“Everyone knows that in any relationship,
it’s the other person who needs to change.” – Anonymous
As a technical writer, has anyone ever asked you how you’re able to write about a subject where you have little or no expertise? The answer is that every successful technical writing project is the result of a collaborative effort between a writer and a subject matter expert (SME). The SME is the one you rely on to answer questions, address user concerns, and brainstorm solutions that will make your documentation project successful. To develop a productive relationship with your SME, both parties need to understand and respect the role of the other in the document development cycle. Keep in mind that it just might not be the other person who needs to change.
Working with SMEs has both its rewards and its challenges. Most SMEs recognize that the time invested in producing great documentation enhances the product that they may have spent months or years developing. As a result, they are very generous with both their time and knowledge. It’s when their availability is limited due to other commitments, that it becomes a challenge for the technical writer to juggle meetings with them around the SME’s schedules while still adhering to their own deadlines.
On rare occasions, you may encounter an SME that tests your limits. He or she may be difficult to deal with regardless of what you do. In such a case, the best advice is to always maintain your professionalism, have a positive attitude, and never do or say anything that might jeopardize your relationship with that SME. After all, you will still need their approvals to meet your deadlines.
Use the following points to develop a productive relationship with your SME, make a good first impression, and set the tone for your project:
Respect the SME as a collaborator
- Understand the SME has other responsibilities besides your project
- Consider the SME’s time as valuable when scheduling review meetings
- Manage the review in terms of the SME’s availability and the input required
- Provide a written agenda in advance of meetings
- Be prepared
- Ask specific questions that address the needs of the project
- Be an active listener
- Ask for clarification on any terms you don’t understand
- Take notes as necessary
Establish clear expectations
- Communicate your project needs and discuss the scope of the project during the first meeting
- Define your responsibilities as the professional technical writer
- Review the type of support you expect from the SME
- Be definite about deadlines and other important milestones
- Decide upfront on the number of reviews and the format to be used for the review process
Attribute: Photo above courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
6 Tips for Managing the Content Review Process
Use the following tips to simplify the content review process. Remember, good communication between all stakeholders leads to more efficient and effective reviews, and ultimately a higher quality final document.
- Make sure all SMEs are identified as part of the project team at the beginning of the project. Regardless of how good they are, no technical writing services company or technical writer can compensate for lack of participation and buy-in from the SMEs. They must agree up front to actively participate with the technical writers in the collection, review, and approval of all technical content. Including the SMEs from the start will help identify the project scope and may assist with scope creep.
- Agree with your SME how much time and the number of reviews that are likely to be needed. Plan for three drafts, but be aware that smaller projects may require fewer and larger projects may require more. To simplify reviews, you might consider breaking the overall project into phases or chunks, enabling the completion of each phase to include time for an evaluation of the content to-date. As a courtesy to your reviewer, schedule review meetings as far in advance as possible.
- Make sure the project milestones are clearly specified in the Technical Documentation Plan. This plan marks the various milestones and the documentation delivery date. To stay on schedule, it is important to include time for writing, regular reviews, and the implementation of feedback from such resources as the SMEs, peer reviewers, and editor.
- Edit your own work regularly to make sure that the content is grammatically correct and adheres to the corporate style guide. Don’t expect reviewers to catch your mistakes. By continually reviewing your own material, less editing and rewriting will be needed during at the final stages of the project where time constraints may be considerable.
- To simplify the reviewing process for the reviewer, agree on a format for sharing review comments. This may be agreeing to regularly communicate by email and attaching the documents, or by using a web-based file-sharing system such as Dropbox or Google Drive. For a more efficient review and faster turnaround, flag any areas that you want the reviewer to look at in detail.
- Say thank you. A simple email to an SME expressing your thanks for their assistance not only helps build a lasting relationship, it is also an acknowledgement of a colleague taking time out of their busy schedule.
For a review of previous blogs dealing with SMEs, refer to Documentation Process: Maximizing Effectiveness of the SME Interview and How to Handle Unresponsive SMEs When Outsourcing Technical Writing.
Novatek recommends using a formal review and approval form to serve as a reminder to the SME what needs to be reviewed and approved.