Click for a printer-friendly version of this article Finance and Insurance Put a Twist on the
Technical Writing Field

by Elenor Robins

If you think writing a software guide is the definition of technical writing, think again. How about twisting that idea into something new and very different? Consider technical writing in a financial world, where tax-advantaged investing, managed funds and dividend scales are just the beginning.

A technical writer at Manulife Financial may help develop a software guide or help files, but that's not the norm -- even though Manulife does develop its own software and online applications. Most technical writing pieces that cross our desks don't relate to software.

Plain Language

Insurance is an ethereal product that is essentially a financial promise on a piece of paper -- a lot of very technical pieces of paper. Insurance products are now so robust that they require technical writers to present them to customers in plain language. Not only must the language be simple, it must be in a language that a lawyer can sanction, an actuary can find accountable, and a marketing manager can spin.

Consider this example:

  • On the date at or nearest the policy monthliversary, payment must be made in full or part or the coverage(s) will lapse and enter a grace period before terminating.
  • A technical writer at Manulife would change that to say, "You need to pay your premium on the due date or your coverage will end.

A Range of Duties

In the insurance industry, technical writers might work on:

  • a life insurance contract
  • annual statements and other client notices or updates
  • a 150-page technical product guide
  • content for Web sites
  • an individualized client letter
  • a templated mass-mailed letter
  • annual reports
  • quick reference cards
  • forms, forms and more forms

This is far from an all-encompassing list. The list of possible technical writing duties continues to change and grow all the time.

A Variety of Work on a Variety of Systems

As a technical writer in the Individual Life Centre (ILC), I am one of a team of writers. We supply the wording for the insurance contracts that are generated on several different types of mainframe computers. After the painstaking drafting and signoff process, we test and retest the output. The constraints of each computer system mean we may have to creatively shorten our ideal wording into something that will fit the character or font restrictions of a particular system.

We create forms in different software on a yet another system. If we don't get the form right, the information requested on the form won't be correct, and clients will become frustrated.

We may also draft wording for our internal and external Web sites or edit 100-page technical product manuals. We may draft warm and fuzzy letters to clients explaining how their policy works or coach our Call Centre staff on writing easy to understand letters. We may even act as consultants on brochures for clients or insurance advisors. We have to understand the content on two different levels, because these audiences have two very different levels of technical understanding. We may edit 25-page "quick" reference cards and compile annual reports that provincial regulators approve.

Our Knowledge Requirements

We need to understand tax legislation, privacy and confidentiality laws, technical product specifications, investment theory and then make all of this information easy for our customers to understand. We need to understand how a number of complex software systems work and what they can and can't do. We need to manage all of our writing in French and English, and sometimes Chinese. We work with project managers, product managers, lawyers, programmers and call centre staff.

Our Customers

Amid the deadlines, system constraints and comments from non-writers on our drafts, we remember our customers, and their need to understand this technical information. Insurance is a valuable part of their financial foundation -- and that's the most important twist of all.

Acronyms at Manulife

How insurance savvy are you? Do these acronyms mean anything to you?

  • ADB
  • BVP
  • CPR
  • GIA
  • WOD
  • ACB
  • COI
  • CDAM
  • CRR
  • PIR
  • TIR
  • To find out what these acronyms stand for, go to the answer page.

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