Technical Writing in China

Ivan Walsh

Ivan Walsh

The following is a guest post by Ivan Walsh.

I didn’t get on a plane until I was 21. I’d grown up in a small town in the west of Ireland with the unfortunate moniker ‘Slash City’. Not the most exotic place in the world. So, when I did start to travel, I moved a lot.

The reason I could do this was mostly due to the mobile nature of technical writing and the opportunities gave me to travel. For most of my twenties I went from one contract to the next. London, Glasgow, Amsterdam, Berlin, San Francisco, Sacramento, New York… and then Taiwan. Well almost…

What brought you to China?

In the 90s, Taiwan was hot. Hard to believe today but it had tons of technical writing work back then. And still does but to a lesser extent. So I decided to go… but changed plans and went to Beijing instead with some friends. It just seemed more ‘exotic’ and in the 90s was still not as explored as today. Since moving there, I’ve worked in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing.

 An Die An Niang Shandong Restaurant in Beijing

the An Die An Niang Shandong Restaurant in Beijing

Is the IT industry in China growing rapidly?

It’s exploding especially in the area of mobile devices, ecommerce (now that credit cards are available) and gaming. Chinese love gaming. :)

It is also driven by a new middle class who have the funds to make high-end purchases, e.g. diamond-encrusted mobile phones, and other status symbols. China is very brand conscious, which partly explains the demand for fake items.

One of the misconceptions about China is that it’s a communist country. In reality, there is a very strong class structure and as Deng said, ‘to be rich is glorious.’

Most of the IT development is located in:

  • Shanghai which has a financial hub and is home to Sohu.com and Sina.com. Both listed in the NYSE.
  • Dalian where Intel has created the largest ‘fab’ for creating semi-conductors and others devices.
  • ShenZhen where RenRen (Chinese Facebook) and QQ (huge gaming sites) have their operations.

Shanghai also has satellite towns dedicated to outsourcing with very modern infrastructures.

Beijing is the admin centre like Washington, DC in the US.

What cultural traits work for and against the Chinese technical writer?

You can look at it from different angles:

  • Language: University graduates with English degrees would be far behind their counterparts in Europe and India. So, quality suffers from this perspective.
  • Communication: Chinese students are brought up to listen and follow, so having a ‘discussion’ can become difficult as they may withhold opinions rather than share as it’s not seen to be appropriate. It’s the opposite of western kids who’ll sprout all type of nonsense, simply to have an opinion.
  • Leadership: One downside is that it can be difficult to gauge the true status of a project as project managers may, for example, work over the weekend (with the team) rather than admit they’re behind schedule. The ‘listen and follow’ mentality can also disallow underlings from voicing their opinions, i.e. so the team lead doesn’t lose face.
  • Innovation: one of the surprises when I moved there was that most everyone could build their own PC. They were disappointed I couldn’t. This stems from having to make do with less, so most have learnt how to find shortcuts and workarounds.

How do Chinese technical writers get training?

Some are English graduates who move into Technical Writing. I don’t know if any universities on the mainland teach tech comms modules. I could be wrong. Most learn from:

  • Overseas Technical Writers – brought in to build a team and create writing and publishing guidelines. There are some lucrative opportunities for Technical Writers who can lead up these projects and provide the framework for Chinese Technical Writer, especially for US firms who’ve partnered with local IT firms.
  • Online university courses – while not ideal, these courses give them guidelines on what’s required and where they can improve.

Is there a particular style guide writers follow in China?

Not that I’m aware of, though I’ve seen many copies of the Microsoft Style Guide For Technical Publications in different offices.

Is outsourcing a trend that you see growing or increasing in China?

Manufacturing has taken a hit recently due to increases in salaries and currency exchange rates. Also, countries like Vietnam are positioning themselves as better value, i.e. low cost, alternatives to China.

From an IT perspective, Shenzhen and Shanghai are leading the field.

BusinessWeek believe Shanghai is the No. 2 city for outsourcing specialties, such as business analytics, finance and accounting, product development, research and development, and testing. Service Providers include Accenture, Cognizant, HP, Infosys, Wipro, and Unisys. (See Top Emerging Outsourcing Cities.)

Likewise, ‘…the offshore service outsourcing business that Shenzhen enterprises undertake has exceeded 5 billion U.S. dollars for the first time; the contract value has amounted to a record of 5.08 billion U.S. dollars, which ranks No.1 in the country… other services outsourcing enterprises such as IBM, Evans, Da Zhan, Peng Kai, Freeborders, and CS&S are accelerating the expansion of business in Shenzhen’ (Shenzhen Becomes China’s Largest IT Service Outsourcing Base).

What cultural obstacles do you struggle with in working with the Chinese in a tech comm setting?

The perceived value of Technical Writing is very low in China.

What this means is that most local firms will not invest in Technical Writers and use developers instead. Or get a graduate with an English degree to write the guides but the end result is less than satisfactory.

Another factor is that in Asia it’s not uncommon for technical documents to be more focused on diagrams, i.e. images rather than text.

In Japan, I saw some wonderful documents — like the Google Chrome User Guide — that were mostly illustrations and helped you see what needed to be done more quickly. So, there may be cultural issues here as well.

Cost is also an issue.

Most Chinese IT firms are very spartan and cost-conscious, looking for ways to reduce costs at all times. So, paying for tech docs can be hard to justify with local firms.

Personally, I worked mostly with US firms that were short of trained writers on the ground or (occasionally) did bespoke consultancy for a few Chinese firms, but that was mostly to return favors rather than for financial reasons.

How long do you plan to stay in China?

We moved back recently so junior can go to high school in Ireland. He learned to read and write mandarin while we there, so it’s time for a different adventure now.

My suggestion to any Technical Writers thinking of going there is to link up with US firms, e.g. Intel, Microsoft, and IBM, and try to get a contract. Stay in the larger cities as you’ll be able to get creature comforts that ease the transition and also find it easier to navigate.

An alternative is to contact Chinese firms that have floated on the Nasdaq/NYSE and see if they need writers in their local offices. Sina and Sohu are two of the most prestigious – both based in Shanghai.

Finally, before you move… visit for a few weeks especially off-season and see if you like the vibe. It’s a great place but you have to take it on it’s own terms.

Ivan Walsh shares technical writing tips, tricks and tactics on http://www.ihearttechnicalwriting.com.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for a gamification company called Badgeville in the Silicon Valley area in California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), content development (DITA, testing), API documentation (code examples, programming), web publishing (web platforms, Web design) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS or by email. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

27 thoughts on “Technical Writing in China

  1. Eileen

    This is a fascinating post – thanks for hosting it. Even if I never go to China, it is interesting to hear how different (and similar) the profession is around the globe, especially with STC becoming more international in scope.

    1. Ivan Walsh

      Hi Eileen,

      That’s a good point about the STC. I think they have – or had – branches in Japan.

      There is certainly a gap right now in the chinese tech comm community in that they have many writers but little experience in leading teams, setting standards, and other high level management tasks.

      Opportunities for those who take them, of course.

      Ivan

  2. Patrice Fanning, Technically Write IT

    I really enjoyed reading this post. Having worked remotely with both developers and technical writers based in China, I can identify with much of what Ivan has written, especially in terms of the cultural traits that impact Chinese technical writers. Understanding these traits and the implications facilitates collaboration significantly.

    1. Ivan Walsh

      Hi Patrice,

      It really does. They’re very shy about giving an opinion but are hungry for direction and… very loyal, which is hard to find these days.

  3. Qing

    Hi, I’m a tech writer in China. I’d like to share my experience of being a tech writer here.

    I studied computer science in college. Starting as a software engineer, I shifted to be a tech writer in a local telecomm firm three years later, where they have several senior writers working on style guides, for Chinese docs and English docs, MSTP and Chicago Manual of Style were the primary references. We also learnt other things, like the Minto Pyramid Principle, task-oriented writing, user-centered writing, etc. The problem there was that the writers wrote in Chinese, then antoher team translated them into English.

    I left for a U.S firm after around six years in the local one, and began to write in English directly. There is an editor who does the editing and also conducts English lessons to help us improve the language.

    Anyway, tech writing is a new career in China. We don’t even have a STC chapter here. And I heard that there are more tech writers in Shanghai than in Beijing. China is changing fast, so do the Chinese people, especially the youth. So, welcome to China!

    1. Ivan Walsh

      Ni Hao Qing,

      Maybe drop the STC a line and see if they will help you setup a branch in the PRC.

      I’m sure they’d be willing to help.

      PS – a tech writing blog in Chinese might be a good way to get leads, if you’re looking for consultancy work.

      Ivan

  4. Ged schools

    I would like you to keep up the good work.You know how to make your post understandable for most of the people.I will definitely share it with others.
    Thanks for sharing.

  5. Jen

    I really loved this blog post! I’m always fascinated by what technical writers are doing in other parts of the world. I feel lucky to be living and working in Germany as a technical writer, with a career that I can easily transport overseas. Maybe it’s just my specific company here, but I feel like they really, really value the work I do because they know they have a big problem with their English documentation.

  6. Ivan Walsh

    Hi Jen,

    Germany is a great place to work as they (among other things) value structure and commit to getting all the parts in place, amongst which is good documentation.

    Almost got a job near Berlin Alexanderplatz yonks ago – which would have been great – but it didn’t work out.

    Ivan

  7. Bob S.

    Thanks for this. I recently returned from a two months travel to China and had a good first impression. One thing I noticed (It is hard not to notice) was the general way Mandarin and Cantonese sentences were translated to English. Advertisements, television programmes and public signs were all way off. It was funny but not very professional looking. I am not looking down or criticizing anybody but it really was something that was very present in China. Very interesting country though.

    1. Ivan Walsh

      Hi Bob,

      There’s a real lack of native english speakers there, especially in communications roles.

      Also, many graduates learn english by reading dictionaries rather than from having conversations, thus the garbled grammar.

  8. Vinish

    Interesting Post Ivan. Apart from clients in US and UK, I have worked with businesses in Finland, Norway, Spain, Germany, Korea, South Africa, and in Australia. For the first time, I am in talks with a business in China, and your post somehow helped me *customize* my proposal and emails.

    Understanding the culture always helps; thanks for the useful post. Cheers!

  9. JENKINS18Ophelia

    Some time before, I really needed to buy a good house for my firm but I didn’t earn enough cash and couldn’t order anything. Thank heaven my father proposed to try to take the business loans at banks. Hence, I acted that and used to be happy with my bank loan.

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  11. Kelvin

    I am exited by finding this post, I am chinese, have been working for this technical writing area for over 5 years, the role function in china still new, but becoming more popular, and starting have larger demands, I remember when I started as a Technical writer in China, no one knows about this job, you cannot find this job position in any of the online recuitement agencies, such as 51job.com, zhaopin.com, but it does nowadays. the needs I see is still from some world leading multinational companies having high quality customer document needs, rather than the local companies. or those chinese company selling their products overseas especially to europe or america.

    The outsourcing service for this area is also the trend in China, I am now preparing to start of my own company for this area aiming for high quality outsourcing service deliveries, I will be very glad to hear and know anyone who has views or ideas of setup TW business in China.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Kelvin, thanks for commenting. If you would ever like to write a guest post about the challenges and experiences you’ve had in creating documentation, I would love to read it.

    2. floral

      Hi, I am happy to read the post and your reply. Currently I am looking for a technical writer job and I am really interested if you could contact me via the email, thank you !

        1. Terri

          I’ve been working as a technical editor for just over 2 years in a Swedish based technical writing company that has an office here in Beijing as well as in Shanghai (as well as a few other countries).

          The writers here in the office are all Chinese with a technical background, that is they all have some sort of technical degree, with some English mixed in. As a native English speaker, it is my role to go through and edit the documents they create.

          From general research I’ve conducted, this seems to be largely the case: technical writing is outsourced to countries such as India and China where the workforce is large and cheap, and native English speakers are relied upon as language experts. It is also preferred to write technical documentation directly in English, and then to translate into other languages as a means of saving cost and time.

          However, technical writing is indeed a new field in China, so many universities are still trying to develop appropriate courses, and this brings forth new areas of concern, such as how to adapt the western method of teaching to the Chinese one, where rote learning is the preferred tool.

          1. tjohnson

            Terri, thanks for commenting on this post and sharing your experiences. So you’re an English speaking tech writer who finds herself in China? How did you end up there? Is it lonely? I imagine that frequently editing technical documentation written in another language must be tedious.

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  14. Terri

    More like the other way round, I came to China and found myself as a tech writer/editor.
    I first moved from South Africa to Beijing in 1995 with my family and attended international schools for most of my childhood years. Then after attending university in England I found myself back in Beijing – it has a way of drawing you back.

    Like Qing mentioned above, my role as an editor also includes helping the Chinese tech writers improve their English, both written and orally. Thankfully the documents are written directly into English, so there aren’t as many issues arising out of translation, but of course it’s still evident how necessary an editorial review is, from a language, structure and content perspective.

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