes of NASA.

Or, suppose that you have been assigned to write a manual. This can be a big job, requiring a team of four or five people-a technical writer, an engineer, a designer, and an illustrator. Writing a manual is usually a long-term project Although the material will originate with the engineers who worked on the equipment the manual describes, the technical writer must consult many other people as well.

You may function as the person in the publication department who is responsible for the production of articles and papers. The basic material will come from the engineers and the research people, but you will work closely with the public relations department in trying to place the articles in national magazines. To get a single article in shape, you may meet with a veritable barrage of management executives, patent lawyers, and supervisors of one kind or another.

You can see, then, that the technical writer is not isolated in a tiny cubicle somewhere. Hours must be spent in writing, and many hours in preparation. The writer becomes adept at interviewing and attending meetings and becomes thoroughly familiar with the divisions within the company.

Finally comes the day when the manuscript is ready for reproduction. But in the meantime, the technical writer has conferred with each supervisor and has consulted the graphics department about pictures of the research involved or arranged to have some sections of the apparatus drawn. Contact has been made with an illustrator or graphics expert to have a chart or graph made.

If the material is to be printed, someone in the printing shop must be consulted. Whether the material is to be printed or reproduced by some other method, schedules with the appropriate technicians must be made. Deadlines must be set with all of these people-the time when all the pieces will be put together and will be ready for final printing. If the schedule has been planned to allow enough time, there will be less chance of a bottleneck in getting the final report in the mail. The pressure of final deadlines can be formidable at times, and the ability to function under them is a prime requirement for technical writers and editors. The proposal or report you are preparing may mean many thousands of dollars worth of business to your employer; the deadline on such a project is not likely to be taken lightly by the company's management.
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