People outside our industry often ask how technical writers write about subjects where we have no specific expertise. The answer is that every writing project is a collaborative effort between a writer and a subject matter expert (SME). Like all products, the final documentation is only as good as the raw materials that go into it – the SME provides the fillings, the writer makes the sandwich! Most SMEs are wonderfully generous with their time and knowledge, and they recognise that time invested in producing good documentation will enhance the product that they may have spent months or even years developing. Occasionally, however, due to time pressures or other work commitments, an SME may be less available than we would wish. This can be frustrating for technical writers juggling their own projects and deadlines.
Take a look at various technical writing forums and it’s immediately obvious that the relationship between the technical writer and the SME can be hampered by conflicting objectives and misunderstandings. It has even provided material for the cartoon writers. The comic strip Dilbert depicts Tina, a long-suffering technical writer working in a dysfunctional organisation.
Challenges of Working with SMEs
One of the main challenges for technical writers when working with SMEs is differing project timelines. Developers may spend months working on code to add some new functionality to a product. Once it has been tested and verified, the development team sees their job as essentially complete and they move on to the next project. The release date may, however, be many months ahead and the technical writer might not be assigned until shortly before that deadline. By this time, the designated SME is up to their eyeballs in deadlines with the implementation phase for the next project. Time spent replying to the technical writer’s queries is time taken away from their current assignment. As far as some SMEs are concerned, all the technical writer has to do is tidy up a few lines of text and add a couple of explanations to an existing document. So, what’s the big fuss about?
Understanding the Technical Writing Role
The role and responsibilities of the technical writer are often not fully understood by the development team. Writing technical documentation involves far more than a hastily assembled explanation of how the product functions. The writer has to ensure instructions are inserted at the correct point in the documentation. They need to be formatted correctly, as well as worded and structured in accordance with the organisation’s style guide. In addition, if a structured authoring tool is being used, the content has to be correctly tagged for it to publish successfully. Finally, the document may require a peer-review by another writer and a full editorial review to be carried out. It’s not surprising then that a non-responsive SME can cause issues for the technical writer as the publication deadline looms closer.
From a writing perspective, the technical review is fundamental to the documentation process as it ensures that information has been documented correctly. Furthermore, as new features are often developed in isolation, it is important to establish whether the addition of new data changes or invalidates the existing information in any way.
Improving the Writer/SME Relationship
So what can we do as technical writers to improve our working relationships with SMEs? Sticking to a few guidelines can make a big difference to our SME interactions:
- Prepare for discussions.
- Establish good communication.
- Agree priorities.
- Say thank you.
Prepare for Discussions
Preparation is essential if the technical writer is going to establish a good working relationship with the SME. This means researching the product and defining your objectives in advance of the meeting. Learning the meaning of some of the key technical terms is a great start in establishing your credibility as a writer. It also demonstrates that you are taking an interest in the subject matter. So checking out the documentation for previous versions of the product or doing a web-search for general information can provide a basic working overview of the product’s features.
Have a number of open-ended questions ready in advance of your meeting. Ask questions such as:
- What does the product do?
- Why would a customer want to use it?
- What does a user have to do in order for this product to function correctly?
Preparing open-ended questions means you will elicit far more information than just asking, ‘Is the product easy to use?’
Establish Good Communication
Find out from the SME how they prefer to be contacted. This may be by phone, email, instant messaging or, if you both work at the same site, in person. Whichever medium you both agree on, stick to it and you will be more likely to get a response.
Establishing priorities is also important; share a list of the main sections/points you need reviewed with the SME. If the SME is under pressure time-wise, this will help push the process along.
Say Thank You!
It’s amazing what a simple email to a co-worker expressing your gratitude for their help at the end of a project can achieve. It helps build a lasting connection and makes it more likely that the SME will be co-operative in future projects. It is also an acknowledgement of a colleague taking time out of their busy schedule to help you.
A good working relationship between the SME and technical writer can be achieved by both parties making an effort to understand and respect the role of the other in the development cycle. If a product is to be effectively utilised by the user, then good communication and co-operation are vital. And at the end of the day, no matter how great a product is, it also needs great documentation for the customer to fully appreciate all of its features.