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What is a solid technical manual?

Technology is language. Master it.

How important is the Dutch language? How important is it to be able to read and write clearly and faultlessly in Dutch? For the neighbourhood baker, for his or her customer, for a general practitioner, a patient, a teacher, a student? “Language is too important to mutilate”, says Lieke Marsman, Dutch Poet Laureate. The Netherlands is only a small country, our language area doesn’t amount to much. Yet, from Maastricht to Den Helder, and from Lauwersoog to Antwerp, it is very useful to be able to communicate well in Dutch. What about the technician in Meppel who has to operate a welding robot? And the technical writer who has to write the manual for the robot?

Well written in catchy English?

All around us, catchy English one-liners can be heard, picked up online, or during a meeting, while binge-watching Netflix, on the street while window shopping or in the lecture hall, cramming for a master’s. How awkward do we feel when we get feedback on a presentation, while we had asked for the feedback on a launch? And, to stay in our own field of the technical writing: in the Dutch language, how important do we consider it to use “manual” instead of “handleiding”, to call a “doel” a “target” or a “helpdesk” a “hulp- of informatiebalie”? How much do we value a well-written text in Dutch? A text in which the d’s and dt’s (a common pitfall in the Dutch language) are also correctly applied, for example. Without spelling mistakes and with clear, consistent language.

Languages in a global society

The Netherlands is the second-best English-speaking country in the world. Seventy per cent of literate Dutch are able to speak, read and write English decently. Only the Swedes do that better than us. That is fine and we can be proud of it. In fact, it is even a good thing. Because with only Dutch, you won’t get very far in the world. In a global society, a good command of the English language is important. Just as it is useful to be able to proficiently write and speak in Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, French, Russian and Spanish. Also in our profession as technical writers, it is important to master more than just the Dutch language. Of course: all technical manuals can be translated, but it is very practical if we can deliver a manual for a vacuum cleaner or a sawing machine, intended for export, directly in a world language.

And yet…

Yet most of the business communication within the Netherlands is still conducted in Dutch. Technical manuals and operating instructions: we very often write them in our own language. Even if they are intended for the international market. Cumbersome? Not if it is a well-written manual. A clearly written text can be translated quickly and easily. But more about that later. It is for this reason that we at Foxiz consider it very important to be able to write good Dutch texts.

“Language is too important to mutilate”

Lieke Marsman, Dutch Poet Laureate

Just a quick reading test

Are you in? Study the two e-mails below, sent by Luke, to his colleague Rose.

1. “Rose, here are the payments you requested for the last two weeks, can you check them before you send them to sales? Greetings, Luke”

2. “Hi Rose, I hereby send you the payments for the last two weeks that you asked for. Will you check them before you send them to the Sales department? Greetings, Luke”

Which of the two sentences do you think fits best in a working environment? Two more texts below, taken from two different packages of coolant.

1. “Make sure that the car engine has not been running for a period of two hours. After opening the bonnet and securing it with the stand, turn the cap of the radiator counterclockwise to remove it.”

2. “Leave the car engine off for two hours. Open the bonnet. Secure it with the stand. Remove the radiator cap. Fill the radiator with coolant. ”

Which of the two texts would you prefer to read if you have never topped up coolant?

A good instruction inspires confidence

Chances are that you chose the second text both times. “Yes, makes total sense,” you will say. And that does make perfect sense. A well-written text reads more pleasantly and easily than a poorly-flowing text. We all know that. A well-written text is also functional. Although Rose surely understands Luke’s first email, she will take the second email a little more seriously. And she might try just a little harder for those payments, because Luke has done his best to write a careful email. The first instruction is vague and unclear. It can lead to incorrect use and perhaps even accidents. The second instruction is concise, inspires confidence and leaves no room for doubt. The reader knows what to do, feels respected and might choose this brand of coolant again next time.

Technology is language

Anyone who writes technical manuals in Dutch must have a good command of the Dutch language (or any other relevant language). In addition to the CE/NEN 5509 guidelines for user manuals, technical manuals must also meet strict language requirements. Some reasons for this are:

• Clear language allows for the correct transfer of information. When using machines and equipment, there must be no ambiguity about their function and operation. An accident is easily caused, with all its consequences for user and manufacturer.

• Clear language, without errors, radiates professionalism.

• Clear language shows respect for the user.

• Clear language, with short, well-running sentences, can be translated well and quickly.

If you want to write technically, make sure you have a good command of your language.

What is a good technical manual?

A good technical manual meets a number of fixed requirements. For example:

• The text is written faultlessly.

• The text is written for a predetermined target group with a predetermined language and technical level.

• The sentences are short and active, and do not contain complicated constructions.

• The text contains simple and contemporary words, suitable for the target group.

• The language is consistent. The sentences and text blocks are constructed as uniformly as possible and contain as few synonyms as possible.

• The text does not contain any English loan words or difficult jargon, unless this is used and understood by the target group.

Is proper Dutch difficult?

Many people say that Dutch is a difficult language. This may be the case for those who did not grow up with this language. Did you grow up in the Netherlands and did you, like almost everybody, learn to read and write Dutch from your childhood onwards? Then it can hardly be difficult. Grammar, spelling, sentence structure: we learned it at primary school. It’s child’s play! Of course, it is possible that by now you have forgotten the tricks of the trade for writing Dutch. That can happen. You’re not the only one. Many people, highly educated or not, often hesitate while writing. Common doubts in Dutch are, for example:

• D, t of dt in conjugations (similar to advice or advise)?

• Hun of hen (similar to then or than)?

• Die of dat (similar to this or that)?

• Jou of jouw (similar to your or you’re)?

• Teveel of te veel (similar to too much or to much)?

Do you recognise these?

Refresh your knowledge of the Dutch language?

Most Dutch language rules are easy to look up on the Internet., and are handy websites which help you retrieve the knowledge you thought you had lost. As a technical writer, are you looking for more professional knowledge to refresh your language skills? Then take a look at the training courses on the Foxiz website. Our Writing Guide training course offers many practical tools for the technical writer.