For most of us, when we open newly-bought electronics, we tend to rip through the packaging and manuals to get to the “good stuff”. However, when the dreaded day comes for you to actually dig through your drawers looking for the manual that came with your electronic device, chances are, you really, really need it. It’s at this time that we can all appreciate a clearly-written technical manual that guides the average user in a clear and precise way.
Although it may seem obvious to provide clearly written manuals and documents to users, this hasn’t always been the case for products coming out of China, where the most emphasis was always placed on the product itself. Up until about 20 years ago, technical documents were low quality, difficult to understand, and often riddled with mistakes, solidifying the “Made in China” bias.
These days, with more and more Chinese tech companies going global and needing to appeal to Western markets, the technical writing industry in China has been working hard to reach an acceptable level. And now as we move into 2018, the changes in attitude of Chinese companies towards technical communication is starting to show, with companies like DJI, Huawei, and Lenovo an many more, all releasing products with quality documentation that has been created by both local and international teams.
So, where are these changes coming from? And are they happening quickly enough?
Let’s start by taking a look at the traditional differences between Western and Chinese standards, and then see if these still remain true today.
One major difference between technical writing in China vs the West is the actual people creating the documents. In China, manuals and documentation are traditionally written by the engineers and products developers themselves, which means they may have a very high technical understanding of the product, but they may not know how to express it to the average user in a practical way.
This situation can be even more difficult because the engineers originally write in Chinese before it is translated to English. However, the engineers often will still have authority over the English content – and so the translators and English technical writers can often have their hands tied when trying to make improvements.
In a report published in 2001, the writer expressed that “those who practice technical communication in China today are not educated in the field, nor do they identify themselves as technical communicators”, whereas in the West, technical documentation is written by trained technical communications professionals. But is this really still the case?
Technical writers in the West are expected to have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in technical writing, or at least a formal certificate such as TEKOM. However most technical writing in China is done by people with little or no training.
However, there are now multiple Chinese universities that have started offering courses in technical communications. Universities such as Peking University, Nankai University, and Jiangsu University are offering technical communications courses and even 2-year master’s programs in computer-aided translation. Often these are attached to translation or language degrees so that students leave university with some professional skills.
Although, even now few Chinese technical writers have substantial formal training in technical writing, and they may lack the linguistic and cultural knowledge needed to effectively communicate to different global audiences. And this in part is down to a lack of financial investment from companies in the area.
Chinese companies dedicate a small portion of their budget to TC departments or documentation departments (if they have a documentation department at all) while Western companies often invest large amounts, creating large international teams that utilize tools and processes making the creation and updating of content efficient and cost-effective.
And this investment is important, especially once your company reaches a certain size and you have high volumes of content with frequent updates. Investing more early on and building solid foundations for a scalable technical writing team will save a company both time and money in the future.
However, even though many Chinese companies are starting to invest more in their documentation, this change is perhaps coming a little too slowly right now.
So what does this all mean? Well, it means that the technical writing industry in China is improving and growing. We’re seeing more and more companies investing in hiring international technical writers and translators to support their local teams, and nearly all Chinese tech companies are starting to focus more on the quality of content released.
At CSOFT, we’re proud to be a part of the development of this industry in China, and we’ll be speaking at TCWorld China 2018, on How to Successfully Manage Western Writing Teams. Please comment if you have any experience on the topics mentioned in this article – we’re always happy to hear the opinions of those working alongside us in China.