quick tips for working with SMEs

Stock photo of people in meetingYou know the drill. The meeting is in the small conference room at the far end of some cheap airport hotel. Inside, there’s nothing to sustain you until lunch but tepid coffee and stale cheese danish dusted with spilled non-dairy creamer. Yet, for some reason, instead of bonding over a shared fate, the participants quickly divide into two camps — the experts and the interlopers.

A SME chuckles about “you English majors.” Your publications manager mutters something about “those knuckle-draggers.” And that’s just the morning of the first day.

Whether you write instructional textbooks, online help content, user guides, or even feature articles, as a technical writer you rely on the people who know the topic better than anyone else — subject matter experts, or SMEs. Likewise, SMEs rely on you to interpret and translate their information, to present it clearly and accurately, and to make it easy for the reader to understand and follow.

Nevertheless, writers and SMEs often have difficulty establishing a collaborative relationship, and the resulting friction only hurts the final product.

Like it or not, it’s up to you to establish a good working relationship with your SMEs right from the start. Here’s how:

Continue reading “quick tips for working with SMEs”

discussion: is everything miscellaneous?

I have yet to read David Weinberger’s new book, Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, but I am looking forward to doing so. The ongoing discussion about the impact of hypertext on information classification is of great personal and professional interest to me. Whenever I come across a new article or blog entry on the subject, I read it eagerly and with real interest. There is much that remains to be said.

As a writer with a Masters in Library Science, I am acutely aware of the limiting and liberating powers of classification and its impact on writing. The fundamental element of classification, after all, is the word. However, I have come to believe that many writers are either misinterpreting or misrepresenting the premises and assumptions behind our inherited classification systems.

What makes me say that? And why should writers care?

Continue reading “discussion: is everything miscellaneous?”

followup: the other half of the equation

Royal TypewriterOver on The Copywriter Underground (which should be part of every freelance writer’s complete nutritious breakfast), Tom Chandler reminds us about the importance of client feedback.

And we’re not talking about editorial comments before going to press — we’re talking about taking a hard look at the effectiveness of the piece once it’s published. Did your advertising copy bring in new customers? Did your feature article generate letters to the editor? Did people find your report to be informative and useful? And how can you find out?

Continue reading “followup: the other half of the equation”

sprehe on the FEA records management profile

J. Timothy Sprehe, long-time observer of the federal records management scene and president of Sprehe Information Management Associates, has reviewed the initial release of the Records Management Profile of the Federal Enterprise Architecture (FEA) in Federal Computer Week — and finds that the profile “focuses exclusively on the risk management side of records management.”

What does this mean for federal records managers?

Continue reading “sprehe on the FEA records management profile”

quick tip: getting to “thanks”

Do you thank people when you want something from them? Or when you get something from them?

The phrase “thank you in advance” is an accepted technique for encouraging recipients to act favorably on your request. But it’s not the same as acknowledging their time and effort on a task. The latter type of “thank you” conveys appreciation, not anticipation.

A quick, polite expression of gratitude is rarely wasted. It can even double as an acknowledgment of receipt — “thank you for the file.” But it also conveys your professionalism and competence.

Perhaps some correspondents fear that saying “thank you” conveys a familiarity or an informality that does not really exist. Or perhaps they think that saying “thank you” makes them appear vulnerable, that it incurs a debt that the other person can now hold over them.

If so, the issues underlying those concerns won’t be corrected simply avoiding a courtesy. So they might as well thank them first and then deal with the real problem, whatever it is.

In my own experience, thanking someone after the fact is more effective than thanking them in advance. By thanking someone before they do something, I might get that one result, but by thanking them afterwards I stand a better chance of getting even more results in the future.

practical advice for writers

Have you ever heard someone described as “a writer’s writer?” I certainly have, but I confess that I’ve never understood what it means. To me, the real mark of distinction is to be considered “a reader’s writer” — a writer who is keenly attuned to the needs and expectations of the audience above all.

Quinn McDonald is a quintissential reader’s writer. She’s also an eagle-eyed editor, an artist in several media, and a creativity coach. On her blog, Quinn frequently addresses issues of interest to writers and editors, distilling her years of professional experience into pithy and often provocative advice. Here are two of my recent favorites:

Writer’s Dilemma:”

“And then you find out your antibiotics online usa client’s client is a company whose goals you disagree with. Not just a little. A lot. There’s a wide breach between your beliefs and the company’s. What do you do?”

Freelance Frustration:”

“Freelancers will almost always jump through some hoops, even ones that are on fire, to please a client. We sympathize with your emergencies, unless we sense you don’t care.

Disclaimer (which doubles as a plug): I am working with Quinn to develop two lines of index card templates for some exciting new projects that she is developing. Check back with her site regularly to find out more. Better yet, subscribe to her blog and make it part of your morning’s reading!

thoreau and the economics of adverbs and adjectives

“Not that the story need be long,
but it will take a long while to make it short.”
— Henry David Thoreau (1817-62)

If you’ve ever taken a class on writing fiction, chances are you remember your instructor admonishing you to eliminate adjectives and adverbs from your writing. Or perhaps you were told to make a great effort to eliminate them ruthlessly (if you had my witty instructor). This advice applies just as well to nonfiction writing as it does to fiction.

Some writers believe that using gobs of adjectives and adverbs conveys erudition, emphasis, or importance. But to a discerning reader — your reader — it will convey precisely the opposite.

Why? Because most nouns and verbs already provide their own accompaniment. In the presence of a well-chosen noun or verb, adjectives and adverbs are redundant. Use them and your reader will assume one of two things: either that you lack the vocabulary, or that you don’t know the real meaning of the word.

In other words, taking the time to pick the right nouns and verbs conveys the message that you care about what you wrote. And your readers will care, too.

Still too abstract? Here’s a handy tip that I recommend for eliminating unnecessary adverbs and adjectives, using a metaphor that any businessman or -woman can understand: money.

Continue reading “thoreau and the economics of adverbs and adjectives”

burying the lede in technical writing

“Burying the lede” is a common stylistic error in journalism. To bury a lede (rhymes with “bead”) is to hide the most important information within a news story instead of putting it up front where readers can find it immediately.

Technical writers can bury the lede too, and with the same results — the audience leaves, never to return, without ever reading the crucial message you wanted to convey.

Learn how to spot these four common style errors before they cost you your audience — and their business.

Continue reading “burying the lede in technical writing”

welcome 43folderers, lifehackers, and GTD’ers!

You can imagine the shouts of joy and the dancing around the room when I found out that the Active Voice hPDA templates have been featured on 43Folders, Lifehacker (a coveted Download of the Day!), and Did I Get Things Done? yesterday and today.

Thanks, Merlin, Gina, and Paul for the shout-outs! Each of you are an inspiration to me, and it’s an honor and a pleasure to be able to pay it forward in my humble way. And thank you everyone who linked to the templates on del.icio.us — the Download page was the day’s fourth most popular link! That’s a very fine way to be introduced to you all.

There are more templates to come, and I’m always happy to hear suggestions for improvements or new designs. So feel free to leave comments and e-mail me. And to those who have already, thanks again!

A bit of template-related news: currently I’m in discussions to design custom templates for a series of business planning and creativity classes that are currently in development. Stay tuned for more information as this unique opportunity develops.


where does the writer fit?

Remember that famous Sidney Harris cartoon with the two mathematicians standing in front of a blackboard, working on a complex equation that features as a crucial step the words, “and then a miracle happens?” That’s often how managers view what writers do. Too often, the second-to-last step in the document development process reads, “and then the writer wordsmiths it.”

But that’s not when you want the writer to start getting involved. A successful collaboratively-written product — a user manual, a proposal, a textbook, an online help file, an annual report — needs to have the writer involved from the beginning, as an integral part of the team.

Continue reading “where does the writer fit?”