The Missing Manual: 7 Care Instructions for Overworked & Underappreciated Technical Writers
Crank open the owner’s manual of your new car, and you’ll find a section dedicated to care instructions. The same goes for your new smartphone, blender, and even those ridiculously overpriced athletic shoes that promise to transform you from a weekend warrior into an all-star (of course, the only thing you’re guaranteed is pulling a muscle, pinching a nerve or twisting a joint, but at least you’ll have some really cool shoes to wear to the doctor’s office).
However, not everything that should come with care instructions supplies them, which means that many things — and many people — don’t get the TLC they need and deserve. And if we make a shortlist of the neglected, generally speaking technical writers make the cut. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that optimizing the relationship with your technical writers is easy. It’s really just a matter of dialing up the empathy and understanding. To that end, here are seven care instructions for overworked and underappreciated technical writers that, once adopted, will make a massive difference in their professional and personal experience — and be a significant boost for your team and organization as well. Everyone wins.
Technical writers have no self-interest in making a process or workflow more complicated than it needs to be. They aren’t paid by the word. As such, if they produce something that has a more steps and phases than you expected, then it’s not because they skipped class the day the “Keep It Simple Stupid/K.I.S.S.” principle was taught in technical writing school. It’s because your ultra-simple tool, product or software probably isn’t as simple as you think it is. This isn’t the technical writer’s fault. So as they say: don’t shoot the messenger.
As a breed, technical writers have no problem working in relative (or total) isolation for long stretches at a time. In fact, some of them find this aspect to be among the most important and rewarding aspects of their profession. However, don’t interpret introversion for indifference. Technical writers want — and frankly, need — to be in the loop early and often. This means inviting them to concept and development meetings. They can spot gaps and opportunities ahead of time that will save lots of headaches down the road.
Be assured that nobody hates technical writing errors more than technical writers themselves. After all, technical writing isn’t their hobby: it’s their profession. It’s how they earn their living, pay their bills, buy ridiculously expensive athletic shoes (see above), and so on.
However, when (not if) technical writing errors happen, don’t go ballistic and start using technical writers for target practice. Identify the error, trace back the root cause to avoid a repeat, mitigate the mistake as quickly and practically as possible, implement the correction, and move forward.
And while you’re at it, keep in mind that there is and never has been a 100% bug-free piece of software, and product recalls and updates are so common that most businesses wisely have a contingency budget precisely for these purposes. Mistakes happen all the time, and are committed by some of the best and brightest.
Technical writers constantly must juggle and balance allegiance to two target audiences that don’t always (or in some cases, often) see eye-to-eye: their team that has a message to send, and customers/users who need to receive it. As such, if they question or push back on an instruction, don’t immediately assume that they “don’t get it”. On the contrary, they may “get it” more than anyone else on the team, because they’re constantly evaluating content to see how it will be interpreted, integrated and implemented by those on the receiving end.
Speaking of push back: if you’ve ever felt that attempting to convince the Powers That Be in your organization to make a development change was more painful and less productive than repeatedly banging your head against a wall, then guess what? Technical writers can be outstanding allies to help you build a rock solid and highly persuasive business case.
Or at the very least, you can tap technical writers to document everything — including the warnings that managers and leaders failed to heed — so that when (not if) things go sideways down the road, there’s an ample audit trail to ensure accountability falls in the right laps vs. the wrong ones.
While there are plenty of things that technical writers put on their “least favorite aspects of this job” list, chasing down answers to vital questions isn’t just at the top of the list: it occupies the first 10 slots. Truly, nothing in the technical writing world is as maddening as being responsible for creating documentation on a deadline, but not having the required data to do it in an efficient or competent way.
As such, please — for the love of all that is good in the world, like love, joy and free high-speed wifi — respond promptly to questions from technical writers. What’s more, don’t get irritated when they ask questions in the first place. It’s not that they want to. They have to — especially since they need to write about systems and workflows end-to-end, and most team members only have ownership of one piece or phase.
There’s a very good chance that your technical writers — especially if they have a few years of experience behind them — have documented systems or workflows that are similar to what you’re working on. What’s more, technical writers usually have a wealth of publishing and distribution experience, both in terms of what works and (often more valuably) what doesn’t.
All of this knowledge capital is available and should be exploited. All you need to do is clearly ask (requests go a lot further than commands), and appreciate that technical writers are as busy as everyone else — so they can’t pivot on-demand and run a master class in methodologies or best practices. But the overwhelming majority of technical writers can and will help. Not for accolades, or to have something to brag about at their next performance review. But simply because they’re professionals who like being part of successful outcomes (how’s that for K.I.S.S.?).
At Zoomin, our intellectual and cultural roots run deep in the technical writing world. That’s why our solutions are designed to support technical writers, while at the same time, serve the needs of the broader team — including business units and management groups that don’t compose content, but are nevertheless focused on making great documentation happen.
To learn more, contact us and schedule a guided demo — and don’t forget to bring along your technical writers!