Text read by Mary Peters

Julia, from Mannheim, Germany, describes her rather unusual job.

I write manuals, instruction manuals, explaining to operators how to use a machine or any other equipment. Currently, I am writing about a conveyor belt vehicle. You will have seen them. This is a vehicle which is used to load or unload suitcases and luggage from planes.

Usually, a manual has a structure which is defined according to industrial standards. It always starts with a chapter on safety instructions. There are many references to the dangerous parts of the vehicle. The person who uses it should not find himself in danger.

You are informed about the clothing you should wear, special shoes, special glasses, the kind of safety equipment that is on the vehicle, the fire extinguisher, the signal lamps and noises you hear in dangerous situations.

This is followed by chapters on the vehicle’s construction and how it operates. You learn how to use different parts of the vehicle.

Then, there are different sections for different people. For example, the driver has his set of instructions but the person doing the maintenance will have another set of instructions. By the time it is all finished, the manual will have about 100 pages in total.

Before writing, I need to familiarize myself with the device or machine I am going to write about. This is usually done by going to the client’s company. With the conveyor belt vehicle, we needed to have a strict plan because we only had 2-3 hours to use the vehicle. So, preparation was of the essence.

One thing on our list was that we needed information about the display in the driver’s cab. The preceding model did not have a display. But there were also other things: the movable barriers, which you can fold down for bulky luggage. We did not know how to do this. We made a video to look at again when we were back in the office. We also take photos and use these to help us write the manual. But before anything happens, we need to obtain a declaration of consent from our customer.

What I find interesting is that you have to explain something in an understandable manner but still use the correct terminology. Sometimes, this can be a contradiction. You have to find an acceptable way to apply all the rules and still keep it understandable.

Here is an example of a discussion we had about which word to use. The word was the German word for “indicator”, the blinking light to show when the vehicle changes direction. Should we say “blinker” or “Fahrtrichtungsanzeiger”. This was quite important because in the field of technical documentation you have to use the correct terms. But you also want to write an understandable manual. If the user cannot understand what the operator has to do, then the manual is not a good manual. The easy option would be to use the word ”blinker”, because this is a commonly used word. But actually, it is technically incorrect. We had a long discussion in the office, and finally, we reached a compromise. We used “Fahrtrichtungsanzeiger” followed by the word “blinker” in brackets.

To help us, we use a library of correct terminology which we constantly update. It is integrated into our technical writing software and works like a spellchecker. If I use an incorrect word, it will give me a correction. But the library has to be used with care, as our “blinker” example showed. 

But, to understand how the equipment works you also have to talk to the constructors and ask many questions. Over time, we generate long lists of questions and send them to the constructors. We have meetings over the phone or face to face, which is important because an answer can often lead to another question and so on.

You really have to be like a detective and find out how things work. You have to be curious and this can be challenging because with this particular client, they have different departments which specialize in different parts of the vehicle. We have many research sources. Often, we get unfinished documents, we get lots of information at different levels of completion. Sometimes you have to go into an unstructured world.  It is like a big jigsaw puzzle, finding all the right pieces. And hoping that there are not more pieces than originally expected. When a 500-piece puzzle suddenly has 501 pieces, then that is not good!

Because manuals are so important and can have far-reaching consequences, I had to reacquaint myself with the language and the grammar of my native language (German). There are certain rules and grammatical standards in technical writing. For example, if there are warnings, you want to address the user directly, so you have to use the imperative form. You should not use reflexive verbs because it should be really clear and easy to understand. Before I started this job, my knowledge of grammar was a little rusty. We also have to proofread each other’s texts. You cannot just say when you think something should be changed. You have to give a clear grammatical reason.

I can say, it is an interesting job. I learn a lot, which gives me enormous satisfaction.