Having a technical writer, either permanent or temporary, can be a great resource to help you produce your documentation deliverables. In this article we’ll share a few quick tips on what your technical writer needs from you to be the most effective.
First up is a dedicated subject matter expert (SME) who can answer questions and fill in the blanks. With technical writing often consisting of 70% information gathering and 30% writing, it’s easy to understand the importance of good access to an SME. A technical writer often needs to understand more details than what will be put in the documentation, so don’t be alarmed when they start asking all sorts of questions to improve their understanding. The SME you assign should be able to describe the bigger picture and what problem the product solves. Resist the temptation to assign a developer working on an isolated component who doesn’t understand the product’s bigger picture. Remember that it takes a good understanding of a product or process before someone can write about it, so choose your SME carefully.
Next up is full access to your tool suite. This includes your content editing software, revision control system, style guides, and templates if they exist. A technical writer will need to understand your company’s language, tone, and styles in order to modify or integrate content and will need to use the same tools you do. If there are special tools in use, be sure to have additional or floating licenses on hand to prevent any delays in developing content.
Similarly be sure that access to resources in easily granted. Granting access can be more difficult than it sounds, especially for contractors in large corporations where strict IT access polices exist for outsiders. So before bringing on a contractor, be sure they will have access to all network folders and revision control repositories and determine the process for obtaining VPN or remote desktop access.
Perhaps one of the most important resources is access to your product. A technical writer will be best served by being able to use the product and trying different things. Ideally this should be done in a test bed of some sort with test data where applicable. An additional benefit is that a technical writer will often also provide usability and QA feedback.
When providing a software product, make sure that the product builds and works. That may sound obvious, but we’ve had many a project where the first couple of weeks were spent chasing bugs and broken builds, when the time should have been spent learning the system and creating documentation. Similarly, you should analyze if now is the right time for a technical writer. If the product is currently too unstable or going through a large number of revisions, then it will be difficult for anyone outside of development to use the product. If a product is in development, then assign a dedicated SME who can assist with build breaks and help the technical writer identify bugs versus user errors.
Finally, allow your technical writer to be involved with all meetings related to the product. This will keep them in the loop as to where things are at and upcoming changes and milestones.
Consider them a key resource on your team, and the skills they bring will benefit both you and your customers.