Pulling Facts, Info, and Good Data From Engineers
by Lester Stephenson
Engineers are great; they invent stuff—nanotechnology, GPS, computers, spaceships. We couldn’t get along without them. But, the very thing that distinguishes them is also the bane of technical writers. Engineers think differently from the rest of us. They are notorious for being unable to put the wonderful things they do into words, written or spoken, in a manner us ordinary people can understand.
They enthusiastically talk and write about their work, but they have their own language. They leave important facts out because they make what is to them a natural assumption that if they know it, then everyone else ought to know it, too. Their head is so full of math, formulas, and theorems us normal people can’t relate. It is as if they are incapable of writing or explaining how their inventions work so that the rest of us can understand.
Naturally, this complicates the technical writer’s task. How can you use information from a Subject Matter Expert (SME) who seems incapable of supplying the full story? All is not lost, as there are ways to translate engineer-speak and get the information you need.
Here is a workable tip that explains a highly successful technique I’ve used to pick the brains of engineers. This technique is not for a complete manual; use it only for problem areas, those incomplete sections where there is something wrong, but you’re unsure what it is.
First, get everything you can from all sources. Go to the equipment and play with it. Talk to technicians, assemblers, anyone you can find. If there is a prototype available, operate it. The idea is to get as much information as possible. It doesn’t have to be organized or complete. This is important because you have to know as much as possible before beginning to write.
Now it is time to interview the engineer. First thing to do is ask for anything and everything available based upon your time with the equipment. Most of the time, it will be little more than notes, sometimes scribbled or stored on some esoteric software. Usually, the notes won’t help much; they will be nothing but lots of info that only an engineer can understand and probably not what you need to create a manual. Even so, study the notes carefully, they will have some valuable info that you can use to pick the engineer’s brain.
Use this information to write your first draft. The draft is valuable because thinking and writing are intertwined so it will help you organize your thoughts. It will quickly show which areas have missing information or don’t make sense. Create a written list of questions covering every item you want to know more about.
Visit the engineer again, ask your prepared questions, and take lots of notes. Be alert and flexible. You will hear many apparently unrelated facts. You must be ready to frame more questions to tie them to the project. As you get answers, you will learn where the holes are in that first draft. Not only that, you will learn new bits of valuable information that may need to be in your manual. When finished, tell the engineer that you will write something up and would like him to proof read it. It is important to tell the engineer so that he knows you will be back. It also reminds him he is a valuable part of the process.
Write it Up
Take the information from the interview, combine it with your previous research, and write it up. Remember this is not your final product. That will become obvious because, inevitably, there will be a few more gaping holes and even some conflicting data. There will also be hints of missing info that you didn’t know was missing. That is okay – these holes and missing information is what you are trying to identify. Don’t look at more holes and conflicts as bad. Instead, view it as progress.
This writing effort should be just like the final product, even though it isn’t. The reason is because this is what you will use to pull the last bit of necessary information out of the engineer’s mind. Be sure to include all photos, illustration, drawings, and schematics that apply to the topic.
Have the Engineer Proof
Ask him to read it over and comment. Have him tell you what you left out. Is there anything else to add, or what should be changed? Expect to be shocked at how wrong your document is. The engineer will read the document and all of those little things necessary to tie up the loose ends will come gushing forth. This will be the most worthwhile session. Be ready to take notes and ask follow up questions.
Finish it Up
It took some effort, but now you have good information to finish your manual. Often times this excites the engineer because it will be the first time he has ever seen his invention logically organized. If this seems like a lot of work, remember this: the challenges you face when working with engineers are the very same traits that make engineers valuable. A little extra effort like that described here will lead to quality manuals for equipment users and maintenance technicians.
About the author
Lester Stephenson is a retired U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer. He served on six ships and a patrol plane squadron in the electronics field. After his navy service, he worked eleven years as a trainer and tech writer for a packaging machine company. Then he founded Stephenson Services LLC where he provides tech writing and training services to business and industry as well as teaching manufacturing and industrial maintenance courses at two nearby colleges. Lester can be reached through Writing Assistance, Inc. at www.writingassist.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.