Choose the right Writer

I wonder how many technical writers like me receive phone calls from agencies trying to source a content writer? Over the last few years, agents and interested parties have asked me to compare my technical authoring skill-set to that of a content writer. Do you know the difference to choose the right writer for a large project?

If I asked you to look at the following jobs titles, would you know the difference?

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

Technical Writer

We are many things to many people; we take complex information and make it accessible to people who may need to accomplish a task or goal. We need to understand what can be a complicated process and write detailed instructions, including process diagrams (PCI, ISO, ITIL, GDPR).

Before starting a large project, I would ask if they have a strategy. If not, I will create one with a timeline that identifies the production of critical documentation using MoSCoW.

In the software industry, you could be involved in a wide range of documents such as writing:

        • user guides,
        • detailed design specs,
        • requirement docs,
        • whitepapers, and
        • manage a back catalogue of previous documents.

Skill-set

      • Communication skills to write and communicate the narrative around the document
      • focussed on detail – without it, the user could make mistakes, worse throw the document 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

Content Writer and Manager

Content writers produce engaging content for Web material and later with experience manage the pages and ensure content connects with their audience. 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.

If you read up on various sites regarding the skill-set, there are many variations and opinions. 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 experience with the subject matter and business.

Document Controller / manager

The duties of this role will depend on the industry type.  A document manager is responsible for control, security, accessibility, and review of organisational documents used by employees, such as policies, procedures, guidelines, forms, templates, and training materials.

The role of a DC and a technical are closely aligned.

Information governance (IG)

IG is a strategy to manage information to maintain compliance requirements and operational transparency. To work correctly, any organisation must establish a consistent and logical framework for employees to distribute content through their information governance policies and procedures. IG lends itself to information security, storage, knowledge management and business operations and the management of date.

The differences. . .

Technical writers and content writers do have common goals. such as strong writing skills, 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 and does not contain personal opinions.

Content writing can contain an author’s opinion, figures of style and so on.

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 the right writer for your project.

Technical Writing: What’s your view

I have been a technical writer for 23 years. I know my role as a technical writer. However, management can undermine my enthusiasm to deliver a clearly defined strategy due to their lack of knowledge and expectations.

It isn’t a new problem, and despite several attempts to address the problem through LinkedIn and my website, two common issues continue.

      • Management expects a quick return on its budget. and
      • meeting people who think our role is a waste of time,
      • Technical Writing: What’s your view?

Who are we, and what do we do?

Here follows a few prompts about our role:

 

      • 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,
        • We can analyse workflows and write complex processes with drawings to help teams work more efficiently,
      • our job is NOT 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 are expecting to see results within a short period based on an issue that has continued unchecked for many years, you will be disappointed.

 

There is much misunderstanding regarding the multiple roles technical writers cover withing a business. Many assume we do a cut and paste job and have no idea that writing and managing reams of content is not straightforward. If it were, then companies would not need people like me who can make sense of the problem, offer a solution and complete the job.

 

I make clear in direct terms that our role is vital, and without us, standards of written communications and documentation will forever diminish. Like many technical writers, I am not a one-trick pony as I have other skills which overlap into different roles. We may have one title (technical writer) but have many more titles under our belts.

What skills do you ask? I have worked with many experts and written process documents covering Incident, Change and Problem Management. I have written policy and operational process documents regarding the maintenance of a network. While I may not have the technical knowledge, I could step into a role and manage the network working with technical teams. I also have the following skills:

      1. Business Process analysis
      2. Documentation management (using SharePoint and Confluence and other DMS),
      3. content writing,
      4. process writing.

What do we do?

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

      • Regard documentation as a luxury
      • write their documentation, or
      • don’t 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 our responsibilities.

What do we offer?

We provide a link between the business and the users by helping users to understand the potential of the product.

Knowledge management

if the knowledge resides in the head of a team member 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, etc.
      • They can create newsletters—internal and external.

Who cares? No one reads it anyway!

Try telling that to your customers who spend more time calling your helpdesk. If your documentation is not up to date and compatible with their version, you will hear the complaints loud and clear. There is also in many cases a clause contained in the Ts & Cs which explicitly makes clear the business will provide documentation.

Relax at work!

We don’t get much time to relax because we’re always looking at ways to improve the quality of the documentation. 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.

There is a high level of stress factor involved in this profession due to uncommunicative team members and unrealistic expectations whereby 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 – development is more important

If that is the case, then 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 in advance of deadlines to make the required modifications.

People assume technical writers only write and think its an easy job. The importance of technical writing will come when they understand the following:

    • The actual work, a technical writer, does,
      • we utilise other essential skills,
      • 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:

      • An SME rarely has time to produce the documentation and has other priorities,
        • your SME may be a good writer, but that does not an excellent technical writer make,
        • they leave gaps in the content because they don’t think it is worth a mention.
        • If so, a technical writer will revisit the documentation and test for gaps and add the 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.

Technical Writing | General Data Protection Regulations

GDPR

On the 25th May 2018, the new General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) came into force.

Companies outside the EU

If your Company actively trades within the EU and stores, processes or shares EU citizens’ data, then GDPR does apply to you.

Compliance and documentation

One of the primary rules is that under GDPR Process activities MUST be documented.

Companies are required to maintain a set of Policy, Process and Plan (PPP) documentation to ensure you have evidence to support your claims should the ICO investigate any complaint or breach of data.

Note that the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) could demand to see the written documents

What do you need to consider?

As a technical writer, with experience writing compliance documentation, what can I tell you?

If you are still struggling to start

My Blogs are clear, writing one document, when there is a substantial list to be completed from scratch to sign off is a lengthy process. Even if your department has documents that can be reused, it will still take a long time. Compliance projects are manually intensive and documenting GDPR will need dedicated resources.

My experience could be necessary to help you write and manage those documents. The sooner you contact me, the sooner we can start the road to compliance.

  • Create a standard template with – Statement, In Scope, Version Control, Change History, Distribution Lists, Roles and Responsibilities
  • All PPPs must adhere to GDPR – include in the document ‘The purpose of the document’, ‘The Scope’ and add a list of the GDPR compliances relevant to the PPP you are writing and explain the WHY the company are complying along with the HOW the company will comply.
  • The documentation must be relevant to your business. Generic documentation outlining a PPP will NOT suffice
  • Complete the documentation – do not start and leave a document incomplete then sign off; an incomplete document could fail a Compliance Audit
  • Maintain the detail – do not half explain a process or policy
  • Structure the documentation to avoid duplicating information over several documents
  • That the documentation may need to be ISO 27001 compliant
Does Your GDPR Project need documentationClick To Tweet

 

Technical Writing | Project Managers and Technical Writers

Project managers and technical writers, two distinct roles. One of my many skills as a technical writer is organisation. We juggle many tasks and switch between them with ease. People skills are important as we speak to coders, engineers, and technicians of various shades. In the meantime, we manage a ream of documentation while taking instructions from SMEs. Occasionally we meet a project manager who has had minimal exposure to technical documentation as part of a project.

techwriting
Project Managers and Technical Writers

If you lack experience planning the technical documentation component of a project I suggest you consult with your technical writer. A working collaboration between project managers and technical writers can help organisations reap the benefits of the project (because it’s documented), and provide better internal and external support through documentation.

If you are one of the many Project Manager who has never worked with Technical Writers, remember 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:

  • 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.
  • TAs 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).
  • The 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 a 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)

Using the active voice, sentences provide a clearer more effective message in technical writing and business writing. The active voice identifies the action and determines who performs that work. For clear examples of passive voice 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

Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are essential to enable you the technical author to write that document. Without their input you will struggle. So, how does an experienced technical writer consider approaching and interviewing SME?

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  SMEs 

  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 work 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 applies 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, it will mean listening intently and writing the information
  6. Approach the Interview at the appointed time:
    • Do not be surprised if the SME cancels the meeting because of 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 clarify 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 to 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 an interview in Watford and later Cambridge with software companies looking for a Technical Writer. During the second interview, I had this feeling of deja-vu in that it followed a similar line to the Watford interview. The hiring managers seemed uncertain. The feedback was both companies appointed an internal resource to save money.

Later that year the Watford company after a management buy-out sacked the TA because the documentation failed to meet standards. I was later contacted by an agent after the Cambridge internal appointment failed to deliver.

A previous client called as one of their technical writers had left with work to complete. Once I analysed the work, I made it clear that I 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 experienced technical writers will point out that you get what you pay for. My advice is to be ready to pay the going rate to attract an experienced technical writer who is more than capable of doing the job. 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 | Sourcing a technical writer

When sourcing a technical author, ensure their experience matches your requirements. You need to source one who has the right knowledge, background and expertise. At the interview, they should talk through that experience; if not keep searching until you do.

Productive years as a Technical Writer

An experienced Technical writer can only be an asset to your team or project. The longer their tenure, the broader and more in-depth their experience will be. However, the only way to be confident is to read their CVs carefully.

Do they use Social Media or have a website?

Check out LinkedIn for their profile; If you cannot find one or a website describing their experiences, what have they be doing?

During the interview, did they communicate?

During an interview be wary of a candidate who sits, listens, and says very little. An experienced TW will respond to your questions and may offer suggestions on how to elevate the project with innovations you may not have considered.

Read the CV and be prepared to discuss the project. I have arrived at an interview to find the interviewer has not read my CV. I have a simple rule regarding my experience; if you cannot see it on the CV, then I have not done it. That does not mean that I will turn down unfamiliar tasks.

Effective communication

An essential part of our job is the ability to communicate with SMEs to gather the right level of detail for the documentation. If the documentation appears vague, it might be time for a chat.

Do you want a contractor or permanent TW?

You may build a team, and you need a Technical Writer to keep the documentation up to date; a person who will grow into the environment. However, I would caution against using a Technical Writer permanently unless you are sure there will be ongoing work.

Work cycles can dip, so be careful how you use the Technical Writer.  During one of my earliest contracts, the project engineer referred to me as a secretary and treated me as one as did the rest of the team. In a much earlier role, my line manager used me to shift boxes and to clean the stock room and a general dogsbody.

A proactive Technical Writer between writing, researching and interviewing could improve the company’s documentation. However, once they get on top of the tasks, the role could become routine and repetitive. There will be the odd spurt of activity within the working life cycle; hence, why the position of Technical Writing lends itself more so to contract work rather than permanent work.

To summarise: if you use a permanent Technical Writer ensure you have plenty of contingencies within their job. To avoid your TW developing itchy feet, I would suggest that you discuss additional tasks that may add value to their experience. Allowing a member of staff use them for jobs, which an office junior should cover will not go down too well.

A word of caution

Unfortunately, our profession can attract its fair share of triers. You can reasonably expect CVs from candidates who have had minimum experience preparing ad hoc documentation. Unfortunately, that minimal experience will NOT be enough to perform the job.

Many recruiting agents have a minimum expertise sourcing Technical Writers. When they speak to prospective candidates, they hear a few buzzwords and place candidates forward for a role for which they are not suitable. Be sure to check that they have the right experience and background.

Applying the following advice may help you avoid problems:

Be careful hiring a Junior Technical Writer or one that has worked in a permanent position for the last five years.

Why: a permanent position can be very repetitive, which means the Technical Writer’s experience may be severely limited. That also goes for junior writers, for high-profile projects hire a seasoned contracting professional, who can talk through the project with you. In my experience, there is a world of difference between a contract Technical Writer and one who has chosen permanency.

Finally, budgets – ensure you are buying the experience you need. In the world of Technical Writing, the price you pay determines the standard you buy. By using the wrong candidate could be a costly mistake.

Where else can you source a Technical writer?

If you prefer to source a Technical Writer, you have found me. However, I may not be suitable for the role. Check LinkedIn, Social Media sites and the online Job Boards. Ask other companies and fellow professionals if they have used Technical Writers and if so, what was their experience. They may have recommendations which in the long run could save you money.

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.