Respect and influence - Proven strategies for technical writers

One of the most common complaints raised by tech writers is that we just don't receive the respect we deserve. Like primary school teachers, janitors, truck drivers, and other professions that make the world go around, we often find ourselves defending the value of our work. We even tell tales of baking brownies as a form of bribery to put subject matter experts in a cooperative mood. Too often, our documentation is perceived as a necessary expense instead of an investment.

But it doesn't have to be this way.

There are ways to infiltrate the minds of your coworkers and make an indelible impression of your worth. But you have to make a proactive effort. You have to step out of the "I'll write what you ask me to" comfort zone, and start finding other ways to contribute. You must become an advocate for the hidden value of documentation. You have to raise your game.

And here are some killer tips for doing just that.

Start collaborating, and grow your sphere of influence

Many writers find themselves in an isolated position, working with the same handful of subject matter experts day in and day out, producing the same projects on a scheduled basis.

Don't let the routine lull you into an apathetic state. Your job is not about what happens to you. You can meet your deadlines and still find ways to meet other key players in your business. Look for projects outside of your department that could benefit from your technology and communication skills.

Use your downtime to walk around and ask others what they are working on. Expand your network; doing so will give you greater opportunities to contribute and prove your worth.

Take stock of the many skills you can leverage

Writing can be applied to more than just product manuals. And communication can expand beyond writing.

Have you considered participating in design meetings? As a writer you can offer advice on how product components should be labeled, where warnings are necessary, and how the design impacts the visibility of the documentation.

You can also produce the internal documentation of business decisions, and lend a hand in documenting design specs. Engineers and programmers want to build stuff; they might be very grateful if you can facilitate their work by handling such documents. Such documents might be outside of your usual scope, and you may need to learn how they should be structured. But any investment in this area will likely pay off heavily later as your reputation for producing them spreads.

Do you have experience producing instructional videos? Have you worked with Captivate or similar tools? If so, you may be able to help out with marketing videos and or software demos that require a technical understanding of your company's products.

Are you experienced in helping customers find answers quickly? Such information architecture skills could be translated to other kinds of documents, such as improving the navigation features on a corporate website. Find out if your web development team has anyone with those skills; if not, volunteer to help.

Ask around, and offer your skills when it seems appropriate. Remember, your coworkers may not be familiar with the vast range of skills you bring to the table. Don't be afraid to step outside of your usual projects; the skills you possess may be of great use beyond your usual routine. Just tread carefully so that you don't step on any toes along the way.

Become an advocate for documentation

Product documentation is NOT JUST a necessary expense. (And if anyone says so, I'll lend you a bar of Lifebuoy so you can personally wash out their mouth!)

Don't stand by and let others downplay the value of well-written manual. Instead, clearly point out that if customers can't understand how to use a product, they will soon cease to be customers.

You are a key player in the successful adoption of a product by each and every one of your customers. Many of them depend on your instructions to take advantage of the purchase they have just made. Those who take full advantage of your manual will likely become power users; they will have a thorough understanding of how that product can improve their lives.

And they'll tell their friends how easy the product is to use. (Hear those new sales cha-chinging in the background? Word of mouth, baby!)

Think about it; without an instruction manual, any product with the slightest degree of complexity will likely end up back at the store where it was purchased. Or, the customer will use the product incorrectly, increasing the risk of product failure or injury to the customer.

Manuals directly impact the ongoing sales of your company's products. They also serve as a shield against lawsuits by proactively addressing safety concerns and educating your customers on correct usage.

Manuals are money. Don't let anyone say otherwise.

Own the communications platform

How many of the instructions you produce are repeated by other departments, in documents such as whitepapers, support repositories, and so on?

How much effort is wasted by duplication?

Payroll is pricey. Tools are pricey. When two or more people are documenting the same process with different tools, your company is losing money.

Also, think of the impact on your customers. Chances are the duplicated instructions are presented in an inconsistent format, so that the customer may end up confused. What that customer sees on your corporate website may differ from what they read in the manual or on a Support page. And don't forget that the risk of inaccuracy is increased when multiple authors are writing the same content in silos.

You can leverage your content management skills and encourage a single authoring environment for documentation projects. That way all departments can clearly see what content is being produced. By moving into a content management role, you can break down barriers, increase communication, and ensure that all documentation is produced efficiently and consistently.

Many of the content tools available on the market today offer huge flexibility in the types of output they can produce, and are fully capable of supporting many authors with diverse workflows.

If you can find a documentation tool set that offers sufficiently robust features to meet the needs of all departments, you may be able to cut some of those other tools out of the budget. (Fewer tools, fewer costs. That's money in the bank!)

So become a content leader. Chances are you have the technical and communications skills necessary to find, suggest, and manage a common authoring environment. All business processes should flow toward efficiency; if such a change is inevitable, why not lead that change?

Never underestimate your potential

Remember, human resources are expensive. Organizations will always value employees who can wear multiple hats and take a self-directed approach to solving business problems. The people to whom you report have many things to worry about; finding ways to apply your skills shouldn't be their major concern. You can start looking for opportunities to prove your worth, make yourself a key player, and add to your organization's bottom line.

The limits of your role are truly dictated by how you perceive yourself.

Are you the disgruntled writer who complains when nobody reads your manuals? Or are you an essential hub at the intersection of your organization's communications and technology needs?

Very few business processes are unrelated to communications or technology; that means you have an opportunity to provide value just about everywhere. So get involved. Take advantage of the fact that your skills place you in a unique position to step between roles, wear various hats, and contribute beyond your initial job description. Be the glue that seeps between all projects and holds them together.

Only you can help others realize how valuable of an asset you are. Only you can demonstrate the many ways a technical writer is an investment that can pay dividends and add to the bottom line.

There's nothing shameful about writing manuals. On the contrary; they are incredibly important. They can lead to the ultimate success or failure of a great product. They can even save lives.

But don't let the job title become a ball and chain that keeps you feeling underappreciated. You are what you choose to be, and the expanse of problems you can solve with your abilities is endless.

So what are you waiting for?

It's time to step up your game and show everyone what a technical writer is capable of.

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