Your Document is Sick! Whom Do You Call?

A couple weeks ago, I started getting a ringing in my ears, as if my eardrums had been hammered by a rock concert. The problem–tinnituslasted an entire day. I looked around the internet to see what I could do on my own because I was too busy for a doctor’s appointment. I finally saw my general practitioner, who did something but wasn’t able to clear it up, leading me to call a specialist. Believe it or not, a similar process can occur at businesses needing technical writing or editing assistance.

Step 1: Fix It Yourself

Businesses are like people in that if they encounter a difficulty, they generally will seek out the least-expensive, least-labor-or-time-intensive solution. We’re all busy, it’s not a major issue, can’t we just do something on our own?

In the case of a physical ailment, you look for things you can do to reduce the problem’s impact or actively eliminate it. In the case of tinnitus, that meant things like eliminating alcohol from my diet; turning down the volume on my music and avoiding using ear buds; as well as reducing stress in case it was blood pressure. Beyond that, there wasn’t much I could do on my own. The actions I took reduced the volume of the noise in my head slightly, but not by a whole lot.

If you’re an engineering or other technical organization, no one in the organization has an English or other writing background, and you need documents cleaned up, you can do things like run a spell checker on things before they go out the door. However, spell checkers have their limitations, and if you are producing a lot of documents, the realization will probably creep up that you need an outside pair of eyes to look at your work.

Step 2: Call a Professional

Reading WebMD can be bad for your health to the extent that if you look at all the possible explanations for a particular symptom, the outcomes could range anywhere from a head cold to something that tells you to CONTACT AN EMERGENCY ROOM IMMEDIATELY. Lacking other symptoms still, I decided I could tough out a little background noise until I could talk to an actual general practitioner (GP). My schedule cleared (while the tinnitus had not), so I sought out my GP. She flushed out the offending ear with warm water and hydrogen peroxide to clear them of wax. That was freaky and seemed to have a slight effect, but eventually the squealing continued, leaving me to try a specialist.

In a technical writing scenario, a business might call in an outside editor to look over their documents. The editor might or might not be familiar with the precise content being developed–automotive, pharmaceutical, aerospace, what have you. If the business just needs spelling, grammar, flow, and formatting made better, a generalist can handle those, and maybe flag situations where the content is contradictory or confusing, but that will still leave some work for the subject matter experts to address before sending out the documents.

Step 3: Find a Specialist

With the wax gone from my ear but the noise persisting (and making me more sensitive to other loud noises at the same time), I am now at the point of need to speak with an Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) specialist to look at the problem. A specialist will have insights, equipment, and tests to address my problem that my GP might not have or might not be as comfortable employing. I’ll see the ENT doctor after Thanksgiving, so I’ll have to tough out the holiday weekend on a low-noise, low-alcohol, reduced-stress lifestyle until a qualified specialist can look at my situation and figure out what’s wrong and what can be done.

In the technical writing world, often a non-specialist writer or editor is insufficient to bring an organization’s documents (or other outputs) up to the level of quality they need to be effective. For example, businesses writing proposals for particular industries are often more comfortable working with a writer or editor who has been in and knows the business. One of my side businesses, for example, is writing aerospace (human spaceflight or launch vehicle) proposals. In this role, I not only “speak the language” of propulsion but can tweak out benefits out of the features, sometimes without consulting the subject matter experts.

Again, to tie the two activities together–medical needs or technical writing or editing needs–the level of support you need can be determined by the type of the problem, the seriousness/complexity of the problem, and what you can afford to do about it. Your needs will determine whether you can handle the issue yourself or you need to call a specialist.

About Bart Leahy

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