Ten things Clients should know about Technical Writing

As you might expect, technical writing is not just about writing. Certainly writing is a core skill, but depending on the job, the industry, and the purpose of the writing, a technical writer may wear many hats. Often tech writers’ responsibilities touch on editing, graphics, photography, formatting, marketing, training, designing, and document management/control, just to name a few.

That said, my experience has been that clients typically don’t understand what a technical writer does, why they do it, or how they go about accomplishing their tasks. As a result, clients have trouble accepting the value proposition being offered. That often leads to tech writing services and work product being under-valued, overlooked and under-maintained.

I make these comments with all respect. It isn’t the client’s responsibility to know technical writing. But there are a few things that technical writers wish their clients understood about technical writing. Here are a few of them.

1.  Tech writers focus on the user.

Everything is rooted in serving the user of the documentation, which means that the user must be identified and their needs assessed. We need a target to shoot at and it’s important to not include too wide a range of users for a particular document.

2.  Tech writers (usually) aren’t SMEs.

Every technical writer tries to develop a basic understanding of the content, but usually they won’t be at the level of their subject matter experts. Clients need to understand this, and make sure the technical writer gets the support needed to do their job.

3.  Tech writers are more than typists.

Recognize the skills that the TW brings to the table. We may not understand the content at the SME’s level, but we understand what is necessary to organize and present information effectively.

4.  Tech writers aren’t engineers.

Tech writers often work with engineers. In fact, some of them are engineers. But the tech writer’s job is different, and technical writing is not the same as the type of writing that most engineers learn to produce in college and on the job. Accept that your TW is going to tweak the language, de-capitalize some of those “important” words, and generally make changes that enhance communication with the user.

5.  Tech writers don’t make these rules up.

The styles, formats and principles applied by TWs may seem “picky” and arbitrary, but they are based on widely accepted standards. And yes, every organization and industry has a few variations. Tech writers evaluate which ones are acceptable for clear communication, capture them, and create in-house style guides to ensure consistency within the organization.

6.  Tech writers don’t write fiction.

Well, maybe some do, but the point is we can’t make this stuff up. We need good, consistent, timely support from the client’s SMEs. If a document doesn’t get finished it may be waiting for content that hasn’t arrived.

7.  Tech writers CAN compromise. (They just don’t like to.)

Technical writing requires consistency and attention to detail. We like to establish the rules and stick to them. But there are situations where unique vocabulary, specific work processes, company culture and history dictate some latitude in the application of standards. Ultimately it is about ensuring clear communication.

8.  Tech writers save you money (if you let them).

Good documentation is an investment, not an expense. Studies have shown that investment in quality documentation pays off in significant savings, less product support, efficient operations, and better safety and environmental records.

9.  Tech writers build quality into an organization.

Organizations that create quality documentation enhance the quality of the organization. Workers understand the expectations that are on them. Supervisors have resources to help them train and develop their workforce. Managers can rest assured that procedures, process and training resources are in place.

10.  Tech writers extend value when they maintain your documentation.

Documents are one of your organization’s assets. Company assets require maintenance. Time and money spent on creating documentation is wasted if the work product is not regularly maintained. Expect to support your investment with regular maintenance in order to keep it providing the value it was originally designed to provide.