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How to Interact with SMEs When Priorities Clash

Ask any technical writer what his or her most challenging part of a documentation project is and the response will include some variation of "I don’t get enough review time from my SMEs." On the other hand, the single most common excuse from a subject matter expert (SME) is that by the time the technical writer needs his or her document reviewed, the writer’s project is no longer a high-enough priority on the SME’s already over-extended schedule.Technical Writer-SME Collaboration

In our previous blog, Developing Productive Relationships with Your SMEs, we provided tips for technical writers on how to manage the documentation review process. In this blog, we talk about how technical writers can prepare in advance to work with SMEs that are over-extended and tight on time.

SMEs are regarded as professionals in their company’s organizational hierarchy. When a technical writer interacts with an SME, he or she must establish their own professionalism at the start of the relationship so that the writer is able to gain the SME’s respect as a co-professional. Professionalism goes a long way in getting an SME’s cooperation when priorities clash.

Lay the groundwork for success

  • Develop a Documentation Plan
  • Estimate your workload based on individual tasks
  • Be aware that the SME’s priorities may have changed
  • Be flexible to accommodate the SME’s busy schedule
  • Establish yourself as a co-professional
  • Use a weekly status report to maintain visibility
  • Schedule reviews at mutually-agreed upon intervals
  • Be punctual and prepared for all interactions with the SME

Attribution: Image used above is courtesy of patrisyu at

7 Tips on How to Collaborate Effectively with Over-Extended SMEs

The challenge for both the technical writer and the SME is to recognize each other’s constraints, and determine how best to achieve the ultimate goal, which is to produce a well-written document that is not only complete, clear, and concise, but is also accurate and produced by the assigned deadline. Use the following tips to establish a successful professional rapport with your SMEs:

  1. Make sure you identify all SMEs that will be associated with your project and obtain contact information for each SME at the start of your project.
  2. Take the time to meet individually with each SME so that he or she can associate a face with your name. If you’re working on-site, arrange to meet the SME at his or her office; if working remotely, make arrangements to Skype or Web Conference.
  3. Provide each SME with a copy of your Documentation Plan and identify the target date for publishing the final version. Also, arrange to keep the SME informed should there be any changes to your plan.
  4. Ask each SME what their preference is for the review cycles. Some SMEs prefer to be involved regularly in a document’s progress; others, may take a more casual approach. Keep in mind that for an effective collaboration, it’s important to stay within the SME’s comfort zone.
  5. Suggest simplifying the review process. Instead of waiting until your entire draft is completed and then sending the draft for review, ask the SME if reviewing the document by sections would better accommodate his or her busy schedule.
  6. Provide the SME with weekly status updates during the document development cycle to maintain your visibility and involvement, and to keep the SME informed of upcoming milestones.
  7. Remember to always say thank you for an SME’s time. Those two little words will serve to acknowledge that you both are professionals and that you appreciate the SME taking time out of his or her busy schedule to ensure an accurate document.

For additional Novatek blogs that discuss Technical Writer/SME relationships, read:

Novatek recommends using a formal review and approval form to serve as a reminder to the SME what needs to be reviewed and approved, and when it needs to be returned to the technical writer.

Download our free template:
Sample Review and Approval Form


What challenges have you faced when working with SMEs and how have you resolved them? Share your tips in the comments below.

Topics: technical writing services, technical writer