Technical Author | learn how to project manage documentation projects

As a technical author expert, I recommend that other technical authors should learn how to plan their documentation projects. One of the most common issues project managers face is underestimating the complexity of documentation projects. This can have negative consequences on the project’s success, as inadequate timelines and impossible targets can be set without consulting professionals for advice.

Technical authors, give your career a shot in the arm. Learn how to plan documentation projects. Project managers often underestimate the challenges of projects that involve documentation. This leads to limited success because of unrealistic timelines and targets.

I know the process behind the production of multiple documents. It takes longer than project managers realise. While prioritising other aspects of the project over documentation, they fail to ask a professional for their input and guidance. When the technical author(s) arrive and look at the list of documents and the PM timelines, let’s say you can hear our sighs.

We need clear communications if the PM expects to deliver the entire project. How do you manage 60 + documents? How long does it take to write one document? Have it reviewed, but remember that the document might be out of date further along with the project. Clear communication with stakeholders and team members involved in the writing stages is paramount. The project manager must understand the expectations of the technical author(s) they will work with.

Project plans may face issues when updates require time-consuming document review and revision phases.

Project managers and technical authors can work together to succeed on big documentation projects. However, a technical author to lead might be a better idea and offer better results.

From Contract to Permanent

my transition from contractor to perm

In 2004, while staring at redundancy for the third time, I accepted a six-month contract with BT to fill a potential gap until a permanent role emerged. A former colleague told me that contracting can be a long-term career choice. However, transitioning from a contract to a permanent position can be challenging. He offered various reasons, but I went ahead; I couldn’t afford to be out of work.

trnsition from contract to perm

My first two contracts were with BT in London and their HQ in Ipswich. Then came T-Mobile (now EE), NTTE, and Capita. Before I knew it, five years had gone by, and recruitment agents were calling with contract and permanent jobs. 

However, some agents were reluctant to forward a contractor to a client wanting a permanent technical author. Recruitment agents had stories of contractors accepting a permanent role and quitting after a month (or a week) to return to the contract market. Yet, while I interviewed for several permanent positions, none matched what I wanted.

So, every year, I hopped from one contact to another on multiple tasks, occasionally meeting TAs with stories on workplace experiences; we all understood each other and provided a laugh. 

Note: To be a technical author, you need a sense of humour and a sharp wit.

However, I never got to grips with the gaps between contracts. While the money was above average, allowing me to pay myself an inconsistent amount every month. During the 2008 financial crisis, my earnings dropped by a massive 33%, not helped by a four-month contract gap. During that period, Blackberry offered me a permanent role. Unfortunately, I didn’t stay long because of an overzealous  Canadian-based micro-management team leader. So desperate to make her mark, she called me when she arrived at her office in Waterloo, Ontario. She said during one call I must learn to manage my stress. Yet, she caused me stress by constantly interfering and telling me how to do my job—her two years of experience against my 13 years.

Yet, look on the bright side: with more contracts under my belt, I developed more skills: 

  • SharePoint (Document Management)
  • Confluence
  • Help Desk support, transition from contractor to perm
  • policy & process writing, 
  • VISIO process flows
  • ITIL (incident and change management), 
  • ITSM. 
  • PCI/DSS, 
  • ISO 27001 Audits and 
  • operations manuals for data centre migrations and
  • project management

Goodbye to software environments and hello to the broader world of technical authoring. Not only did I widen my experience, but I also travelled to Pune in India, Germany, Belgium, and Canada. 

I have started but cannot finish.

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

A common trend with contracts is poor budget allocation. In one PCI/DSS project, I worked with two technical authors on a 10-week assignment. When we arrived, the PM had used most of the budget to prepare for an audit, which involved hiring an expensive external consultant with high fees.

We needed to prepare the groundwork, identify SMEs, and divide the sixty titles between us. After five weeks, we began talking to SMEs and writing the documents. But the task was beyond our efforts—too much to do and insufficient time. While the company in question went bust during the pandemic, it had nothing to do with the project. 

Hiring managers and project managers often struggle with the dynamics of documentation projects. Many project managers assume documentation to be a straightforward task. It rarely works out that way.

On my journey to a permanent role, the points below formed the basis of my decision. If you are a contractor considering a change towards a permanent position, consider what you could offer as a permanent employee.

  • I could concentrate on doing what I’m good at rather than spending gaps and seeking new freelance jobs.
  • Working as a freelancer has allowed me to improve my flexibility and adapt to new situations. Technical authors MUST know the meaning of flexibility and the ability to work alone or in a team. 
  • I respond to many people, environments, and attitudes. This experience makes it easy for me to work well with different management styles and personalities.
  • Can they manage me? Even as a freelancer, my remit is contributing to a team. And as a freelancer, I have always been “managed…” by my clients.
  • How would you benefit our clients? If you want me to get involved with client contact, I can help with their needs with knowledge and experience and offer documentation solutions. 

We are also

    • I am confident our considerable Skillset will shine through.
    • Understand issues and be ready to hit them head-on. 
    • experience of multiple environments
    • recognition of common problems
    • Understanding of project needs
    • broad experience
    • Renewed enjoyment of teamwork

What are you thinking? 

Maybe you are thinking, how can I shift from contract to perm and take a sharp hit in my pocket? As a contractor, my earnings fluctuated, with no consistent monthly payments due to:

  • The time between contracts (a few weeks to a couple of months). 
  • Increasing administration and overheads through my limited company. 
    • unemployment insurance (£150 per month to cover me in case of an injury or debilitating illness),
    • personal and public liability insurance (£10m in value £160 p/a), 
    • private medical for quick treatment (£1200 p/a)
    • accounting fees (£1200+ p/a)
    • Travel costs were deductible; 
      • Car mileage
      • Air Fares between Brussels and Gatwick
      • Hotels and meals while working away from home in the UK
    • Increased Taxation on Dividends
    • The Government fails to grasp that we risk takers don’t have holiday pay, sickness benefits, or company benefits.

Pre-pandemic, I received about five calls a week from agents checking my availability for work. Meanwhile, I maintained a growing Excel spreadsheet of calls listing potential clients and reinvented my CV every six months.

During the pandemic in 2020, I was out of work from March to October. My company accounts for 2020 saw a £5000 loss and a £3000 loss in 2021.

In April 2021, to circumvent IR35, I joined an umbrella organisation.

Post-pandemic, IR35 played havoc with the contract market and caused an enormous drop in calls from recruitment agents. 

Here's a fun fact. In eighteen years as a contractor, I worked at 45 different companies. That doesn't include about ten companies where I walked away after a few days to avoid a disaster in the making.

Why did I walk?

The hiring manager sold me a dud while management expectations were unrealistic..

Between 2004 to 2021 over 300 hiring managers received my CV and more than half interviewed me.

The last journey

In 2021/22, after I completed a long-term contract project, I focused on finding a permanent role. Most calls were for permanent work. The HR department of a County Durham-based bank (my home county) offered me an interview. However, HR rejected me because of my contracting background. So, if you are reading this, take note. I am now a permie, see what you missed. 

transition from contracting to perm

While I had three more interviews, the sticking point was the salary. A business owner, one lady, called after finding my CV online and offered me a perm role paying £35K after a five-minute discussion.

And Finally…

So, when I read the Atkins job description, I thought, let’s give it a go, with nothing to lose. During the interview, the interviewer asked the inevitable question. I refer the reader to the first three paragraphs of this post. 

After quitting the contract market, I am no worse off when considering my salary and the benefits I receive. I no longer worry about tax bills, dividend taxes, accounting fees, and various insurances costing a fortune. A permanent role has worked for me and might work for you. Never say never.

What’s the difference?

How many technical writers like me receive calls from agencies trying to source a content writer? It is not uncommon as many writing jobs these days appear under the banner of Content Writer. If you want to choose a suitable writer, read on.

One day, I had to explain the difference between our two titles—comparing my technical authoring skill set to that of a content writer.

Would you know the differences between a content writer and a technical author? If you get it wrong, it will be a costly mistake.

So, what do you know about the following job titles?

      • Technical writer
      • Documentation manager
      • Content Writer
      • Content strategist
      • Content manager
      • Information governance

Technical Writer

First, we have the most comprehensive skill set. We take complex information and make it accessible to people needing to accomplish a task or goal. We must comprehend the process and produce instructions with diagrams.

Before starting a large project, I would ask if they have a strategy identifying the essential documents (the MUST haves). If not, I will create one with a timeline that identifies the production of critical documentation using MoSCoW. Process authors write:

      • Policies
      • Processes
      • Work Instructions
      • Standards
      • How to guide?

We use SharePoint to manage and control documents. 

In the software industry, you can write a wide range of documents, such as

      • user guides,
      • detailed design specs,
      • requirement docs,
      • white papers, and
      • manage a back catalogue of previous records.

Technical Author’s Skill-set

      • Communication skills to write the narrative around the document
      • focussed on detail – without it, the user could make mistakes, or worse, throw the paper away as useless
      • create a consistent process everyone can follow
      • teamwork – impossible to create documents without SMEs
      • technical skills to understand the terminology
      • writing skills go without saying
      • document management,

Document Controller/manager

This role aligns with technical authors; the duties of this role will depend on the industry type. A document manager oversees organisational documents used by employees.

Content Writer and Manager

Content writing produces engaging content for the Web. They’re also responsible for setting the overall tone of the website. Content writers accomplish these tasks by researching and deciding what information to include or exclude from the site.

There are many variations and opinions if you read up on various sites regarding the skill set. These are the most commonly mentioned:

      • Writing skills
      • Focus
      • Originality
      • Research
      • Customer knowledge
      • SEO and
      • Editorial skills

Content Strategist

The job is to create engaging content that resonates with customers and draws. The writer may have significant knowledge of the business. 

Information governance (IG)

IG is a strategy to manage information to maintain compliance requirements and operational transparency. Organisations must have consistent policies and procedures for distributing content. IG lends itself to information security, storage, knowledge management, business operations, and data management.

The differences. . .

Technical and content writers have common goals, such as solid writing and editorial and research skills. However, what the roles create in terms of content are different. Technical writing requires more specific knowledge. The clue is in the title; we produce technical content.

    • Technical writing must be objective and precise, with no personal opinions.
    • Content writing can contain an author’s opinion, figures of style, etc.
    • Finally, technical writers use a wide range of tools for writing, while Google Docs may be enough for content writing.

To get the job done, choose a suitable writer for your project.

Technical Authors what we are and what we are not

Unveiling the True Potential of Technical Authors: More Than Just Writers

Don’t let the title of Technical Author fool you. Regardless of your opinion, do not underestimate us. We have the potential to offer unexpected help in more ways than one. Allow me to dispel the myth regarding our identity.

Misconceptions About Technical Authors

Not Just Software Developers

If I had proficiency in BASIC, C/C++, Java, etc., I would earn significantly more as a developer. While I receive calls for API documentation, a skill requiring familiarity with code, my primary focus remains on creating clear and concise technical documents.

Not Project Managers

I am not a project manager certified through Prince2, Agile Scrum, or similar programs. My project management skills are specific to technical documentation, where I manage schedules and meetings with subject matter experts (SMEs) and other stakeholders. My role does not include:

  • Detailed project planning, progress evaluation, risk management, or issue resolution. For these tasks, a full-time project manager is essential.
  • Secretarial duties such as organising colleagues’ schedules or taking minutes. I record my meetings and extract the relevant information for documentation purposes.

Not Departmental Experts

While familiar with the terminology, I am not an expert in every department. I learn on the job, facilitating communication and collaboration through practical verbal and written skills. My goal is to support and encourage achieving organisational goals without making the process daunting.

The True Role of a Technical Author

An External Consultant with a Plan

As an external consultant, I often use the MoSCoW method to categorise initiatives into must-haves, should-haves, could-haves, and will-not-haves (or wishful thinking). This approach ensures a structured and prioritised documentation process.

Documentation Management

Upon joining, I sift through all available documentation to identify gaps and areas for improvement. I manage documents and content using tools like SharePoint and Confluence, ensuring efficient information management for your teams.

Project Management Skills in Context

My project management skills, while not as extensive as those of a certified project manager, include:

  • Designing new templates and improving the structure of existing documents.
  • Documenting processes across several categories and arranging meetings with SMEs.
  • Planning, writing, reviewing, publishing, and maintaining content using tried and tested methods.

Extensive Experience and Resourcefulness

With over 23 years of experience, I possess an extensive library of generic documentation and various templates. This resourcefulness lets me tweak documents to meet your business profile, saving time and money.

ITIL and ITSM Expertise

I have experience producing IT Service Management (ITSM) documents based on ITIL best practices, including:

  • Service Design, Service Transition, Service Operation, and Continual Service Improvement.
  • Delivery and Service Support, Availability, Capacity, and IT Service Continuity Management.
  • Incident, Problem, Change, Release, Configuration Management, and Service Desk documentation.
  • Policy, Process & Standards documentation for ISO27001/9001 compliance, GDPR, PCI/DSS, and security projects.
  • Disaster recovery scenario documentation.
  • Infrastructure documentation to support large-scale networks and recently migrated infrastructures.

Editing and Enhancing Existing Content

I can enhance existing content by adding VISIO drawings, new screenshots, rewording policies, adding narratives, and creating new templates. I am also skilled at ensuring consistency and structure in Word documents.

Tools and Techniques

I keep projects on track using spreadsheets, MS Word, PowerPoint, and VISIO. I also suggest ways to maintain up-to-date and current documentation, treating information as an invaluable asset.

SharePoint and Confluence Management

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

If you lack a documentation strategy, I can create a plan tailored to your needs. Proper management includes ensuring documentation is available to all staff, appropriately updated, rewritten, and archived. Ownership, version control, and historical control are critical aspects of effective

documentation management.

Key Benefits of Effective Technical Documentation

Implementing adequate technical documentation can lead to the following:

  • Reduced costs.
  • A more responsive help desk/support system.
  • Better-informed staff and confidence in performing procedures.

By recognising the true potential of Technical Authors, organisations can leverage their skills to achieve greater efficiency, clarity, and overall

success.

Get a head start

Templates with generic content

Do you have a documentation project lurking in the background and you are yet to get to grips with the detail? I have available many templates which contain generic policies, processes, and standards content relating to the following documentation:

      • PCI/DSS
      • ISO27001
      • ITIL
      • ITSM

If you are embarking on a project for any of the above from scratch, you can save time measuring into months by using the relevant template.

Consider the fact it can take upwards of six weeks to produce one document of between 20 to 30 pages, imagine the scale of the work if you have more than sixty titles to write from scratch.

The content within the documents will require tweaking to make them relevant to your company, such as Team names and Team members, Technical terms and branding.

However, be aware I do not own a comprehensive list of Policy and Process documents. My library covers the documents that will take time to produce.

VISIOs

I own VISIO drawings covering the following and many more:

      • Incident management
      • Change management
      • Problem management
      • Document lifecycle

Templates with Headings only

You may require a set of pre-headed templates to help you document your Network. You can use these templates to document your servers and use the documents for many purposes.

Training: help new starters gain knowledge about the Network.

Audit: Have to hand information that can help you manage your Network over the long term.

Data Centres: Use the templates to plan a data centre migration.

      • Operating documents
      • Installation guides
      • Profile documents (5-Pages)

Technical Writing: The Survivior’s Guide

Have you ever thought about the role of a technical writer? This booklet based on my Blogs will give you the highs and the lows of the job.  You might learn something useful.

To buy a copy click on the link below.

Technical Writer needs a new direction

I am a senior-level Technical Writer with extensive experience in Content Writing, documentation management, and process analysis. My experience covers medium to sizeable Technical Documentation projects.

Searching for companies needing Technical Documentation upkeep but can’t hire a technical writer full-time.. Any arrangement will be on a contract basis for a fixed period.

My original Technical Writing background was in Banking Software and Retail Software. I later worked in specialist fields, including Operations (data Centres), ITIL, ISO and PCI.

My extensive experience includes OFfice365, SharePoint, Confluence, VISIO and Adobe applications.

If you would like to speak further regarding your documentation requirements, please get in touch with me.

Michael Clark

Technical Writing – The Survivor’s Guide

This book Technical Writing – The Survivor’s Guide is available through Amazon in paperback and Kindle format contains all the Blogs I have written since 2012.

If you want to know how we work, estimate a project, how we view project managers and our role go ahead. Make my day and buy a copy.

Technical Writing – The survivor’s Guide

Give us a break

Give us a break. We need it. I write with authority and experience with over 25 years of experience as a technical author. My enthusiasm for delivering clearly defined documentation/content strategy has never diminished. Yet, two common issues remain for which I have no answer:

      • management expects a quick return on their budget, and
      • meeting people who think our role is a waste of time.

Our role is vital, and without us, standards of written and oral communications will forever diminish. Like many technical writers, I have various skills which overlap into different roles. I may operate under the title, technical author, but I have many more job titles under my belt. What skills do you ask? I communicate with many experts and produce relevant policy and operational process documents regarding maintaining a network. While I may not have the technical knowledge, I could step into a role and manage the infrastructure by working with technical teams. 

What can I tell you?

  • Despite the title, we are not technical experts.
        • we are documentation experts; we have an innate ability to understand the technology and explain with help from an SME how it works,
        • analyse workflows and write complex processes with drawings to help teams work more efficiently.
  • our job is never straightforward as we rely on many factors that hinder progress,
  • A change to one document means changes to related documents that contain exact content; writing is not easy:
      • Try writing 300 words about yourself. When done, look closer; how many errors can you see, and what changes will you make?
  • We work with people who are not technical writers.
      • And people who do not understand documentation but have an opinion on how to write and manage documentation.
  • We are not miracle workers:
      • If you expect to see results within a short period based on an issue that has continued unchecked for many years, you will be disappointed.

Many assume we do a cut-and-paste job and do not know that writing and managing reams of content is a fundamental role. If not, companies would not need people like me to make sense of the problem, offer a solution, and complete the job.

What do we do?

I have worked with developers, engineers (of varying shades), and experts in IT subject matter. The majority either:

        • Regard documentation as a luxury,
        • write their documentation, or
        • I do not see the point,

The developers I have met consider technical writing below their pay grade. If you think we are below your pay grade, you need to understand our role and responsibilities. 

What do we offer? 

We link the business and the users by describing the product’s potential. Knowledge management: if the knowledge resides in a team member’s head, get it out before that head moves on. That knowledge is an asset. A skilled communicator is essential to get this work done. We create critical information that is subject to an audit.

        • Writers can help with ITIL, security standards ISO27001 with quality, processes and procedures.
        • They can also help marketing teams with collaterals, white papers, marketing materials.
        • They can create newsletters—internal and external.

Who cares? No one reads it! 

Try telling that to your customers who spend more time calling your helpdesk. If your documentation is not updated and compatible with their version, you will hear loud and clear complaints. 

Businesses forget their T&Cs contain a clause that explicitly clarifies providing documentation. 

Relax at work! 

We get little time to relax because we’re always looking at ways to improve the documentation quality. It is not a standstill role. As colleagues overlook us in many stages of the development, the release phase can be daunting due to:

      • Last-minute functionality changes,
      • managing un-realistic situations,
      • unrealistic deadlines,
      • Multitasking—working on other vital projects.

This profession has a high level of stress due to a lack of communication. Managers expect the documentation to be ready and available within a few hours. Sorry, unless you have a mega team of technical writers, that will never happen.

Documentation review can wait. 

If that is the case, you must make documentation an integral part of the software development life cycle (SDLC). It will help to:

      • Include the documentation review in the schedules of the reviewers.
      • return review comments to writers on time,
      • Writers are aware of necessary changes before deadlines to make the required modifications.

People assume technical writers only write and think it’s a straightforward job. The importance of technical writing will come when they understand:

      • The actual work we do, as technical writers,
      • the management of multiple issues to enable the completion of a project,
      • the process of documentation is also a process of quality control.

Be aware of your technical writer(s) and what they do to make you look good. Do technical writers work? A technical writer performs many other tasks and related activities as a part of the documentation process:

      • Multitask: work on multiple projects at different stages of completion. 
      • Organise: keep projects to prioritise the work,
      • Be patient: deal with deadlines,
      • Manage: track multiple documents and content.
      • Training: train staff in communication and writing skills.

An SME can do the job just as well. That is debatable:

      • SMEs have their responsibilities, and documents are way down their list
      • gaps in the content are common because they don’t believe certain functions are worth mentioning.
    • A technical writer will revisit the documentation, test for cracks, and add missing content.
        • professional technical writers are: 
        • more efficient, 
        • produce high-quality documentation,
        • structure documents for consistency,
    • design easy-to-use information, and
    • Perform other related writing activities.

My advice, take technical writers seriously, and everyone will be happy.