Posted by: eaglexplain | February 14, 2010

Yin-Yang: Technical Writing and Instructional Design

If I was to illustrate how the two traditional disciplines of Technical Writing and Instructional Design relate to each other I would use a traditional symbol – the Yin-Yang. This age-old symbol carries many different meanings, and the few that I’m aware of can also be attributed to the way these two disciplines complement, challenge, and empower one another.

The two disciplines represent (seemingly) opposing viewpoints.

Traditional Technical Writing is predominantly text-oriented and cerebral. Technical writers mostly use the written word to draw a mental image, clear and concise enough for the reader to recreate in his mind’s eye when the need arises. Although illustration often accompanies the reading material, to the benefit of the more visual audience, it can scarcely replace it altogether (unless it’s an IKEA installation guide, in which case – good luck!). However, reading the manual, regardless of how good it is, can never replace the experience of actually using the product in question.

On the other hand, a good training session, verbally delivered (with a minimum of text), is also experiential. For example, a good instructor, using a well thought-out lesson plan, could explain a concept verbally, draw some scribbles on the white board, and then move to a hands-on assembly practice. This iteration in training between spoken and practical instruction is usually a successful mix, which has no immediate counterpart in technical documentation.

Another distinction can be found in the open-ended nature of live training. A seasoned instructor can provide alternative explanations to the same concept on the spot, in the classroom. Conversely, a technical writer provides one good explanation/illustration that should be clear enough for the target reader.

There is some Technical Writing involved in Instructional Design, and vice versa.

As an Instructional Designer writing a lesson plan, I consider how this specific lesson relates to the body of the module. The lesson can be introductory, it can be an in depth analysis of a specific concept/procedure, or it might summarize a specific topic and link it to the next one, along a defined learning path. Furthermore, when putting the lesson to practice, I employ consistency across the training module, accommodating the target audience and subject matter. These considerations run in parallel with common Technical Writing best practices.

As a technical writer considering how to write and illustrate a specific procedure, I work according to an instructional objective: after reading the procedure through, and trying it out on the product, the reader should have initial knowledge of how to complete the procedure correctly. The way I write and illustrate the procedure determines whether this objective is met or not. If I possess and employ training skills, the right approach, and an instructor’s understanding of audience, there is a good chance I’ll write a better procedure which does not require a second reading.

The two disciplines constitute a greater whole.

Technical Writing is used today as primary source material for creating training deliverables. Instructional Designers know that they must consult (and often borrow) from technical manuals to convey the correct information through the training plan and presentation.

This way, a conduit of knowledge – which originates with the Engineering Department’s Technical Writing team, extends through the training staff’s methodology and reaches the customer – is processed and honed to maturity by various people and viewpoints. When a customer provides positive feedback on a training session, it reflects positively also on the source documentation and the staff behind it.

Therefore, although Technical Writing and Instructional Design are different disciplines, they are alike in many ways. They also complement each other, and can join forces naturally to co-create better documentation and better training sessions. 

By Eagle Solomon
CEO, X-Plain Ltd.

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