How to Work with a Technical Writer technical writer

Having worked as a Technical Writer both for an employer and as a contract consultant for more years than not, I have a thing or two to say. ;)

What to Look For

  • Select someone with experience writing – there is simply no substitute for this. If they can’t write, you will tear your hair out trying to teach them. Don’t. Often developers and training staff are shoehorned into this role, and in my experience, it is a painful learning curve for all concerned.
  • Select someone with experience writing technical information. Those who have no experience in this area may do a decent job, but it is unlikely that they will do an excellent job. There is a way that technical information is presented that is unique to the field.
  • Ask for samples of previous work, if is is displayed online. Alternatively, ask for samples of non-online work, though you may have to wait for the previous clients’ permission to be allowed access to this, if at all.
  • Remember a TW may call themselves any of the following: Technical Author; Information Manager; Information Consultant; Business Procedures Writer/Author; Document Architect; or just plain Writer. Avoid writing off CVs you are sent if they do not conform to the title you expect to see.

How to Make the Best Use of the Technical Writing Resource

  • As the person responsible for introducing the TW to the team, do not leave out the following key activities:
    • before they get there, send a list of the key people and their responsibilities, including links to any organisation charts and who’s who’s
    • introduce the TW to each one, including developers, support personnel, project managers, as well as (the not frequently consulted but crucial all the same) IT, HR and Accounts staff
  • In addition, send a list of links to project resources, such as document repositories, builds, useful software that can be downloaded and wikis. It it an unmerciful pain for the TW to discover these exist after you’ve cobbled together your own spreadsheets or Favourites lists.
  • As a Project Manager, meet with your technical writer often (weekly) to get a real grip on what they are doing, what progress has been made since last Tuesday and what the blockages are. Otherwise, they may simply be making documents pretty and wasting your money.
  • As Subject Matter Experts (read: Developer), meet with your Technical Writer often (daily), so that the full complexity and wonderfulness of the product you design, build and maintain can be recorded, planned and expressed on paper, through videos or tutorials.

Avoid Assumptions

  • Do not make the mistake of assuming that because someone is a TW, that they know everything about your engine, product, gadget, system, or process. They do not. Take it from me. What they do know is what you (probably) don’t: how to present it clearly to an audience, that in some cases will not be very technical. It’s a case of unconscious incompetence (yours) and conscious competence (theirs).
  • Avoid thinking that a quick introduction to your product is sufficient. The TW will have many questions and may ask them many times, not because they don’t know the answer, but because they want to hear the Developer’s angle, the Tester’s angle, the Product Manager’s angle, the HR person’s angle, the Support guy’s angle, and the End User’s angle. Each role has something to add, and most will definitely not give exactly the same answer. This helps create comprehensive, robust content that answers multiple audiences.

How to Waste the Resource (and Therefore Company Money)

All of the below cause delays, in an environment where deadlines are part of the furniture. And, believe me, an uninformed TW simply cannot make up content to put in specifications and guides.

  • Avoid regular meetings
  • Don’t complete interviews (meetings where the TW will want to extract the information from your head!)
  • Avoid completing reviews on time
  • Refuse to take responsibility for approving the final content

That’s it for now, though I may get back on the soapbox at a later date. If you’re a TW, or have worked with one, what are your experiences? Do you have any advice for someone hiring a writer?

And, if you need a Technical Writer, we can supply one. Click to read more about our Technical Writing services.

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