Technical Writing 101: Working with SMEs 

One of many distinctive issues about technical writing is that we are sometimes tasked with documenting processes, codebases, software program, and extra that we don’t totally perceive. Due to this, technical writers doc issues about which they’ve a robust working information however lack full mastery.

So, how do technical writers fill the information hole? That’s the place Topic Matter Consultants (SMEs) are available. Working with them is without doubt one of the key capabilities of being a technical author. And, if correctly dealt with, it is without doubt one of the most rewarding and enjoyable features of being a technical author.

What’s an SME?  

Topic Matter Consultants have superior information and specialised abilities in a particular area. For instance, in the case of software program engineering, an SME could have superior information in Android improvement, iOS improvement,  machine studying, and so forth. They’re authorities in a particular space, so they’re certified (and infrequently requested) to provide steering round technique, makes use of, implementation, and studying within the area during which they’re an SME.  

They’re wanted and utilized in a variety of industries, from know-how to vitality to chemical compounds to transportation, and SMEs stay SMEs by persevering with to develop and study of their given area. An SME is an industry-agnostic position and idea, however we frequently see them in technical fields. As a technical author at a tech consulting agency, the SMEs I interact with are often targeted on software program engineering.  

Why do technical writers work with SMEs?  

To be a technical author is to be curious. And with that comes the limitless want to study. As technical writers, we’re consistently studying. We’re introduced in to doc issues we’re acquainted with however not fluent in. Fortunately, there may be usually an SME who’s fluent in what we, technical writers, are accustomed to and tasked to doc. Enter the SME/technical author pairing.  

These pairings are used on numerous tasks—from inner work to user-facing work and consulting. A technical author and an SME are paired to fill information and talent gaps. An SME is perhaps an unbelievable engineer however lack confidence of their writing skills. As for the technical author, they is perhaps a tremendous author, however their exhausting engineering abilities may not be at a excessive degree. Thus, the technical author and SME mix to fill each other’s information and talent gaps. Via doing so, they provide quite a lot of worth and convey quite a bit to each their work.  

For technical author and SME pairings to do stellar work, they should know easy methods to greatest work with each other. I can solely communicate to this from a technical author standpoint, however the ideas I’ll share go each methods.  

The best way to work greatest with SMEs 

Talk early and infrequently. 

This tip sounds a bit apparent, however within the fast-paced environments we frequently work in, communication can fall by the wayside. So, be intentional about speaking with the SME(s) that you simply work with—whether or not that’s asynchronous communication by way of Slack and e-mail or in Zoom and in-person conferences—and at all times depart ample time for dialogue earlier than any work is due. And what I imply by that’s to deliver to gentle any issues, gaps in information, potential blockers, and extra earlier than they grow to be points that might sluggish your work down or hinder your work in any manner.  

Be form.  

As soon as once more, this may sound apparent. However friendliness goes a good distance! A technical author’s relationship with an SME is commonly considerably one-sided insofar as we frequently ask far more of them than they do of us. From questions on new API adjustments to double-checking primary code snippets we write, SMEs do quite a bit for us. So, it’s important to be form. And higher but, get to know them on a private degree. That is necessary with any coworkers, however the ones you’re employed the closest with ought to be people that you would be able to get to know on a private degree.  

An SME is just not a strolling information financial institution. Don’t deal with them as such, and don’t attain out solely once you need assistance. You possible have shared pursuits and commonalities. Get to know them, and also you by no means know. You may make a brand new buddy or mentor.  

Ask questions.  

As a technical author, you want to ask your SME(s) quite a lot of questions on what you’ve been tasked with documenting. It is because you want to translate the information that lives in your SME’s head into consumable phrases. Individuals say there isn’t any such factor as a nasty query, and whereas that’s true, there are unhealthy methods to ask questions.

It’s also necessary to do your homework earlier than asking questions. For instance, if in case you have a query a couple of code snippet an SME handed to you, run it in an IDE first to get a greater understanding of it earlier than you ask your query. A bit legwork will help you reply your personal questions. Ask questions clearly, break a query into a number of less complicated questions whether it is advanced, and ask them in such a manner that you simply and an SME can work towards a solution collectively.  

Data transfers between an SME and a technical author usually begin with the technical author asking questions or reaching out for steering and assist. That is necessary as a result of SMEs can educate us a lot and asking lively questions (the place examples might be created or talked by way of) is an effective way to study, and necessary questions ought to by no means wait. Ready till the final minute to ask an SME a couple of project-related query places undue stress on them to get you a solution instantly, and dashing to a solution or educating one thing quickly may not result in the very best resolution. Be diligent, well timed, considerate, and thorough together with your question-asking, and SMEs will repay you with good solutions and information transfers.  

Be clear about skillsets and bounds.  

A technical author and an SME ought to at all times be open and sincere about their skillsets and the locations the place they could begin to really feel out of their depth. This additionally applies to roles and tasks. There is perhaps some overlap between duties between a technical author and an SME, however letting each other do what they do greatest and never overstepping is essential. You’ve been paired collectively for a purpose: to spotlight each other’s strengths and fill in each other’s weaknesses.  

Brazenly focus on and share these strengths and weaknesses so that you and your SME know easy methods to greatest work with and assist one another. Figuring out your strengths and weaknesses, you are able to do your greatest work collectively. And extra importantly, you can begin studying from each other. An SME and technical author pairing is as a lot a smooth mentorship as a enterprise apply. Take advantage of it.  

In conclusion 

As a technical author, being paired with an SME can show to be some of the enjoyable and fruitful experiences in your profession. It’s good to be intentional about easy methods to go about that have, and I’ve shared some tips about easy methods to take advantage of it. Any mission the place I’m paired with an SME is a pleasure for me as a result of I get to study from the very best whereas additionally doing impactful work.

Subsequent time you end up working with an SME, strive the following tips. They’ll enable you construct rapport extra rapidly—and collaborate extra successfully.  

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