Ever hear a subject-matter expert (SME) complain that they have to do too much of the technical writer’s job for them? I know I have.
I’m afraid that we technical writers have contributed to this attitude, by being lazy and by not helping them help us.
But it’s not all our fault. Sometimes the SME simply doesn’t understand what’s expected of them, and what isn’t.
To help with that, I’ve compiled a list for SMEs of the things your technical writers need from you. (If you’re a technical writer, this list is for you too. Use it to make sure your SMEs are giving you what you need.)
The technical writers on your project need….
Access to the product. If your product is software, make sure the technical writers have access to the latest builds. If your product is a machine or a piece of equipment, give them access to the lab where they can observe the product and “play” with it.
Access to design documentation. The technical writers need to have the proper authority to access the data repositories where they can get information about the product’s features and technical specifications.
Your time. The writers need to ask questions, and they need you to review drafts. In return, you can insist that they respect your time: come prepared to meetings, stay on point, advise you in advance of draft schedules, and provide drafts that are as complete as possible.
Cooperation. Remember that the technical writers are your allies, not your adversaries. You know that product you’ve worked so hard to build? By clearly explaining how it can help your customers do their jobs, the writers play a vital role in making that product succeed in the marketplace.
Now, to make your job easier, I’ll let you in on a couple of things the writers don’t need from you.
The writers don’t need….
Copyediting. The writers should be giving you drafts that are error-free in terms of mechanics (spelling and grammar). If you find such an error, note it in a comment. If you find the same error again, simply update the first comment to say something like “fix throughout.” If you repeatedly find mechanical errors, stop reviewing and return the draft.
Spoon-feeding. Assume that the writers know the fundamentals about your product, the ways in which it’s used, and the people who use it. If a writer seems confused by fundamental principles, it’s a sign they need additional training. You might recommend some training, but it’s not your job to provide it yourself.
What do you think? What other tips would help SMEs work more harmoniously with the technical writers on their projects?
Very nice. Regarding the spoon-feeding issue, I’ve always known who the “hungry baby birds” were on my various teams. And so did the SMEs – that kind of reputation makes its way around. Although some product features are more discoverable than others — would it *ever* make sense to “discover” an API? Absolutely not — there’s no excuse for a lazy writer.
Well said, Susan. I love the “hungry baby birds” image.
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