This is has to be an irony. In the 3rd week of my graduate education in Professional and Technical Communications, I felt like I almost lost my job as a technical communicator. Though my job security was never called into question, not even implied, I certainly took a major hit to my confidence.
I recently edited two 200-page training manuals for public training courses that my chemistry-related software company runs once a year in the Netherlands and in the United Kingdom. This year, we also a private training at a third location for a company in the UK. We sell a niche software suite that has a solid reputation in simulating electrolyte thermodynamic simulation. We’re not talking about Gatorade here; this is the chemistry involved in nuclear power plant maintenance, water treatment and distillation, environmental cleanup, getting fossil fuels out of deep water or shale rock, making plastics, and so forth (before you ask for further explanation about the technology, keep in my mind that my previous job was as a crime reporter for a newspaper). The software has a wide-range of applications and the people who attend our courses come from a wide-range of disciplines. The one thing they all have in common, they can spot glaring typos.
The first course was in the Netherlands. I wasn’t there, of course, but the feedback I got from the instructor (my boss), was that the course was excellent. The software, a new launch, worked better than expected and the training manual was impeccable.Besides editing the training manuals, my job also involves coordinating the training sessions. I have to arrange a facility, food, register delegates, set up their software, and ship material (including the training manuals) to arrive on time for the sessions. Between the course in the Netherlands and the next course in Aberdeen, UK, the only thing I was worried about was to make sure there were enough Scottish pastries for the 9 people attending the Aberdeen training.
The UK is about five hours ahead of NJ. So by the time I got to the office, the UK course was half way through. When I logged into my computer, the instructor had an instant message waiting for me: “Navid, there were some errors in the manual.”
That was the beginning. What followed were paragraphs upon paragraphs of changes that had to be made to the manual before the third training session. The first thing I had to do was to notify the company in the UK that the first few chapters (that’s 9 of 16) had to be fixed. Since this was a private training, I did not have to ship anything them. Instead, that company had printed the manuals themselves. Now, all those pages had to be tossed (this blog post could also be called “How Poor Editing Killed so Many Trees”).
That was a long Thursday. I worked until 2 a.m. to correct the errors. The specific manual teaches clients how to use the software by building on a case that starts in an earlier chapter. There was a significant error in Chapter 2. It carried over to Chapter 9. Although I worked on this manual for weeks beforehand, and reworked it to match with another product build, the results that I captures in the training manual were still wrong.
It has been about a week since this happened and I feel shaken. Making sure the manuals are a up-to-date is roughly 50% of my job. Training people to use my company’s software is an integral part of our business development. Clients entering our training courses have an idea of our company’s reputation but the training manual is sometimes their first exposure to the company. That’s the way I look at it. So, when I see any error, I take it personally. And when I see more than one error – I feel like the world is falling apart. The course was bad, and reflected poorly on me.
According to the feedback we received from clients who attended the training, there was a lot to improve. Two out of the nine people who attended the course said the quality of writing was merely fair:
On the other hand, there is a silver lining (I think that movie with that phrase going to win Oscars), which was also evident in the survey. Most of the people who took the survey said the examples were clear to very clear:
The Aberdeen course had other problems. The software itself was not working optimally, despite it going through rigorous testing. The software crashed and did not produce the desired results. I do not have the chemical or engineering experience to look at certain plots or data – the output of our software calculations – and tell if it is incorrect based on which way the curves go (they all look like bell curves to me). What I could control, however, is the process so that the experts (preferably not our clients) can see the errors before all those trees are wasted.