After many years of blogging, and consistent with my desire to move toward retirement, we have ended the Insights blog. Thanks to Doug Bedell for his years of blog support.

Technical Writers As Pencil-Pushing Listeners

Posted on September 13, 2011
Filed Under Technology, The Writing Life | Leave a Comment

It’s great when a technical writer can produce a pristine new procedure from his or her first-time observation of a new piece of equipment and capture what it takes to operate it safely. But it doesn’t always work that way, especially in settings where large numbers of veteran workers are retiring.

The “vets” have a great deal of stored knowledge from their many rounds at the plant, and they’ll be taking it all with them unless technical writers serving as reporters can capture it before they leave. (“Valve 1AS-65 is a pain. When you open it, never open it all the way, because the valve stem leaks.”)

This is called capturing “tribal knowledge.” To get it, you’ve got to go into a workplace much like a seasoned, pencil-pushing reporter. With the existing procedure in hand, observe the veteran worker carefully, listen to what he has to say, question all deviations from the existing procedure, and jot down accurate notes. (At least, though, you won’t have to read them off over the phone to a demanding rewrite man as his deadline approaches.)

Training is great, indispensable, actually. But without tribal knowledge, a plant is likely to suffer a lot of small mistakes, maybe even a bigger one. No one wants that. Oldtimers have workarounds, and those nuances need to be captured by shoeleather listening. Attentive observing, listening and notetaking are better than recording an interview on a cassette tape, because immersing youself in the setting is essential.

Especially with older equipment, don’t ever convince yourself that a book of pristine procedures is all it takes to run a workplace safely and efficiently. You’ve got to do a lot of visiting and listening to write truly and well. William Faulkner or Thomas Wolfe could have told you that, and it’s true in a workplace, too. Old-timers often have workarounds, and they need to be captured for a full measure of reality. – Doug Bedell


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