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Estimating A Technical Writing Project: Part 1—The Plan

by Robert Klemm

Image for Estimating A Technical Writing Project: Part 1 ArticleTechnical writing project planning has several elements in common with any project plan. For example, the plan should include length, deliverables, cost, and resources required by the writer or developer. Yet technical writing project planning also has its own set of elements not found in engineering, construction, or manufacturing projects. The following is a set of key assumptions that will form the basis for our machinery technical writing project planning example.

Key Assumptions

(These must be identified to properly scope the project)

  • Ten Weeks to complete the writing
  • Three operating manuals for three different machines
  • Existing documentation is out of date
  • There are existing illustrations and pictures (will probably need updating).
  • Whoever you need available to talk to, the plant will make them available.

This is typically what the writer is told exists and can he/she complete the project? The answer: OF COURSE I CAN! The struggle is on!

Clarifying Project Assumptions

Now, in order to form a plan that is workable – what is missing or needs clarification from the above Key Assumptions?

Here are a few starter questions that will help with plan development.

General questions:

  • Does the plant run 24/7 or multiple shifts?
  • How are the manuals going to be used?
  • For training new employees on the operations?
  • For providing guidelines for existing operators?
  • To document configuration changes — other?

Operational questions:

(To be asked of 1 or 2 operators on each shift for each machine)

  • What actions do you take at the beginning of your shift?
  • What actions or checks do you perform within the first hour after start of your shift?
  • What other routine checks/inspections do you make during the shift (and how often)?
  • What safety precautions do you have to observe during these checks/inspections?
  • What documentation do you have to complete (when, how often), and can you provide examples?
  • If there is a “line upset” or unexpected shut-down, what actions do you take? What actions do you perform to recover from this type of shut-down? (Provide specific examples if possible).

Required Details for Proper Planning

There are other questions to ask concerning the sampling, shut-down, cleaning, and extended start-up of the machines, but the ones provided here give a solid example of the detail required to properly plan the technical writing of this type of operational manual. Based on the above questions and data, the typical operational manual will have the following sections:

  1. Safety and Housekeeping
  2. Start-up
  3. Sampling/Inspections/Checks
  4. Normal Operations
  5. Up-set Conditions
  6. Shut-Down
  7. Documentation and Shift Turnover

The above questions are part of the preliminary steps in developing operational manuals for any manufacturing or technical process involving machinery.  Over twenty years of experience and results from an estimated 150 projects have shown that this type of information gathering (for 3 machines) takes approximately one week of level of effort (5 days — LOE).

Additional documentation review, plant tours, picture and video (if needed) taking will take another 2 days LOE.

Estimating Technical Writer Production Rates

No two technical writers produce at the same rate, but taking an average production rate of 6 pages a day for a typical technical writing project (one that contains illustrations, charts, and pictures), an operations manual can be written in approximately four weeks (20 days – LOE).

The plan for the writing would be sequential, with a required client review and turn-around time of 3 working days. For example:

Date Submitted Product Date Due
1/9/17 Safety and Housekeeping 1/12/17
1/11/17 Start-up 1//16/17

For a multi-section manual, this type of delivery and review schedule is very important to develop prior to writing. It gives the client and the writer a roadmap to follow. It is also important to note that if the project is going to have multiple reviewers, a single point of contact (POC) should be identified by the client to resolve any “in-house” issues before the review is sent to the writer for completion.

If a format already exists for the manuals, then that format will be followed. If not, then agreement on a new format should be discussed and agreed upon before the writing begins.

Can the project be completed in the required 10 weeks? To answer the question, let’s look at the plan.

Date gathering (Interviews, documentation, and plant orientation) LOE = 1-1/2 weeks.
Writing/development (Each Manual) LOE = 4 weeks X 3 Manuals = LOE = 12 weeks.
Total Project LOE = 13-1/2 weeks

No, it would take 1-1/3 technical writers 10 weeks to finish this projects given the Key Assumptions.

How could this be managed to make it more “doable” within the time constraints for only one technical writer?

About the author

Robert Klemm, Phd., has over 30 years’ experience designing, developing, and writing technical manuals, procedures, and training programs for engineers, technicians, operators, and maintenance personnel in manufacturing, pharmaceutical, chemical, wood products, health care, and service industries. Companies served by Robert realized substantial cost reductions (up to 18%), decreased product cycle time (up to 24%), and reduced customer complaints. Additional experience includes analyzing, researching, and developing the specifications for new business processes and start-ups. You can connect with Robert through Writing Assistance, Inc. at www.writingassist.com or sales@writingassist.com.

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