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Value, Quality, Respect: Getting the Most Out of Technical Writers

March 6, 2017

In over 25 years as a technical writer, I’ve experienced both good and bad clients. The good ones know what they’re doing, treat writers with respect, value quality beyond paper metrics, and appreciate the value of technical communication. The bad ones end up wasting everyone’s time and shooting themselves in the foot.

In this article, I’ll discuss how you can get the most out of your technical writers by creating a healthy business environment, in which value, quality, and respect reinforce one another, as I show in Figure 1.

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Figure 1—Value, quality, and respect drive profit
Value, quality, and respect drive profit

The advice in this article is for anyone seeking technical-documentation services, whether you’re working with contractors or full-time hires. This advice will help you to engage individual writers—especially if you’re one of those people who asks, “Why can’t I find any decent tech writers?” then adds, “who will work for a pittance.”

Value

Good documentation can save you time and preserve your company’s reputation. It can reduce the risks of aggravation, mistakes, support calls, damage to expensive equipment, regulatory difficulties, protracted lawsuits, and other costly setbacks. It can also improve employees’ productivity by giving them better training and helping them to be better prepared for their work.

Value your content as a long-term investment. Don’t try to assign a dollar value to every word. If you don’t care what your content says, use a bot.

Quality

Quality is a hot buzzword. Everyone claims to have quality. Companies devote entire departments to nothing but quality—or at least to quality control. Companies treat quality as a measurable substance like salt or an element on the periodic table. Yet, not having quality can sometimes ruin a company overnight.

The greater the overlap among quality, value, and respect, the better, as Figure 2 shows. However, if these become conflicting priorities, the resulting lack of integrity will eventually negatively impact your company’s profitability.

Figure 2—Quality, value, and respect overlap
Quality, value, and respect overlap

I’d like to propose a sort of Murphy’s Inverse Law of Quality: The more a company talks about quality, the less quality it actually has.

Appreciate that quality is an intrinsic state of being—beyond its measurable characteristics—and has real, immediate, and tangible value. If you think there’s no such thing, I ask you: How can people distinguish between Itzhak Perlman and a student violinist playing the same piece of music? I’d also refer you to the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—but that’s such a maddening book—so maybe Shop Class as Soulcraft would be a better read on this topic.

Be very clear about what high-quality content means for you. Technical writers usually think quality means accurate, helpful, and easy to use. For companies, however, the meaning of quality in relation to content may be that it protects us from liability or, perhaps, helps us to look plausible and makes people think we have a real product when we don’t.

In my opinion, good content is robust, long lived, maintainable, and serves multiple purposes and audiences, without requiring constant rewrites. If a technical manual is clear, accurate, coherent, and visually attractive, the same manual can serve simultaneously as a training aid, a customer-support tool, a sales tool, a regulatory supplement, and an internal resource for everyone from high-level executives to new hires. High-quality manuals inspire trust in your company and in your company’s products or services.

It’s hard to quantify the benefits that derive from ongoing customer confidence and trust, but these assets are the core of your company’s brand reputation. Companies with bad reputations don’t always go out of business, but brand aversion can damage a company in all sorts of unexpected ways beyond simply losing sales.

Respect

Respect is important in any business relationship. But both quality and respect fade away when a company focuses exclusively on its short-term stock-market valuation. This unfortunately common business practice is depicted in Figure 3.

Figure 3—Short-term business thinking
Short-term business thinking

There’s a relationship between the respect you show others and the respect you receive in return. Yes, insist on standards, but don’t treat anyone like an expendable cog—not your customers and not your own people.

What does respect mean for technical writers? This is not a rhetorical question. Here are some ways you can show respect:

  • Do not ask technical writers to lie. They don’t like to tell lies, which they actually consider a form of malpractice. If you need misleading or vague content, a technical writer is not the droid you’re looking for.
  • Don’t nickel-and-dime technical writers. This can actually drive up the cost because the writer may start to think you’re more trouble than you’re worth. My estimates and rates are based on similar past projects and common sense. It’s okay to ask how I arrived at them, but eventually you’ll have to trust me—or move on.
  • Don’t try to pay senior writers by the word. This is like paying your doctor by the number of times they stick you with a needle. Paying by the word rewards the wrong behavior. The best writing is concise writing. Most pay-by-the-word gigs on Craig’s List seem to be for minimum-wage, marketing bloggers who work on clickbait.
  • Don’t waste the technical writer’s time with wild-goose chases, endless negotiations, indecisiveness, or lack of infrastructure support, then complain about their invoicing.
  • Don’t second-guess your technical writer constantly, especially if you’re not providing any meaningful feedback or support.
  • If something ends up working well for you—even long after the project is over—let the writer know about it. It’s very gratifying to hear that our efforts haven’t gone for naught. It’s not just about the money. We want to make a difference and change the world, too.
  • Pay invoices promptly and in full. That’s the best respect of all.

Companies that are in trouble often dig themselves in deeper through more of the same short-sighted behaviors that caused their problems in the first place, as depicted in Figure 4.

Figure 4—A company in a downward spiral
A company in a downward spiral

Final Thoughts

These thoughts are based on my own recent experiences when talking to potential clients. Many companies are under huge pressure to get quick results by any means necessary, which causes them to function in panic mode most of the time. Following these guidelines even a little can help restore a sense of calm when you’re making decisions about how to move forward with your documentation.

  • Learn a little bit about how technical documentation is created. This will help you to accept that good documentation does not miraculously appear overnight. As a client-manager, you can help your writer to be more effective by clearing away obstacles. This lets the writer spend his or her time writing rather than on wild-goose chases.
  • Understand the difference between writers and strategists. Some clients come up with a vague, but enormous problem, then expect a lone writer to identify deliverables, tools, timelines, and staffing levels—overnight.
  • Be aware of the differences between good documentation, bad documentation, and no documentation. In some situations, no documentation might actually be the right choice.
  • Know the difference between documentation and training. They’re not the same thing.
  • Realize that technical writers may be somewhat introverted. This is sometimes hard for companies to understand, especially if the company culture emphasizes high-energy cheerleading as a sign of team spirit. 

Senior Technical Writer at Expert Support

Los Altos, California, USA

Rebecca is an award-winning technical writer, technical illustrator, content developer, and trainer with 20 years of experience in start-up and corporate environments. She has created enterprise software documentation for telecommunications, customer care, supply-chain management, corporate governance and compliance, predictive marketing, and software APIs. She has also written articles on operations research around supply-chain optimization. Rebecca has been a member of the Berkeley chapter of the Society for Technical Communication (STC) since 2012. She has been an STC featured presenter and has also spoken at North Bay Communicators on the topic “Growing Your Tech Pubs Group.” She has a B.A. in East Asian Studies from Oberlin College. Check out Rebecca’s Web site and blog, Art Before Science.  Read More

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