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Technical Writing in China

by Tom Johnson on Jun 15, 2011
categories: technical-writing

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 and 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

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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