By Jerry Grohovsky, Copyright 2018. JPG & Associates, Inc.
Often Tech. Comm. Professionals (or TCPs) are caught off-guard when asked this all too-common question: “How can you write intelligently about a product, process, or technical topic unless you are an engineer, scientist, Ph.D., or similar expert of that topic?” In the future, I suggest that TCPs address this question with the following metaphorical phrase: “We know how to connect all the dots.”
The following paragraphs explain in more detail how this is accomplished:
- TCPs are trained and experienced at ramping up quickly to a given topic, product, or process.
- TCPs know how to thoroughly research a topic or product, and self-train from the top-down, and to a level that allows them to be able to build a basic framework from which content development can move forward. In other words, the writer objective is to move forward from a rough sketch to a detailed image—start with headlines and placeholders, and then migrate from general content to specific content.
- TCPs employ a variety of fact-finding methods to secure the information they need to fill in the details—including personal interviews, audio-visual recordings, gathering engineering documentation, viewing marketing presentations, attending webinars and training sessions, and attending departmental and specific project meetings.
- TCPs are aware that the key to a successful project delivery is the preparation made even before the first words are keyed on the screen: thorough assessment, planning, time-lining, subject matter expert identification, and team building are essential.
- TCPs know that identifying and building a working relationship with subject matter experts (SMEs) is vital to the success of their project.
- TCPs know that they must first build a skeletal framework (or foundation document). It is from this that an initial list of relevant questions for the SMEs will be generated. The process of “fleshing out” the details for a tech. writer is very analogous to that of an investigative journalist who is developing a detailed investigative article on a specific topic.
- TCPs generally focus their questions on the details, and not so much on generalities.
- TCPs generally focus their questions on the content for which they either do not have knowledge access, or they do not have the level of knowledge that a given SME would possess.
- TCPs (through their formal training and experience) know how to mine information from key SMEs, and make use of their knowledge in a respectful and efficient manner.
- TCPs are resourceful in how they gather information, including even doing hands-on interaction with a product or process if necessary.
- TCPs are generally drivers or managers of their projects, meaning that they are pro-active in initiating meetings for information gathering and content review.
A technical communication professional may also be a subject matter expert for a particular project. However, a dual-identity of writer/SME is more rare than common. The fact that most TCPs are not experts on the topic for which they are developing content is a distinct advantage. (In some instances, some writers rightfully claim that they became unofficial experts by default, as a result of their intense project involvement—especially after repeating similar projects over an extended period of time.)
Having that 1,000-ft view allows the writer to be more effective at planning a content strategy, and therefore determine what content is needed or not needed, and the level of detail at which content should be documented. Additionally, the TCP can better identify sources of raw content.
TCPs own a set of skills that are unique to their profession. Project planning, audience identification, content strategy and development, and so on are all part of an orchestrated, professional process that a skilled and seasoned TCP repeats project-after-project. The objective of the TCP is to “connect all the dots” through learning, exploring, researching, interviewing, and asking the right questions.