Who Wrote the Book on Industrial Tech Writing?

I’ve always found that my best clients are the ones who already have a basic understanding of the challenges of creating great documentation. So I believe it’s in all of our best interests to help potential clients learn as much as they can about technical writing and the issues associated with a documentation project. One way to accomplish that is to share some of the resources that I have found useful.

Technical communication covers a lot of ground, and although the basics are similar for any industry, there are differences from one to the next. When I started out it seemed as if technical writing was primarily focused on the information technology and software fields. At that point my focus was on teaching electronics, instrumentation and industrial data communications. Still, there was enough overlap that I could see some potential for using my knowledge and experience as a foothold to build a technical writing business.

To assist with that I made a point to go looking for existing resources that would help me understand the unique challenges of writing materials for industrial clients. It soon became apparent that resources related to the process industries were especially difficult to find. There just weren’t many books, articles or training resources available that would prepare me for technical writing in those areas.

I embarked on a learning quest that spanned a number of years (and, of course, continues today). In the interest of helping potential clients see the value of good documentation, here is a short list of general, and specific, resources that I’m happy to share…

It’s fair to say that style guides tend to be dry reading, but I have found great reference information in having a few key style guides at my disposal, as well as bookmarks to online style guides and other resources. One of the key style guides if you are documenting computer and online interfaces is the Microsoft Manual of Style. It clarifies the differences between “screens”, “windows”, “dialog boxes”, “menus”, etc. as well as how to refer to them in print. Another computer-related style guide, Read Me First! from Sun Microsystems is also useful. For general writing style, word use, grammar, etc. the Associated Press Stylebook and The Canadian Style guides are great resources. There is also a variety of style guides online.

Early in my learning process I worked my way through JoAnn Hackos’ Managing Your Documentation Projects, the quintessential and authoritative manual on managing documentation projects. It may not be the ideal book for a client to plow through but as a reference it can’t be beat.

For the client who wants a practical, succinct (and even entertaining) explanation of why tech writers organize and express information the way they do, Spring into Technical Writing for Engineers and Scientists is perfect. Another useful and accessible one is Alan S. Pringle’s Technical Writing 101.

Obviously there are lots of other general books and resources on technical writing. These are just a few that I have found useful. These days there are countless online resources, the trick being to find reliable materials that are useful to you.

The one resource that I found that does focus specifically on developing procedures and other documents for the process industries is a somewhat obscure ebook called Procedures and Training in the Process Industries by Ian Sutton. Sutton is an American engineer with experience in a number of process industries. He has created extensive training materials and written resources related to process control. This book, which is directly marketed by the author, is only found on a couple of sites online. (One of them is here.) Adding some confusion is the fact that the book was originally titled Operating Procedures for Process Industries before being expanded and updated. It includes information on developing document structures, project management, the differences between standard operating procedures and other types, and several other useful topics. While I don’t agree with all his ideas, I recommend the book for its overall approach.

Finally, since the list of focused resources was limited, I put together my own short ebook, called Building Procedures with the SOP Toolkit, with a couple of associated workshops that I occasionally deliver to clients and industry organizations. I provide more information in my blog article Revisiting the SOP Toolkit on www.roncjohnson.net

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