Technical Writing – Everyone’s an Expert

I was driving to see my Gran the other day musing over recent events when what I can only assume was a Pterodactyl flew across my car, depositing on my windscreen at least three days worth of breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’ve since had to top up my screen-wash.

You know the drill, you’ve spent hours composing what you consider to be beautiful instructions for the product to assist the user in their hour of need. You’ve gone through all the review gates (that you likely set up) and you’re ready to go live.

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And then in comes the expert with their swoop and poop. They read your pride and joy, they glance over who’s reviewed it (if you’re lucky) and then they offer forth their opinion, after all, it’s just some words — everyone’s an expert in those!

You don’t see this with code (usually).

You have PRs, someone reviews it, any changes are made and then the PR is approved. Fortunately, not everyone thinks they’re an expert in Java, which is most definitely a good thing! However, words aren’t afforded the same level of respect, everyone can do words, right?

Deep down, during the aforementioned fly-by, you’re cringing. You want to pull up any number of Hemingway quotes, and wave them about, as well as and stamp your feet (maybe just me). Instead, you sigh, make the requested change (because it’s easier than fighting your corner), and then you likely begrudgingly send it back through all the revision gates because what choice do you have?!

So how can you perform a preemptive strike on potential swoopers and poopers (aka, stakeholders) and what can you do if it’s already happened?

Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

Identify your stakeholders

If you’re new to the business or the role, identify your stakeholders, include them early and get them on board. Find out from your colleagues who is a closet Technical Writer and who always has an opinion as well as the regular list of stakeholders that you’re expecting to work with.

You need to identify their drivers, what makes them tick. Have they been left out in the past? Do they feel like they need to “add value” in all areas of the business so they swing by ‘cos words are easy? Do they want to be you? Do they like to have fingers in all the pies? You have to talk to them!

In fact you have to talk to everyone, leave no stone unturned in your hunt for stakeholders. You need to check behind the sofa, under the rug, and most definitely in the box room. You don’t need to make everyone a reviewer (no one has time for that), but you do need to identify the people that not only care, but are in a position to give a sign off on your creations.

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Not all of these stakeholder challenges are easy to solve as many of them are outside of your circle of influence if you take them at face value.

However, this is where your skills of taking people on the journey are absolutely invaluable.

Don’t make them all be a tick box quality gate (although some will be just that), instead ask for their opinion early, show that you value their advice, build their trust in you and your ability to do the job.

Stakeholders who have been allowed to invest their time and energy in the creation of the content will become your biggest advocates. Elevate them and enjoy the extra pair of eyes that you control on your timescales.

Image by Vinson Tan ( 楊 祖 武 ) from Pixabay

They still swooped and pooped! 💩

Okay first up, we’ve all been there, do not have a pity-party. It does no one any good and just serves to make you wallow in your own pit of gloom, eat pizza and get that really judgemental message from Netflix.

Instead, pick yourself up and ask yourself why the fly-by happened. I bet that if you really soul searched you could find something that you can directly change and influence that would dramatically reduce this from happening again.

However, we’ve covered that. So now it’s happened, job one (we’re not doing that pity-party remember), clean up! Now I don’t mean like a Roomba would when the dog deposits a gift in the kitchen; don’t go smearing it everywhere. Instead, graciously pick it up, examine it (I am regretting using this analogy now), deposit it in the nearest bin, and wash your hands (‘cos, eww gross).

Now you need to engage with the pooper to explain what you’re going to do to address not only their concerns with your creation, but future ones. For this one, I strongly recommend that you try and avoid jumping into defensive mode. Signs that you’re in that mode include the urge to explain your processes, justify your methods or wave other reviewer’s feedback at them. If you find yourself there (we all have, I certainly have), take a step back and ask yourself what you want from the situation. What you want is a stakeholder that is your ally early on in the process.

Instead of being the defensive Technical Writer who feels like they now need to justify their efforts, try having an open conversation of asking them why they gave you the feedback, and then keep asking why (in a non-aggressive way). Keep drilling down until you reach the source of their pooping ideology. Channel your inner two-year old self that drove your parents mental with your constant questions.

Once you know the source of their pooping ideology you’ll know what to do with the gift. It may be that while delivered poorly, the feedback is actually crucial and needs incorporating for reasons you didn’t even realise. It may be that they know something you don’t and while it doesn’t need rehashing this time, their ill-timed feedback will save you a lot of pain in other projects.

Alternatively, it may be that they just can’t help themselves, in which case early involvement will likely save you a lot of pain just before release day.

Image by TheOtherKev from Pixabay

When all is said and done, stakeholders who review your content (invited, or otherwise) are both your biggest advocates, and at times, your worst nightmare. Take a step back, ask why they’re giving the feedback and then turn it around so it’s on your terms next time. It’s your content, you’re the Technical Writer. Own it and accept that it is, and always will be, a shared vision.