Re: Second-hand knowledge...

Subject: Re: Second-hand knowledge...
From: Charles E Vermette <cvermette -at- juno -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 1 Jul 2002 08:21:55 -0400

Ben Kovitz brings up a very interesting and relevant point:

<<<As a professional technical writer, you have to write with authority
about things that you might have no prior knowledge of when the project
starts. That's one of the great joys of the job: you're essentially paid
to learn....Ideally, you would get first-hand knowledge of everything you
write about. You'd assemble the widget yourself to learn what can go
wrong, you'd set up the database schema yourself, etc. That's the only
way that you *really* know what you're writing about. It's also the only
way to find the most valuable sorts of information: direct interaction
with the reality you're describing...>>>

<<<But the economics of the job often requires that you write things that
you only know second-hand. A lot of the time, you have to rely on a
subject-matter expert, not simply to guide you to places where you can
mess around and learn for yourself, but to tell you things that you
accept second-hand and merely convey to your readers...Does anyone have
ideas about getting the most out of this second-hand kind of knowledge?
When to insist on first-hand and when to settle for second-hand? How can
you avoid...mouthing a bunching of useless, naive, or just plain wrong
stuff ?>>>

This is a tough one, and one I suspect a majority of contractors run

In the good times, I niche market - I try to only get gigs where I have
experience in the fields I'm writing about. (I sometimes wonder if I
don't get out of my "comfort zone" enough in doing this - some may accuse
me of this, and they may be right)

When having to deal with second hand info, here's what I do, for better
or worse:

* Get a read on the SMEs. Like TWs (and everyone else,) SMEs have
different levels of ability and experience. Based on numerous factors
(and yes, it's a judgment call) I get a feel for who knows their stuff
and to what degree. Then I determine how responsive they are. I've been
lucky - most of the people I've worked with have been very responsive.

* If there are going to be multiple inputs for feedback, I get them
*early on* - ideally, in the first draft. If there are discrepancies in
the sources (happened on my last gig) *they* can fight it out. (this also
answers the question of who has the most weight among them - after that,
*they* get first call.

* Early on, I determine who *really* has the *final* say. I try to get my
information from *them* whenever there's ambiguity/conflict between
sources. Since I seem to have a knack for getting things firsthand and
presenting relevant issues, I usually get along very well with the *point
person* and have all the access I need to them.

* I try to get the missing pieces *right away* -even if it means
interrupting my "flow" and walking down the hall. I'd rather get the info
right away than wade through red ink on a draft:)

* I try to gets reviews in small sections, as opposed to handing off a
whole book. Of course, this isn't always practical, but the best
SME's/PMs I've worked with have made the time.

Looking again after a successful contract:)

Charles E. Vermette
85 Washington Park Drive, Norwell MA 02061
e-mail: cvermette -at- juno -dot- com

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