Entry: Industry Knowledge Apr 6, 2004

As technical writers, we spend a lot of time discussing writing skills and technical knowledge. But what about knowledge of the industry our users work in?

I've contracted for a fair bit of my (brief!) tech writing life, and I love the challenge of learning about industries I never knew existed. However, I also consider this the hardest part of my job. For example, I currently work with a company that makes software for clinical research, and it's taken me a while to understand how everything works.

These are some of my observations about acquiring industry knowledge:

  • It's difficult to find reliable sources of information (books or websites) that explain an industry or domain, especially a highly specialized one, to an outsider. Most industry knowledge seems to be the kind that goes undocumented.
  • It helps to talk to people who have worked in the industry. Senior managers, business analysts or marketing people within the company will usually have some kind of industry experience. However, I've also worked in organizations where no one knew enough to guide me. In such cases, I've had to use my network of friends and acquaintances to find a subject matter expert. 
  • Once I'm familiar with the jargon, I find it very useful to read industry journals. They help me become familiar with the business environment my users work in, and understand the challenges that they face.

I would love to know how other writers view this challenge. Do you think writers should have industry experience? I know it's common in industries like engineering, but what about in the world of software?


April 14, 2004   01:29 PM PDT
Hi! Suchitra,
At the outset I like to congratulate every one on this forum to have started something really good for technical writers.
I am aspiring to be a technical writer.

Coming to the point.
I agree with Suchitra, there is in fact a lot of information on the net but it is difficult to extract the kind of data we are looking for. My bet is Internet is just one such source of knowledge. One has to look around for other sources.

Is it necessary to have domain knowledge ??
How about investigating your way?
How about writing after your latest discovery ?

Even if one is an expert in his domain he would not know every thing in his business. I feel writing about what you know is normal. But all fun is with writing on topics which we have never attempted :)
April 7, 2004   05:43 AM PDT
Hi Suman,

I agree that there *is* a lot of information on the internet, but it is not easy to find when you're at the *start* of your learning curve, and unfamiliar with the industry. One of our clients was a company that traded fuel oil on the commodities market. Searches would, of course, yield hundreds of sources, but using these would not give you the complete picture. Once you got some grounding, you would know the exact terms you want to look for. Also, these can only supplement, not replace, the "implicit" knowledge that people with industry experience have.

As for sticking to one domain, I agree that specialization is the way to go. However, contracting for different domains has also been valuable for me. It doesn't necessarily mean superficial knowledge.

Mail me if you want to discuss this further!

(suchi underscore tw at yahoo dot com)
April 6, 2004   05:07 PM PDT
I agree with you, but a smart person would stick to a domain (like finance for example) and stick to it and become an expert at documentation of financial products. For, an attempt to become a Jack of all trades would only backfire.
I do not agree with you that you couldn't find more on the net; I know of researchers that rely on Google. Maybe you need to fine tune your search skills.
April 6, 2004   11:48 AM PDT
Nice to hear from you, Kiruba.

My dream tech writing job is to work with a company that makes graphics/DTP software. I've worked in the industry, and I *know* what it's like to be a user. Audience analysis is easier when you've been one of them! :)
Kiruba Shankar
April 6, 2004   11:22 AM PDT
Hi Suchitra,

You have brought out a good point. I believe that a tech writer is better off if he has a strong industry knowledge.

For example, I'm currently involved in documentation for a semiconductor automation company. Seminconductor is new to me and hence I will have to first do a good grounding in understanding the concepts before I can start to write.

I have known a few colleagues who have been in the seminconductor industry and they are able to hit the road running. Obvisouly, they are better equipped to prepare good documentation.

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