Paula Manley, Waters
December 1, 2021
Prior to my life as a technical writer, I worked as a scientist. After studying Environmental science at university, I then worked for a company involved in clinical trials for drugs (treating various cancers, Parkinson’s disease, and other disorders). I fell into technical writing when I came to work for a company that creates scientific monitoring equipment. My department creates the user content for customers and engineers for those products.
As a scientific company, my employer is actively involved in STEM outreach — working to encourage the next generation to study and work in the fields of Science Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. I play an active role myself in that initiative, and I find many parallels between STEM outreach and creating content for users.
With the onset of COVID, it has been increasingly challenging to participate in “hands-on” STEM activities, and there have been alternative methods deployed (including video chats/demonstrations and the sharing of written information). A recent STEM project involved creating several hundred kits for local children; these kits were created with the guidance of a local science museum. The kits combined the importance of bees for the environment with the science of chromatography (a relevant area of science). There were various ingredients included in the kits, but the key element that brought it all together was the instruction leaflet. The leaflet was written using technical writing software and utilised graphics knowledge of a technical writer.
The instructions described how to perform the chromatography experiment — creating a “flower” using the pen and coffee filter paper included in the kits. There was also general information on the museum’s theme of sustainability and the environment.
As you would with a piece of technical content, these instructions were sent back and forth to reviewers from the science museum and had to be written in-line with our company-approved style. The instructions were also tested at the prototype stage by our target audience. Eventually, a final version was obtained.
In my opinion, if you can explain the steps of a scientific experiment (and outcome) to a child, then you can write instructions for customers for other types of content.
Here are the basic parallels that I discovered between community outreach and writing for customers:
- You must keep the instructions simple and the wording clear.
- You must not assume any prior knowledge, but you also need to pitch the information in a way that appeals to those with a greater depth of knowledge.
- You need to carefully plan the layout and flow of information.
- Include key graphics to emphasise the information.
- Ensure that you explain the concept before moving to the instructional steps.
There are parallels between the written instructions for STEM outreach and customer/user documentation, but there are also other key skills that content developers tend to have that are also useful when doing outreach projects:
- We tend to be able to take a step back from the products we write about and can see the bigger picture and purpose of the products we write about.
- We need to have certain organisational skills and listening skills to be able to do our jobs effectively.
- We are not “precious” about our work and can adapt what we create in-line with the needs of our customers.
Although the parallels might not be obvious at first glance, technical writers acquire a lot of skills that are also useful in other situations. I find community outreach very fulfilling, and it is exciting if you can inspire even one young person to take up a career that they may not have considered.