Technical Writing Strategies for a Job Task Analysis

Job Analysis, or Job Task Analysis (JTA), is often seen as unnecessary – a waste of time and effort. After all, why is it necessary to document what a discipline or position does?

The answer may be more simple than your realize. Because, if you don’t know what is involved in performing a job, and how each task can be measured, how do you know if you are staffing correctly or paying appropriately?

In the initial stages of JTA, an experienced member of our Technology Transfer team visits your site and observes the steps and behaviors of a jobholder while they perform the job. The Polytron consultant then uses this observation to interview the jobholder; to clarify steps or tasks and determine how and when the individual knows the task is complete. In other words, “what lets you know you did a good job?” Then, a position description is prepared that identifies the essential tasks of the job and the competencies, or skills, needed to perform those tasks. All the information is presented in a user-friendly matrix that forms the basis for performance assessments, training plans, and individual learning paths.

Recently, one client used this matrix to institute a pay-for-performance plan that will enable employees to advance more rapidly and be paid more fairly, based on the knowledge they have. The result was a very engaged team that understood what they needed to do to achieve.

The Three Phases of Technical Writing

Solid, effective, technical writing has three major phases: planning, writing, and editing. Each phase is vitally important to achieving the goals of the project. Let’s define each of the phases and why they are important, and how we use each to create effective documentation.

Planning may be the most important part of any writing project. During this phase, the writer identifies the requirements of the project and gathers all the information (s)he needs. You may call this the “questions” phase. The writer is asking a LOT of questions – questions to the project manager and customer about needs and desires for the documentation; questions to the engineers about project execution and design; questions about design and drawing locations; questions about previous documentation – what worked and what didn’t work. Our writers use checklists to help organize the information they gather. The checklists form the basis for the 2nd phase: writing.

During the writing phase, the writer uses the information (s)he gathered during the planning phase to create the technical document. Writing is, after all, more than putting the words on paper – it’s creating a method of communicating knowledge and instructions to the reader. Writing involves organization, creating graphics and screen captures, and checking each and every technical fact to ensure complete accuracy. We believe the better the planning and information gathering, the easier the writing.

When the technical document is completed, we say it is a “first draft”. Then, the editing phase begins. We employ three levels of editing within the writing team: technical editing, proofreading, and final edit. The first edit is the technical content editing. This ensures information provided is technically appropriate to the audience and accurate to the line/equipment – and is clearly communicated to the reader. Next is the proofreading, or grammatical, edit. This verifies that the text and content is well organized, understandable, and grammatically correct. The proofreading edit also looks for errors in grammar, word usage, and standards. Then, the final edit makes sure that all the content and table of contents match. Only then can the Polytron writer submit the completed document for peer, and/or client, review.

All of the different edits that ensures the quality and professionalism of the technical document.

Strategies for Improving Your Writing

Everyone wants to be seen as a good writer – one who can make a point without confusion. Here are some ideas for improving your writing.

Think Before Writing:

  • Refer to a dictionary, thesaurus, and grammar and usage guides.
  • Examine your choice of words. Select specific words to clearly state what you mean. Use words that only have one meaning.
  • Try to write in a simple way. A manual should have no unnecessary content. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words. A drawing should have no unnecessary lines.
  • Think of words such as “enables”, instead of “allows you to” or “helps you to”.

Use Strong Writing and Emphasize Content.

Put new, important, or more difficult information near the end of the sentence.

  •  Weak: Because the photo-eye on the line detects the package, the sensor symbol at the HMI flashes. (Emphasis on flashing sensor at the HMI)
  •  Better: The sensor symbol at the HMI flashes because the photo-eye on the line detects the package. (Emphasis on photo-eye on the line)

Focus on the “real” subject.

  • Weak: The use of the Main screen at the HMI
  • Better: The Main screen at the HMI

 Focus on the “real” verb.

  • Weak: Consideration should be given to…
  • Better: Operators should consider…

Replace helping verbs (is, are) with active verbs.

  • Weak: Field devices are controlled by the Control Panel.
  • Better: The Control Panel controls field devices.

Try these strategies for two weeks and see how your writing improves.

What is Technical Writing?

Good writing is simply irreplaceable; oftentimes you either have the talent or you don’t. Of course, there are levels in between as well, and there’s always room for improvement regardless of your natural aptitude toward the matter. To understand the heart of technical writing however, one must first “come to terms” with what this definition truly means.

So what is technical writing? Technical writing involves designing, organizing, and writing documents to deliver correct, complete, and concise information. For a writer to create a technical document, the writer must be able to understand the audience, the purpose of the document, and the product. The writer gathers information by studying the existing material, interviewing subject matter experts (SMEs), and studying the audience to learn their needs and technical understanding level.

Technical writing may be on any subject that requires explanation to a particular audience. A technical writer is not usually a subject matter expert (SME), but uses his/her expertise to interview SMEs and conduct research. This research leads to accurate, comprehensive documents.

Leverage Existing Content

In your organization, job information most likely exists that can be repurposed or reformatted into workforce development and training materials. This manufacturing training content comes from a variety of sources—operator expertise, work instructions, standard operating procedures, training slideshows, vendor documentation, on-the-job cheat sheets, engineering files, and other sources.

The most straightforward means of gathering content involves interviewing subject matter experts and using existing materials. Sometimes, however, you’ll find that these sources are not always available and you have to dig elsewhere. But where? Here are some strategies for uncovering other sources of information you can use.

Consider additional sources for manufacturing training information.

  • Obtain/review working files – complete (or even incomplete) documents put together by subject matter experts (SMEs).
  • Access non-print media – audiotapes, videos, photos, and other media.
  •  Attend project meetings.
  • Use the equipment or product, or follow the process.
  • Shadow an expert.

Be selective in your search for content. Now that you have new technical information to transfer, it’s easy to risk dumping it all into the training with no relevance to objectives or with little thought as to its placement in the training delivery. With too much information, it then becomes the trainee’s responsibility to manage the mental overload.

Now that you have content, work toward providing the right amount of information, in the right format, and at the right time. Providing answers to a few simple questions will help steer you in the right direction.

  • Is the content part of an overview or introduction that provides the higher view and purpose? Or does it give detail that should be deferred until later in the delivery? Starting with the big picture helps learners create a mental framework for what will follow.
  • Is it a concept that helps explain Why? or How? Does communicating this information during a workforce development and training event help learners understand and remember?
  • Can the content stand alone, or does it require visual support to be communicated effectively? In training for manufacturing as well, sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.
  • Is it a step-by-step set of instructions? In that case, it might make a better job aid—one that can be introduced in the on-the-job training strategy employing structured conversations.
  • Given everything else, is this information that could be deferred to a “more job-experienced or phase II” learning strategy? Sometimes it makes good sense to use a tiered approach to your content delivery to cater to different audience levels of experience.

For additional information on better training through better equipped instructors, see our white paper, Train on the Fast Track.