How to Use Writers Effectively


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.

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