Re: Advice for a novice, please

Subject: Re: Advice for a novice, please
From: Chantel Brathwaite <cnbrath -at- cbel -dot- cit -dot- nih -dot- gov>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 27 Oct 2000 17:24:39 -0400

Willow states:

> A few days ago I found out that the installation instructions for one of our
> smaller products was inaccurate. I only found this out because our IT manager
> and I occasionally go out for a smoke... The instructions had not been updated
> when the product had changed.

Chantel says:

If this is the way you find out about project changes, it sounds like there is
no formalized process in place for this. If you have a supervisor, you might
need bring this to their attention and talk about how your team is informed of
project updates. My hunch is that maybe there are some inter-office politics
going on since other products have tech writers assigned. But, again, I'm only
going by your email. If you do find out that there are problems, walk lightly
-- you might not want to be the ONLY tech writer PERMANENTLY assigned to this
project. You might even want to ask some of the other writers in your
organization whether they've dealt with this project in the past.

Willow says:

> Now, this product doesn't technically belong to me and the changes to the
> product were made before I worked here (it's
> not a big seller), but whatever, the instructions are wrong, so let's fix it.
> I spent the day running after SMEs trying to get information. Everyone seemed
> to want to throw up their hands and walk away from the problem, or even deny
> there's a problem. One guy even went so far as to tell me that if he told me
> how to do install the product, it would take hours and he didn't want to take
> the time.

Chantel says:

Try not to take this attitude personally -- maybe the SME is under a time
crunch. Since, I assume, you started this project with management approval,
then it is up to the manager to "uncrunch" his time. Ask for a main point of
contact and maybe an alternate. Mention that people didn't seem to have time to
talk to you and ask the manager whether there are time constraints or if he
needs to free time for them to talk to you. Keep your manager informed of your
conversations. If you can, ask for a copy of the software and try to install it
yourself and then talk to the SME to discuss unclear procedures. The bottom
line is it doesn't matter whether the SME *wants* to talk to you or not, he
needs to supply the information to get the job done. Don't be too
confrontational or wimpy (not implying that you are either), try to be helpful
but firm. Document your requests for time or meetings in email -- especially to
the SMEs (that way in case you still have problems, you are armed with

Willow says:

> Yesterday, I was informed that the instructions were still incomplete. (Yes, I
> realize that speaks to my skills
> as a tech writer. I am working on improving those skills.)

Chantel says:

I wouldn't say that this necessarily speaks to your skills as a tech writer. It
doesn't seem like you were able to get the information that you needed. If you
don't have access to the information/product, then it is difficult to write the
instructions. Look at the feedback that you received and use that to prepare
you when you meet with the SME the next time.

Willow says:

> I was surprised at the response I got from the SMEs. They didn't seem to want
> to share information with me. In
> our tech writing department, we are each responsible for a specific topics and
> my normal SMEs have never acted this way.

Chantel says:

Again, try not to take it personally -- the SMEs might be overloaded, there
might be problems in the department ... On the other hand, some SMEs like to
give new writers a hard time. Don't be intimidated (or at least, don't let them
know that you are intimidated) and don't let these types of attitudes shake
you. Don't be so quick to discount your skills -- it is good to be humble and
teachable, but remember that you are also a professional; the two are not
mutually exclusive! Be willing to learn and ask intelligent questions (even if
that means brushing up on your own), and remember that everyone, even the SMEs
have to start somewhere. Just work through the channels -- let your management
and the SME management do their jobs, and document your efforts.

Good luck -- you've obviously cultivated a good working relationship with the
other SMEs, so you should be able to meet this challenge as well. Have a great


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