Recently someone emailed me to ask whether the posts on the Tech Writers UK Discussion group (which I manage) were mainly about software writing or engineering writing. If they were mainly about software writing, my correspondent said, he wouldn’t join the group. I found this question rather curious for a number of reasons.
First of all, the obvious way to find out what topics are discussed in an online group is to join the group. If the discussions aren’t something you’re interested in you can just leave. Next, despite my best efforts, the Tech Writers UK Discussion group isn’t a very active group.
But the most curious thing about the question was the assumption that software writing and engineering writing are different. That hasn’t really been my experience. Writing for product users needs to meet the needs of the audience. It needs to be clear, unambiguous and task focused. Facts (such as settings or parameters) need to be provided separately from step-by-step instructions. These are general rules that I believe apply equally to any sort of user facing writing for any sort of product. My corresondent did not agree. When I asked him whether there really were differences between these two types of writing he replied:
Yes, there is a huge difference between software writing and engineering writing. For example, an engineering writer may write the procedures for replacing the pantograph pan head carbon elements on a train. Many software writers develop help screens for software applications, or may write the specifications for database development. And then there are writers who fit between those two examples, such as medical, financial, governmental, etc. All are talented, just in different areas.
My area is engineering. If your group does not discuss documentation that deals with electronics, mechanics, hydraulics, pneumatics, or similar, then I would have nothing to contribute to the group.
In my opinion, what my correspondent is highlighting here are differences between the domains of software and engineering, not differences in modes or styles of writing. The same principles of clarity and suitability for purpose in writing must apply, whatever the domain. It may take longer or more effort to understand a domain that you are unfamiliar with, but I strongly believe that the principles of technical communication do not change from one domain to another.