Technical Writing | Project Managers and Technical Writers

Can project managers and technical writers get along?

I always make the point to Project Managers that Technical Writers are highly organised. They juggle numerous tasks and switch between them with ease. They also have great people skills working with coders, engineers, and technicians of various shades. In the meantime, they manage a ream of documentation while taking instructions from SMEs. Occasionally a project manager who has never had to consider technical documentation as part of a project offers advice.

techwriting
Project Managers and Technical Writers

 

The technical documentation component of a project does require input from technical writers to help ensure quality technical documentation. A working collaboration between project managers and technical writers can help organisations reap the benefits of the project (because it’s documented), and better internal and external support through documentation.

If you are one of the many Project Managers who has never worked with Technical Writers, bear in mind that we are professionals.  We will not tolerate the viability and quality of the technical documentation to satisfy the needs of others.

Techwriting
Project Managers and Technical writers

So, if you have no direct experience with documentation or Technical Writers consider the following:

  • Take time to talk with your TW(s) because their experience will provide you with a much-needed background in document management.
  • To help plan the documentation, avoid creating timelines as you progress the project.
  • TWs cannot pull documentation from a hat or generate a document from code.
  • Speak to the TW(s) to gauge how long it will take to review/write/edit a document. In my experience many project managers overestimate the timelines or worse underestimate the deadlines. Always build in flexibility to allow for problems in the documentation process
  • Reviewing a document intended for transformation containing more than 20 pages plus will take time (the general rule of thumb is one hour per page).
  • Time required for writing
  • Peer reviews
  • Time to have the content technically reviewed

Technical Writing | Passive vs Active Sentences

What is a passive sentence?

A Passive sentence is a grammatical voice prevalent in many of the world’s languages. In a clause with passive voice, the grammatical subject expresses the theme or patient of the main verb – that is, the person or thing that undergoes the action or has its state changed.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passive_sentence

Passive vs Active

I can already hear readers asking, what is a Passive Sentence?

Here goes!

Compare these sentences.

  1. The Application is used to collect data (passive)
  2. Use the application to collect data (active)

or

  1. The key was used to open the door (passive)
  2. Use the key to open the door (active)

or

  1. The wire is fed through the box by the electrician (Passive)
  2. The electrician feeds the wire through the box (active)

In my opinion, using the active voice, sentences provide a clearer more effective message in technical writing and business writing. The active voice clearly identifies the action and determines who performs that work. For clear examples of passive voice take a look at government documents, which gives the wording a dull, bureaucratic tone.

Over time, writing in the passive voice becomes a habit, one we should all work to change. Of one thing I can be certain, despite the debates, I will continue to use the active sentence.

Technical Writing | Interviewing SMEs

Without Subject Matter Experts to impart their knowledge about their technologies writing that content will be a harder job. So, how does an experienced technical writer consider approaching and interviewing Subject matter experts?

I base my advice on my personal experiences of talking to and working with SMEs. You will no doubt find, like me, that some SMEs are difficult while others are happy to help.

Approaching and Interviewing  Subject Matter Experts 

  1. Make sure you schedule a meeting with the SME in advance, do not turn up at their desk and expect to talk. Most SMEs are busy and might be working on an important task.
  2. Make sure you know the SMEs area of ability and their role within the company
  3. If you collaborate with other technical writer’s check any project management plans or ask if they have already spoken to that SME
  4. If yes check the information to see if it is relevant to you. It will save time asking the SME twice for the same information and prevent any stern reminders that they have already discussed ‘XYZ.’
  5. I use a dictaphone to record interviews because it means if I have any queries I can always run the recording back. To date, no SME has objected to me recording the conversation.
    approaching and interviewing subject matter experts
    approaching and interviewing subject matter experts
    • If they DO object, it will mean listening intently and writing down the information
  6. Approach the Interview at the appointed time:
    • Do not be surprised to find the SME cancels the meeting due to other demands
    • If so, reschedule the meeting
  7. Always regard the interview as another knowledge capture exercise, which adds to your experience, do not assume you know everything before you get there, even if you do.
  8. The SME will assume that you know what they are talking about; if not – stop the interview, and either request a less technical explanation or if you still do not understand then you need to reassess your ability to do the job.
  9. Only schedule an hour for the interview but make it clear that if there are any points which are not clear, you will need to reschedule more time
  10. Be clear – there will be a peer review required, but you will let them know in advance when the document is ready for review
  11. approaching and interviewing subject matter experts
    approaching and interviewing subject matter experts

    If the SME is not aware of your role or why you need their comments introduce the project and you if you have not already done so introduce yourself

  12. The SME may not know everything and may need to refer you to another SME for information
  13. When you return to your desk, start writing up the document. Do not wait for a few days, even if you have recorded the interview
  14. Carry a pad and pen. You may need to ask the SME to draw the infrastructure

Technical Writing | Professional vs Amateur, its a matter of choice

A LinkedIn connection shared a poster, which read: Professional vs Amateur; If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional, wait until you hire an amateur.

In 2004 I had two interviews; one in Watford and Cambridge. Both were software companies looking for a Technical Writer. Neither interview went to plan as in both cases the interviewer seemed distracted and uncertain what to ask.

When the respective agents called with the feedback, both companies followed a similar route. To keep costs down they appointed an internal resource.

Later that year I received a telephone call to tell me that the Watford company after a management buy-out sacked the TA. His documentation failed to meet standards. I was later told that the Cambridge company began to search for an experienced Technical Author after the internal appointment failed to deliver.

The third situation arose when a previous client called. One of their technical writers had left with work to complete. Once I analysed the work, I made it clear that had no time to rewrite the work. The manager to keep costs down employed ‘technical writers’ with negligible experience on a high-profile project for a major Telco client.

I can appreciate the fact when times are tough companies like to make a few savings. However, the difference between employing a professional vs. amateur can be stark regarding cost.

Professional vs Amateur, it’s a matter of choice

What you need to consider is the result. Do you want a professional job or a makeshift effort by an amateur? Many technical writers will point out that you get what you pay for. Be ready to pay the going rate to attract an experienced technical writer who is more than capable of doing the job. You also need to consider our role is not as straightforward people think. There is more to the job than an amateur might think.

In terms of time and delivery, it will save you a lot of time and energy and negate the need to pay twice for the same job.

Technical Writing | The risks of poor document management

The risks of poor document management stem from managing multiple types of documents in different formats, workflows and updates. If the documents, which are in constant use have no defined structure it will lead to an uncontrolled and unmanaged repository. This haphazard approach to managing the document Lifecycle impedes employee productivity.

The scenario is this: you are sitting at your desk when your boss requests the latest version of a critical policy document. When do want it you ask?

The risks of poor document management
The risks of poor document management

Now is the reply as she has an urgent meeting. It is located on the company’s shared drive. Your search starts with your department folder.  However, it is not there. You decide to perform a search and type in the title. Your face falls flat when the search returns 100s of potential matches. You open up the most likely and find they are not current.  Panic sets in and your boss is now calling your desk phone, as she is late for her meeting.

We have all been there, as intuitively as we think we have organized our company “shared” network folders, documents get lost and frustration sets in. Whether it is neglecting to archive or delete the outdated version of documents, images, files, assets, etc. or employees using confusing naming scheme for the folder structure – the point is this archaic means of organising and managing documents/assets isn’t working for your company and it is costing you.

Failure to treat business documents as vital assets can lead to:

  • Diminished document utility
  • Decreased business efficiency
  • Increased operational risk and cost

Effective Lifecycle management

The management of Documents continues throughout their useful lifespans ensuring businesses meet compliance and regulatory requirements while preserving the productivity of employees and agility of business processes:

  • Quick access
  • Frequent review and updating
  • Distribution
  • Conversion
  • Archiving

Document management

The risks of poor document management
The risks of poor document management

If your document library is growing with no control consider creating a Document Management library to store and manage your documentation.

The growing influence of ISO and ITIL requires documentation to contain elements which relate to its History, Versioning and sign off, all of which are easy to incorporate. Going forward your staff should know how to manage the documentation in the absence of someone dedicated to the role.

Technical Writing | Technical documentation vs Helpdesk

technical documentation vs helpdesk
technical documentation vs helpdesk

Technical Documentation vs Helpdesk – Despite the reluctance to invest in technical documentation, many managers bypass a proven way to cut back on calls to the Helpdesk. No doubt many helpdesks provide an excellent service and manage the demands of the users. The problem with most technical documentation including user guides is that it is incomplete and full of gaps. Documentation needs to flow and provide practical tips on how to get the best from the software.  If your customers had well written and comprehensive documentation you could substantially cut back on costly calls to your helpdesk.

Technical documentation vs Helpdesk

technical documentation vs helpdesk
technical documentation vs helpdesk

I have experience in manning a premium line Helpdesk and have spoken to many angry customers whose subjective complaints about the company and the guilty software lead to comments such as:

  • The product is bordering on rubbish, and it doesn’t work, is it bugged?
  • annoyed with the company because the software is garbage
  • I can’t follow the user guide because it doesn’t belong to my version of the software
  • I can’t follow the instructions

When documentation fails to deliver the answer, the Helpdesk records a steep curve in calls. Customers who feel forced to call the Helpdesk Support can hold mixed feelings about the product and company.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

technical documentation vs helpdesk
technical documentation vs helpdesk

Customers are the lifeblood of any organisation, and their demands can vary.  To facilitate their requirements, I created a feedback option to enable internal and external users to point out where the documentation appeared vague.

The developers and helpdesk provided a more detailed solution based on their knowledge and experiences. I created a FAQs knowledge base (or Wiki) for external users and placed the information in the back of the document. The internal staff received the content via a RoboHelp *.chm file.

The FAQs were a success and helped cut calls to support by 80%. I had created searchable information that was easy to find and accessible to all staff.

Experienced technical writers can produce audience focussed documentation that helps customers maintain productivity.

Technical documentation vs Helpdesk

Always treat your documentation and your information as an asset’ and invest in the necessary resources maintain the documentation. The savings could be significant meaning satisfied customers.

Technical Writing | What is technical writing and why you need it

What is Technical Writing?

Technical writing is a skill and should you hear a Project Manager or Subject Matter Expert say: ‘anyone can write so “why do you need a Technical Writer?” continue reading.

Technical Writing like many jobs has many facets. The fact you see Writer in the job title suggests to the uninitiated that primarily we write. You could not be more wrong! The writing takes only a fraction of the time allocated to the project.

Let’s get to the point

Our time is taken with analysing content and listening to Subject Matter Experts.

Our Writing is concise and to the point. We are not novelists describing a beautiful character down to her laughter lines. A poorly written novel will not hold the attention of a reader; the same goes for poorly written technical documentation. A user wants to read the document and understand say – the function of multiple servers and Operating systems within a significant infrastructure. Know how to follow a process or service within a few sentences. We can create a document from the viewpoint of the reader by listening to the user and offering document(s) based on the best solution.

Technical Writing is – as it explains in the box – technical. We speak to Subject Matter Experts and translate their language into content that a technophobe will understand.

We produce documentation in several formats in such a way, to get the message across to our many audiences. What I have written – you too will be an expert. Give yourself a hand.

Key elements of technical writing

Using a consistent language with regards to terminology.

Creating Glossaries to help readers understand the terminology used within the document.

Formatting document headers with the same font size and tables and drawings labelled the same way are important.

From using Excel spreadsheets, Template creation, document versioning, documentation content and types of material, clear document titles and subjects – working with either a shared drive or a document management system and talking to SMEs every day your average technical author is a ‘rare breed’ indeed.

If you have not already read my post titled “Technical Authors are not easy to find’ we do not attract many candidates.

Technical Writing | Hire a Technical Writer sooner, rather than later

As a Technical Writer with over Twenty Years of experience, I have a question for Project Managers and Subject Matter Experts. Have you ever been involved in planning a project (PCI, GDPR, ISO27001, ITIL) where documentation is critical; if so, how did it go? Crucially, did the project achieve its aims of delivering ALL the documentation? If not – do you know why the plan failed? It could be that you were unable to hire Hire a Technical Writer for advice and guidance.

Why Hire a Technical Writer?

A collective failure of technical / process documentation projects is the lack of knowledge and expertise during the planning and discovery phases. Many project managers and Subject Matter experts fail to grasp the reality of a documentation project. Many projects fail miserably because the planners do not understand the lifecycle of a document. From the initial draft through various reviews and sign-off takes much longer than expected. I regret to say I have met PMs and Consultants that do NOT know the difference between a written process a documented plan and the purpose of the policy. If that is the case, your project could be in trouble.

How long to write a document?

If you ask a Technical Writer how long will it take to write one document, their reply will be – “I do not know”. Technical and Process documentation depending on the project (PCI, GDPR, Operations, ITIL) will have many different requirements and factors which delay the information gathering, the writing and review stages before sign-off.

The likely reality of writing a 30-page document containing:

  • VISIOs (3 or more) comprising between 10 to 30 steps
  • Process narratives (3 or more) of between 10 to 30 steps
  • Appendixes (2 or more)

Will amount to – give or take – at least 8 – 12 weeks of effort before it gets to the review stage. However, the more content the document contains and the more complicated it becomes, the longer it will take.

My advice is not to plan such a project without professional help.

If you are wondering why it takes so long – it is worth noting that compliance projects such as PCI and GDPR generate a lot of documentation. TWs working on large projects could be managing a list of more than twenty documents and every document regarding size and content could be very different.

Hire a Technical Writer

My first word of advice is this – If you have such a plan on the horizon, where the Technical / Process documentation is the primary focus – hire a Technical Writer, not a Business Analyst, to give guidance from the start of the project, NOT when the end date is in sight. The TW can highlight issues, risks and bottlenecks. You will also know what you can reasonably expect to achieve within the allocated time assigned to the project.

The Technical writers will need:

  • a week (at least) to assimilate the project
  • Time for training on any tools
  • access to Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)

Add in contingencies for illnesses, holidays and unplanned absences due to personal reasons and the fact a TW could resign from the project at some point

If the budget and the timelines become fixed (in stone) with multiple documents to complete in a short period, then, consider producing Quality, rather than Quantity.

To ensure quality prioritise, or rank the documents to avoid inconsistency across the documentation set:

  1. Required
  2. Nice to have
  3. Not important

Or use The MoSCoW method.

    • M – Must have this requirement to meet the business needs
    • S – Should have this requirement if possible, but project success does not rely on it
    • C – Could have this requirement if it does not affect anything else on the project
  • W – Would like to have this requirement later, but delivery won’t be this time

Documentation

Who will use them?

  • Documents for external and internal users will require a different level of language
  • What level of information and detail will the audience expect?
  • Does the document need VISIOs?

Additional Points

  • Travel: Will the TWs need to travel abroad or Nationally, if Yes, are they available to go and do they have current Passports/Visas?
  • References: Identify any useable archived documentation.
  • Reviews: decide who will review and who will sign off a document
  • Scope: Could there be any changes which will add to, or change the scope of the project

In summary,

Documentation projects fail due to:

  • poor planning
  • the lack of experience and
  • not allowing enough time to complete the documentation.

Finally: If the success of the project depends on the documentation (Disaster Recovery Plan, PCI/DSS, BCP and ITIL) – why do PMs and SMEs allocate so much of the budget to non-documentation resources?

Technical Writing | Why your business needs Technical documentation

Managers underestimate the purpose of technical documentation until they discover they have no relevant documentation. Listed below are 6 reasons why you need technical documentation

  1. Without technical documentation you have no historical record of any project ever completed within the company
  2. You have no metrics against which to measure current projects
  3. You have no information which outlines the lessons learned and the lessons failed
  4. During an upgrade project the team relies on guess-work to get things right . . . it also means the project will take much longer to complete stretching the budget
  5. What documentation there is lies scattered over several drives and only makes sense to the author
  6. Your valued tech staff have left the company taking information with them in their heads

Now you know why Technical Documentation is important; if you recognise one or more of the points above . . . what’s your next move?

Documentation projects, before, during and after

Documentation Projects

Many Project Managers and Subject Matter Experts fail to understand the challenges posed by documentation projects. To lead such a project, you need to know what is important and how you will achieve the goal. What preparations should you make to ensure you complete the project within budget?

Here follows the best advice on the documentation projects, before, during and after.

There are many types of technical and process documentation. If the project is compliance based (PCI, GDPR) concentrate resources on the documentation. Consider hiring a Technical Writer quickly for advice.

Capture the data/content

  • Check the availability of the Subject Matter Experts as well as other team members critical to the project
  • Consider the audience for the documents as that will determine the level and detail of the material.
  • Remember the level of content and information is only as useful as its source and the ability of non-technical audiences to use and follow the instructions/processes

Organise the document and content

Create a standard template with Heading and instructions regarding the level and type of material the TWs need to gather. As a guide use the following headings:

  • Work History
  • Versioning control
  • Scope/Out of Scope
  • Document Purpose
  • Document ObjectiveIntegrate Level 1 to 3 Headings to outline the topics.
    • You can base these decisions according to prerequisite documentation knowledge to provide the master plan for all future written work.
  • Does it require VISIOs/Screenshots?
  • Appendixes

Do NOT waste time creating project timelines to write and produce the documentation.

Until the information and gathering phase begins, do not even consider a guess about how long it will take to complete the documentation.

As the list of titles grows, Management may need to consider extending the budget to finance the project. Abandoning the documentation when it is ‘Nearly there’ will be waste of money, time and resources.

Decide the output format

When the Technical Writer has written the documents, consider which of the following formats will suit the company’s requirements.

  • MS Word stored in a Document Management System
  • PDF stored in a Document Management System
  • *.CHM files created by using such application as RoboHelp
  • Wiki formats: A Wiki provides the user community with the opportunity to provide documentation feedback

Future Review Requirements

Do not overlook the future requirements of any project. All documentation is an ongoing project. Establish a workflow between the IT teams/Process teams and the documentation department to update documentation.

  • Update the documentation when:
  • the IT teams upgrade or modify the Server/Application/technology
  • document all changes, using a change management process to prevent any repeat the configuration
  • align the documentation and the project

Revise the Project

On completion of the project Use the documentation to:

  • reflect the changes and updates
  • test to ensure instructions are clear, concise and correct
  • Avoid considerable time, frustration, and future expense by correctly applying documentation strategies to:
  •  . . . ensure that users can follow the instructions
  • . . . provide a historical record of the changes made during the project
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