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 | 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?

Technical Writing | The cost of Technical and Process documentation

Why is it that companies view the cost of Technical and Process documentation as an unnecessary expenditure rather than viewing documentation as a centre of knowledge? Management seems to have a blind spot when it comes to documentation and conveniently forgets the role of documentation.

When redundancies beckon, I know how quickly the technical documentation department will be sacrificed. When management seeks layoffs, the technical author(s) will be amongst the first out the door. Months later a member of staff points out that the documentation is out of date and follows up by asking: do we have anything up to date we can use?

In sacking the technical documentation team, no one assumed responsibility. Keeping it up to date is left to those least inclined to keep it up to date. They are the people who would benefit most from its upkeep.

The cost of Technical and Process documentation
The cost of Technical and Process documentation

Within a software environment, we easily forget that as the developers progress their software application, it also becomes more complex. Failing to supply up to date documentation means customers can and do overlook many of the improvements and advanced features. The same could be said of any IT department. As the network grows, there are more questions and fewer answers. No one has a good overall knowledge of the network due to the lack of documentation.

Where does that leave technical writers?

However, you refer to us, be it technical authors, communicators, documentation staff or as the font of all knowledge. Never doubt our experience, our people skills, our ability to write clear instructions.  We can explain complex technical terms in easy to read formats. Who else is willing to put up with blank stares, sarcastic comments and listen to comments such as “whaddya want now?’ to get what your company needs; usable documentation.

The cost of Technical and Process documentation
The cost of Technical and Process documentation

Remember it is not about the cost of hiring a technical author. It is about our value to your organisation. Our documentation will keep your staff informed and up to date. There is a point to keeping your processes up to date as your working environment changes. It is also about keeping that software guide up to date enabling your customers to use your product more efficiently and know they invested in a superb product.

Finally, don’t forget that a technical author will not only you save money now but also at a later date and will keep on saving you money, therefore, over the long term justifying their value to your business.

The cost of Technical and Process documentationClick To Tweet

Technical Writing | Hiring a Technical Writer

Budgets for the job

When you start the process of Hiring a Technical Writer, my advice is thisdo not cut corners when sourcing a budget:

  • Check the daily rates/hourly rates. Do not expect an experienced technical writer if the daily rate is derisory.
  • If your rate is low, you will attract Technical Writers with less experience whereby the result could be a disjointed document with no formatting and poor English
  • A good TW who charges a higher rate may save you money by taking less time to do the job.

Your Technical Writer in the flesh

hiring a technical writer
Hiring a technical writer for your project

Many TWs will have worked in a variety of environments. In due course, we gain knowledge that could provide a solution to other long-running problems. Hence why managers should never underestimate TWs.

What will you need?

Before you actively engage the TW on your site, do you have all equipment ready:

  • One of the most common problems is no laptop on the day they start
  • That their profiles to log in to the network are set up
  • If they are reviewing existing documentation make sure it is available

When you start explaining the work to a TW in company-specific jargon, do not assume they understand you. There is a good chance that the TW during an interview may mention that what one company knows as “XYZ” may not be the same as yours.

What should you do?

  • Be certain the SMEs or others with whom the TW will engage are aware of the appointment and know the goals of the project
  • If you are the primary contact do not disappear without the TW knowing where you are or who is second in command
  • Do not assume the TW is less than proactive if you cannot see them writing down a list of questions and talking to the appropriate people. If they are reviewing existing documentation, they may need a few days to understand the content before they start acting pro-actively
Techwriting Hiring a Technical Writer
Hiring a Technical Writer

If after settling on a start date

If a problem arises let the TW know in advance because:

  • You may need to change the start date or find another job for the TW to assess.
  • Delays will only diminish your budget if the TW is on-site with nothing to do.
  • If the problems are likely to be ongoing be honest and let the TW know – do not consistently change the start dates because it is not very professional and TWs do talk to fellow TWs.
  • Be consistent with the project, its objectives, and deadlines
  • Do not change the parameters of the project by allowing project scope creep.
  • Communicate with the TW as S/he may not have the time to stay beyond the current time allotted for the project.
  • Make contingencies if you need to extend the contract

What will the Technical Writer do for you?

Supply a project plan. Do not expect one within a matter days. if they own a generic copy, they can adapt it for the project; else create one from scratch.

The project plan should include a documentation schedule, including milestones and how progress can be measured.

On longer projects, TWs will complete a weekly project management report, which will outline problems, issues, bottlenecks, etc.

If the contract states that travel abroad or within the UK is necessary, make sure they are available to go.

Foreign travel as part of the contract

Some companies expect contractors to pay their expenses up front on foreign trips.

Might I suggest that they:

  • Can afford to do so without getting into debt.
  • Know the procedure to claim their expenses
  • Be clear on when the payment will be paid
    • I once submitted expenses, which, due to a misunderstanding took three months to process.

Technical writing | Now that you have Technical Documentation

So, after the initial shock of discovering what happens when you have no technical documentation, what can you achieve now that you have technical documentation?

1: Have you employed/contracted a Technical Author . . . Great!! If not what’s holding you back . . . remember we bring value

2: If you cannot see your technical author at their desk you’ll no doubt find him/her performing Vulcan mind melds and extracting the necessary technical information from the heads of your development/infrastructure staff (if it looks painful don’t worry, the job is mandatory!)

3:  Start a discussion about what you need and I’m certain your technical author will only be too happy to help?

4: Once you have technical documentation there is no more guesswork as you have plenty of reliable data against which to measure the progress of future projects

5: You can also employ a project manager who can plan ahead because you know everyone who needs it!

6: Documentation is no longer a problem and what you require is what you will get . . . Congratulations!

Technical Writing | The Problem with Shared Drives

It is not unusual to find companies still use Shared Drives to store their documentation. As many Technical Writers will point out, the problem with shared drives is that they are neither secure nor searchable.

What is the problem with shared drives?

  • The folder structure has too many levels meaning documents are difficult to find
  • There are information gaps as users keep copies of documentation locally and not on the shared drive
  • There is no formal ownership of the documents
  • The title and subject of the document does not accurately reflect the content
  • Document versioning is not used meaning the latest version is  . . .  Where?
  • There are many copies of the same document
  • The failure to maintain a workable Archiving policy means many documents with the same title contain unchecked updates
  • There is no historical tracking of documents to keep integrity of the content
  • Searching for documents on a shared drive will raise many unrelated results

Using a non configured Document Management System (DMS)

It would seem ironic that companies do spend a large amount of budget on installing a DMS such as SharePoint but fail to task an experienced employee to set it up correctly. So what happens when the DMS is left to grow without the correct administration?

  • Failure to lock down user privileges means it becomes a free for all  with no proper administration
  • Check In, Check Out, Document Versioning and Security are not configured meaning user’s drop off documents where they see fit
  • There is no historical tracking of documents to keep integrity
  • Users create folders without proper titles and lose their document
  • Backup of the DMS is irregular

If you want to manage your documentation in a way in which it cannot become a free for all you need to consider a form of document control and establish a policy and a set of rules to keep your documentation in check.

Technical and Process Documentation is an asset, and your staff should treat it as such. Look after it, and it will look after your business.