How to Know What to Know

As a technical writer, you soon find that, regardless of the job or the content at hand, the content itself is often the easiest part to learn. There are, after all, plenty of references a writer might find on nearly any topic. Seriously, though: it’s only writing, right? How hard could it be?

People
No one writes in a vacuum. When you get to your work location, you’ll have to find out: Who works with you? What do they do? Whom do you report to? Who is/are your subject matter expert(s)? You learn this soon enough, but sometimes it takes longer than you think. And let’s not forget the most important people involved in your work: your audience. In the end, your work is all about people, and you’ll probably be spending more time with them than the keyboard. This is why you usually spend your first day just getting introduced around the office.

Processes
Frank Herbert, author of the Dune saga, created a science fictional universe that was governed by “The Great Convention.” Every line of the Convention began with the words, “The forms must be obeyed.” Herbert had it absolutely right, though it’s not just the paper forms that govern your work, but you need to understand the formalities–the protocols that dictate how you do and submit your work. Who approves your work? How detailed is the in-house style? How much notice do you need to give the graphic designer to lay out your documents or develop presentation layouts? What departments approve your documents? What forms do you need to fill out? Who signs the forms? And while answering all these questions, it’s usually helpful to find out what the penalties are if you don’t do things right. You learn processes in your first few weeks.

Politics
People always say they hate politics, but they govern everything, not just our country. You ignore them at your peril. Politics encompass not just who’s in charge of your work, but how your supervisor interacts with his or her supervisor, how those supervisors interact with other departments. How does your department fit into your company? What is your company’s history with your customer(s)? What is your customer’s history of making payments? Do they drive hard bargains? Do they take a long time to explain what they want? Do they change requirements often? These questions often take the longest to sort out, and they can change. Some people never figure out office–let alone company–politics. Some might ask, “Why bother?” The goal is not to be a “player,” at least not for me. Understand the game, yes. Make peace with it, if you will. The “games” are what they are because people aren’t likely to change. But they can be important because politics can affect what assignments you get, how well you’re thought of, and whether you’re likely to be kept on staff. My rules on office politics are pretty simple: 1) Don’t believe your own BS; 2) Don’t be a jerk unnecessarily; 3) Don’t allow yourself to get stepped on if someone is interfering with your ability to do your job. Your mileage could vary.

It would be nice to think that technical writing–the clear, dispassionate communication of technical information–should be free of social foolishness and political games. Certainly the introverts like me who are writers wish that it were so. However, it is not. We have a job to do, and that job is done for people. The science or technology–the work–will always be there, but the stuff that goes into the work and allows it to happen is often just as complex. There are other skills beyond wordsmithing and editing involved, and the more of those skills we learn, the better.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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