Winning as a Tech Writer

by Tom Adelstein

Dear Technical Writer:

If you need a job, then you might look for companies that have never had a professional technical writer working for them. It may require making calls or networking with friends or former co-workers. Most companies have a ton of writing to do. Usually they put off their documentation requirements and their needs have piled up. You may also find that someone such as a regulator has confronted management about insufficient documentation and they have to put a writer to work immediately.

I have found companies with serious documentation needs. Many of these firms have never put a technical writer on staff or perhaps failed to even think about such a possibility. They often think they can meet their writing needs with their own internal people. That strategy rarely, if ever, works.

It seems a bit ridiculous when a manager in a company with a billion dollars in sales says that he needs to write several white papers but hasn't found the time. If he doesn't have time now, when will he? Then you'll find the development manager that never formally wrote requirements, specifications, business rules and so forth for an application already in production. Upper management wants to know why they're getting customer complaints and their customer service team doesn't know how to support their product. Upper management decides to have a quality control audit and when the auditors ask for development documentation, none exists.

Then you find companies that haven't updated their user manuals for four versions for a product they sell. That causes user calls, heavy customer service demands and probably lost sales.

You can often find significant work when a company has not bothered to document their business processes and without warning get a request for some type of due diligence. Perhaps a company's customer needs to perform a vendor audit because of a Statement on Auditing Standards, to comply with Sarbanes-Oxley, HIPPA, a bank loan requirement or something else.

Set yourself up for a successful project

I have run into opportunities such as those mentioned above and within a few weeks wind up in writer's hell. My client's management hasn't had one of me before and they don't know how to work with me. More likely than not, key personnel have their business processes in their heads and don't want anyone to write them down. They believe keeping everything in their head gives them job security.

I've run into such situations as those described above more than once. I finally concluded that I have the responsibility for setting the expectations for the client. People rarely remember to what they agree and if you don't write it down, you'll usually wind up in an uncomfortable disagreement.

So, I developed a checklist to help me and my client understand how to make things work for both of us. If you start out with the checklist you can discover quickly if a project fits both parties. It's better to go somewhere else when management won't help you succeed.

You might find this check list useful. If you don't, I'm sure many potential employers will.

Technical Writer Qualification Questionnaire

1. Has the client given the technical writer requirements and stated his or her expectations clearly?
2. Will you ( the client) provide a corporate style guide?
3. Will the writer have access to subject matter experts regularly?
4. If subject matter experts are unavailable to meet with the writer will the writer have access to
knowledgeable subordinates?
5. Will you include you tech writer in staff meetings related to his requirements?
6. If the writer does not have information required to adequately work on the contracted projected will you
expect and pay for down time?
7. How will you on-board the technical writer so he or she can complete the contract in the expected time
8. What tools will you provide the candidate:
a. Microsoft office - version number
b. Visio
c. Adobe Photoshop
d. Adobe FrameMaker
e. Adobe RoboHelp
f. Doc-to-Help
g. Alternatives to RoboHelp such as MadCap Flare
h. Document management tools

9. Are you committed to making the writing project successful and do you have consensus among staff to that end?

I'm sure you can think of additional questions to ask. These are simply the ones with which I start. I wrote this to make sure I don't get caught in another winless tech writing project again.

Tom Adelstein currently works as a contract technical writer in the Information Technology Field. In March 2007, his latest O'Reilly Book, Linux System Administration was released. Tom's home web site Open Source Today has tips and techniques for system administrators and Open Source VARs.