Monthly Archives: October, 2013

How to Use Writers Effectively

Purpose

The purpose of this document is to help you find writers who can do what you need them to do, and to help you use them well once you find them.

Test them up front

Maybe you’ve had a bad experience with a tech writer in the past. Or maybe you’re not sure if the person or company that wants to write your manual or other document can do the job. That’s a reasonable concern. So what do you do?

Linscomb & Williams, a top-25 money management company in Houston, was faced with that situation a few years ago. They wanted to rewrite some of their client documentation in Plain English. But they needed someone who could do that while keeping the information technically correct.

In that case, EDI got the project. But what if EDI’s tone or method of laying out information didn’t match what Linscomb & Williams were aiming for? Then they would have had the opportunity to select another vendor that fit their culture better. Taking the time to test out potential vendors up front helped Linscomb & Williams make a good decision.

Get them involved up front

A December 2006 Aberdeen Group report states that project documentation meets expectations 92% of the time, when writers are involved up front. When the writers are involved later, the success rate for the documentation falls off precipitously.

You want to involve the writers early and often in the project discussions. This will help them to gain a clear understanding of where we’re trying to head with the project, and therefore, with the documentation. It will also give them a chance to guide decisions that will impact documentation, so that the end result is high-quality, usable writing.

And maybe you’ve struggled with a writer who is so introverted that all they want to do is sit in the dark and write. This is a way to help them be a connected part of the team.

Don’t try to make the writer a subject matter expert

I run into businesspeople all the time who are looking for a writer who is well-versed in the lingo that they use in their business. I’ll admit, for the sake of prestige a writer may need to know some terminology in order to get their foot in the door.

But you probably know way more about your business, your clients, and your terminology, than any writer ever will. A good technical communicator knows more about planning documentation, structuring documents, and producing clear writing than you do (assuming that’s not your profession).

So let them do their thing. The best documentation usually comes from a pairing of motivated subject matter experts and technical communicators who are very good at drawing out the correct information, and expressing it clearly in writing.

Focus on the value of the writing, not the hourly rate

If you’re just looking at your writer as someone who produces content as a commodity, then you probably won’t get much bang for your buck. You’ll likely wind up wondering if it makes sense to pay a writer to produce content.

There are several reasons why people have this attitude issue.

One is that writers are often tasked with documenting features, not benefits. So your customers wind up seeing lots of information about your equipment. But they don’t have much insight into how your products or services can help them, uniquely. That kind of writing doesn’t produce the results you’re looking for.

Another is that people are used to asking writers to carry out solutions, rather than asking them to solve problems. As with everyone who works for you, if you can get them focused on solving problems themselves, rather than just carrying out your detailed game plan, you will get more bang for your buck.

Also, if you don’t determine what the value of the work is supposed to be ahead of time, you may not see much value in the work at the end of the project. Be sure to carefully define what it means for the documentation for the project to be “successful”.

If you’re still not sure if your writers are producing what they need to, look into using metrics to compare one writer’s work with another’s. Just keep in mind, no metric is foolproof. You need to include both quality and speed, as well as other factors that are applicable to your business (see this article from idratherbewriting for more information).

Finally, show your writer(s) that you value their work. If you are focused on seeing value in their work, they will be more inclined to do so, also.

Tell them when it’s due when you ask for their help

This is an obvious one. But we miss it all the time, don’t we? If your writer doesn’t ask when something is due when you ask for their help with it, then tell them. All kinds of chaos ensue when writers don’t know what their deadlines are.

Learn to use scribes

Were you not expecting this one? If you’re going to use writers effectively, you need to learn to use them in new ways.

A scribe, also known as a technographer or a chart writer, can make you look like a genius in meetings that you lead.

A scribe’s task is to take things off of your plate during a meeting, so that you can focus your efforts on driving the discussion. These tasks may include:

  • Recording action items and key decisions
  • Taking minutes
  • Running the computer/projector
  • Manipulating documents during the meeting

A scribe can be your right hand man or woman in a meeting. They are an almost invisible, valuable aid. Use one.

How to Write a Manual

Purpose

There are many reasons why you may need to write a manual. Maybe you:

  • Have to fulfill a regulatory requirement
  • Want to establish prestige
  • Need to help your employees do a better job
  • Are concerned about covering  your behind

To learn more about why companies write manuals, see “Why Write a Manual”.

Getting started

No matter which company you work for, or which subject matter you are dealing with, the process for putting together a good manual is fairly similar each time:

  1. Involve writers early
    According to a December 2006 study by the Aberdeen Group, project documentation is successful 92% of the time when writers are involved at the beginning of the project (email us to get a copy of the summary).. Involving the writers early gives them a chance to guide key decisions that will impact the documentation. It will also help them understand your purpose in completing the project.
  2. Analyze the audience and purpose
    This may be the most important stage. Without this stage, you risk completely missing the boat with the manual. As Stephen R. Covey says, you have to first lean your ladder against the right wall. Then you can climb up the ladder. Too many groups skip straight to stage 4 or 5. Bad idea.
  3. Prioritize resources and content
    It might be nice to write up every applicable procedure and policy. But we’ve got deadlines to meet, and limited manpower. Which subject matter experts will be providing the content? And how much time will they have to do it? Which content is really critical, and which is nice-to-have?I once observed a small doctor’s office for a day. I saw that one of the nurses was the heart of the office. If she left suddenly, the office might be paralyzed. So why not document her key functions, so that others can carry on if she doesn’t show up one day? That’s the kind of content you want in your manual.
  4. Plan the content-gathering, writing, review, and editing
    Give everyone a clear idea of what needs to be done. How many pages will the manual likely contain? How many sections? How much will you have to get done per week to meet your deadline?
  5. Do the work
    In many cases, this is the only stage of the process that companies pay attention to. But there’s a reason that it’s stage 4 of 8.
  6. Test it
    For most manuals, the process skips this stage. But if you want to have a manual that really works, you need to test it – early. Sit down with some of your employees. See if they can find key information in the manual. See if they can follow the procedures, or at least understand them, if they aren’t your end users.
  7. Publish it
    Perhaps your manual will be a big, searchable PDF. Or maybe the users would be better served by an online manual in the form of a website. Either way, gear the publishing method around how your users will actually use the information. Of course, you need to start thinking about publishing issues way before stage 6.
  8. Measure the results
    Do you want to know if the money you spent on the manual was worth it? Then you need to measure the manual’s effectiveness in some way.The best feedback comes from the end users of the manual, whether those are your employees, or people outside of your company. You need to install a mechanism for gathering feedback on the manual.
  9. Revise as needed
    Manuals are never completely done. You will always need to add something to the manual from time to time, or correct obsolete information. The first version of a manual is almost never the best one.The key is for someone at your company to have the manual as part of their responsibilities. They need to be accountable for keeping it up to date.

I hope these guidelines help you write some useful, correct, complete manuals!

Why Write a Manual?

Purpose

This article will give you insight into why people write manuals.

For information on how to write a manual, see “How to Write a Manual“.

Overview

There are many reasons why you may need to write a manual. Maybe you:

  • Have to fulfill a regulatory requirement
  • Want to establish prestige
  • Are concerned about covering  your behind
  • Need to help your employees do a better job

Regulatory requirement

Sometimes a customer, or a governmental regulator, will require you to have a manual that covers safety, operations, or some other topic that is applicable to your business or product.

Says Jody Grimes, owner of Grimes Industrial:

“In 2007, I opened a structural and industrial sheet metal fabrication shop right near downtown Houston.  We really were pushing hard in sales and marketing, only to find that time and time again companies were simply not even interested in talking with you if you didn’t have a quality system in place.  One of the first questions we were continuously being asked was, “Do you have a quality manual?”

We were in the process of making our final revisions to our quality system during our start-up. Fortunately for us, it didn’t take us long to complete it and fully implement our system into our daily operations.   Upon completion, we immediately began landing new customers, simply because our answer to that once-dreadful question became, “Yes, we do have a quality manual.  Would you like to receive an uncontrolled copy?”

Prestige

This really relates to the previous section, at least in part. Having a manual earns you respect.

And if you have a good manual, one other companies look at as a standard, then that’s even better. I have worked with clients who have drawn up their manuals based in large part on a gold standard manual produced by another company. That’s the kind of respect you want to generate in the market.

Cover your behind

This one may sound cheap. But it’s real. If one of your employees breaks a clearly communicated policy, and gets hurt, or hurts your company, you need something to fall back on. You need to be able to say “See here? You were clearly told not to do that, on page 12 of  our employee manual.” A 2011 study by the Ponemon Institute showed that it pays to head off issues ahead of time.

But spelling out policies clearly has much deeper benefits than simply covering your rear.

Help employees

What you’re actually after is helping your employees work honestly and efficiently. As Kristy Bolsinger wrote recently, “You may want to build out and document for your organization in order to increase efficiency, maintain consistency and aid in turnover or attrition.”

By documenting key processes, procedures, and policies correctly and clearly, you can help your employees become safer and more effective.