Does size matter for a technical author?

Pity the poor software project manager who needs to ship their product in ten languages, because today they are looking at roughly £1.20 ($2.20) per word* in translation costs alone.

If they have a programmer delegated to develop the online Help or user guide, then every unnecessary phrase, sentence or paragraph they write can eat into the profits of the project. When products are sold internationally, suddenly the size (of the user documentation) matters.

Don’t imagine you can avoid translating the documents at all. In the European Union, you are legally obliged to provide information in the local language in order to sell in that country. Few Japanese and Chinese speak English, and their culture is geared towards reading instructions – they like to read, prepare and act rather than “dive in and muddle through”.

If your user assistance is too brief, you may also face problems. You may save the translation costs on the one hand, only to see them reappear in the other: via more calls to your support desk. As we are learning from Twitter, the shorter the message, the more important commas and full stops become. Some Twitter messages become really ambiguous, due to their lack of punctuation. What’s more, poor or missing documentation might put people off buying your product in the first place.

The other alternative is to use constrained writing techniques. This is where the vocabulary and even sentence structure is restricted and based on a set of rules. Examples of this are the informal rules used by British tabloid newspapers (where all children are “tots” and there is either “fury”, “uproar” or “joy”) and the formal controlled vocabularies of aerospace maintenance manuals. The challenge with this approach is how to use it consistently.

So a professional technical author can actually help keep costs down:

  • They have that skill of writing information clearly and succinctly – getting the balance right between writing not too many but not too few words.
  • If they are using a content management tool, they can re-use content and avoid unnecessary translation costs.
  • They restrict the vocabulary they use (either consciously or subconsciously).

(*) Based on typical translation costs: £120 per 1,000 words x 10 languages = £1.20 per word


Tom Marshall

Good post, Ellis. The docs I write are translated into 16 languages; this is by far the biggest cost element, and your opening line sums up the situation perfectly. We have moved to XML, topic-based writing and re-use to reduce costs, and constrained vocabulary is next. I think this will become more and more widespread in the general tech-writing field. Equally important is a localisation partner that can also adopt more efficient processes. Not always the case.

Stephen Crabbe

It is interesting to note that English language technical documentation is being increasingly used internationally by both native and non-native speakers of English (Calistro, 1993; Weiss, 1998; Thrush, 2001; Kohl, 2008). It is thus becoming increasingly important for technical communicators to develop English language technical documentation that will be easily and unambiguously understood by a potential target audience that includes both native and non-native speakers of English.

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