Technical Authors what we are and what we are not

Whatever your view of a Technical Author, do not be fooled by that title. We are much more than people realise, and we can help in ways you never thought possible. So, let me bust the myth about what we are and what we are not.

Would you mind reading on? 

What I or WE are NOT

Software developer

If I knew BASIC, C/C++, Java, you know where I’m going, I would be earning far more as a developer.  I receive many calls for API documentation, a niche skill requiring knowledge of the code used in an API.

Project Manager

I will be careful here. I am not a project manager certified through Prince2, Agile Scrum, etc. My PM skills are relevant to technical documentation, whereby I set my schedule and arrange meetings with SMEs and other stakeholders. 

Beyond documentation, my PM skills do not stretch to:

      • the provision of detailed project planning, including progress evaluation, risk management, issue and resolution. If that is essential, hire a full-time Project Manager.
      • A secretary organising the working lives of colleagues,  and taking minutes. I do record my meetings (with a dictaphone) and extract the relevant information for the documents.

Technical Authoring on its own is a time-consuming role, and any expectations from me over and beyond the documentation scope of the project might be pushing my ability to get things done in a timely matter. Remember, our skill is documentation and how to fill those documents with information. 

I can 

Sit with your SMEs and open their heads to extract all that hidden information. I then use it to build a document explaining to your non-technical audience how it works.  

While I will be familiar with the terminology, remember I am not an expert in your department. I learn on the job. 

I do supply effective written / verbal communication and collaboration, sympathy and encouragement to get things done. It isn’t as painful as people think.

I’m a third party

As an external consultant, I make decisions after a period of reflection on your situation and your expectations using MoSCoW. That stands for four different categories of initiatives: 

      • must-haves, 
      • should-haves, 
      • could-haves, and 
      • will not have. 

The “W”, should you prefer, can mean wishful thinking

Let me have it

When I join, please throw your documentation at me, everything, wherever it is and let me sift through it all. I have my own excel spreadsheets to track and control the documentation.

While I am at it, I suggest analysing SharePoint and/or Confluence and define exactly how your teams will manage the documents/content. 

The efficient management of both applications improves the flow of information available to your teams.

By now, I know where the knowledge gaps are, where I can improve the documents and start working with your SMEs. 

Project Management 

As mentioned above, I do possess the relevant skills within the context of a Technical Author. 

      • Design new template
      • Improve structure of existing documents
      • Process documentation across several categories,
      • Arrange meetings with SME’s,
      • I use tried and tested methods to plan, write, review, publish and maintain the content.
      • Write/update the documents.
      • Procedures and processes updates,

An aid to Content Development

With over 23 years of experience behind me, I already own an extensive library of generic documentation and various templates. If you have no documentation, we can tweak any document to meet the profile of your business. It saves not only time but also money. 

ITIL and ITSM

I have experience in producing the following document types: 

      • IT Service Management (ITSM) based on ITIL best practices. Level 1 to 4 BPMN VISIO Processes and Narratives.
      • Service Design, Service Transition, Service Operation and Continual Service Improvement,
      • Delivery and Service Support, 
      • Availability, 
      • Capacity, 
      • IT Service Continuity Management; 
      • Incident, 
      • Problem, 
      • Change, 
      • Release, 
      • Configuration Management and 
      • Service Desk.

Policy and Process

      • Delivering written Policy, Process & Standards
      • ISO27001/9001 compliance documentation to support a company’s GDPRPCI/DSSSecurity project
      • documentation to support a Disaster Recovery scenario

Infrastructure Documents

      • Operating Infrastructure documentation to support the functions of a large-scale Network
      • A suite of documentation to help IT teams manage the pre-migration and post-migration stages of a Cloud-based service program.

Editing Existing Content

Enhancements may include: 

      • adding VISIO drawings,
      • new screenshots,
      • reword policies and content per se,
      • additional narrative to Processes that are light on information,
      • new templates, and
      • Structure to existing Word documents and consistency. 

All information needs a peer review by people who should know the data best and provide feedback. I leave nothing to chance to get what you need in place. 

Tools

Apart from Spreadsheets, MS Word, PowerPoint, VISIO, my skills keep these projects on track. I will also suggest ways in which you can keep the documentation up to date and current. Information is an asset, and without it, you could place the business at a disadvantage.

SharePoint and Confluence

Suppose you have no official documentation strategy or a means of managing the documentation. If so, let me create a plan that will work for you. Documentation needs to be available to all staff and needs to be updated, rewritten and archived appropriately. Other aspects that need managing are ownership, version control and historical control.

If the business uses Confluence, my experience is an overload of outdated content no longer relevant to the company. I can analyse all spaces and check when the content was written and submitted. 

Expectations

Too many to mention, but the immediate impact will be on the following three points:

      • Reduced costs
      • more responsive Help desk/support 
      • better informed staff
      • Confidence performing procedures.

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.

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 | Technical documentation vs Helpdesk

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 writer, ensure their experience matches your requirements. The best candidate will have the correct background and expertise. Listen carefully to their answers as many like me at the interview dispense advice and why a particular route may not work. If they don’t talk through that experience, 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 career in various businesses, the broader and more in-depth their experience will be. However, the only way to be confident is to read their CVs carefully.

Read the CV, and discuss the project. My rule is this: if you cannot see it on my CV, then I haven’t done it. That does not mean I will turn down unfamiliar tasks.

Do they use Social Media or have a website?

Check out LinkedIn for their profile; If you cannot find it 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 offer suggestions on elevating the project with innovations you may not have considered.

Effective communication

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

Do you want a contractor or permanent TW?

Do you want to build a team that includes a TW to keep the documentation up to date, a person who will grow into the environment? However, I caution against hiring a permanent Technical Writer 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 as 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 an odd spurt of activity within the working life cycle; hence, the position of Technical Writing lends itself more to contract work than permanent work.

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

A word of caution

Unfortunately, our profession attracts its fair share of triers. You can reasonably expect CVs from candidates who have had minimum experience preparing ad hoc documentation on projects at work. Unfortunately, that minimal experience does not translate to full-scale projects requiring a technical writer. In many cases, it turns into an expensive flop.

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.

To avoid problems, apply the following advice:

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 limits the Technical Writer’s experience. That also goes for junior writers. For high-profile projects, hire a seasoned contracting professional who can talk through the project with you.

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

Where else can you source a Technical writer?

You have found me. However, I may not be suitable for the role. Check LinkedIn, Social Media sites and 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 that, 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.

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