Working with a New Subject Area

Today’s post comes courtesy of my friend Greg, who suggested I take on the “Challenges of, approaches to learning a new subject area / industry that you come in as a tech writer.” Given my rather diverse career path, th has happened to me a few times, so I’ll be happy to  share.


When I start in a new area, I will start doing a lot of reading, if anything, just to get a feel for the in-house vocabulary. One of the first things I end up creating for myself is an acronym list because every discipline inevitably has its own secret language with which it conducts business. This is true if you’re dealing with healthcare, automotive sales, computer programming, aerospace, or any other industry you can name. Proving that you can “speak the language” is one of the keys to getting smart on the content quickly and to building your credibility with your customer.

Apparently I’m somewhat odd in my approach in that I’ll start picking up textbooks I see in the office and reading them. Again, that’s part of my process because I’m a reader. I also do what I can to acquire as much in-house literature on my topic as possible so I understand how the organization communicates with its designated audiences about particular topics. This also helps me absorb the house style/voice.

All this reading helps me coordinate my facts and look things up without wasting too much of the subject matter experts‘ time. However, eventually there comes a point where I have to…


If you’re being hired from outside your typical field, the person(s) who hired you will know that, so the team will expect a lot more questions than from someone from that line of work. By all means, take advantage of that “new kid on the block” status by asking as many questions as you feel appropriate without becoming a nuisance.

As I noted above, I try to read as much as I can first, then I turn to the SMEs for detailed application questions.

The primary questions you’ll want to be asking about are:

  • Who is my audience? What is their relationship to the content?
  • What are the circumstances under which the deliverable(s) is/are to be delivered. Examples being: is this an emergency? Is the proposal critical to the business? Has the organization communicated about this topic before? If so, what were the results? If not, why now?
  • What are the organization’s priorities/key messages when communicating about this particular topic?
  • What results/outcomes is the organization expecting from this content?
  • What sort of content flow are they expecting?
  • How does the organization handle situations outside the norm? This is a good question to ask if you’re trying to write about how particular problems are solved. The organization might have specific methods/approaches that differentiate it from the industry.

Knowing Whom to Ask and How

A side topic related to asking questions is knowing whom to ask which question. Different SMEs might have differing levels or types of expertise, or I might have only one SME to work with. Sometimes the SME will refer me to someone else in the organization and introduce me.

A last aspect of my question-asking method is learning the process or protocol for interacting with different individuals within an organization. Generally, the larger the organization, the less likely it is that I’ll be dealing with the Person In Charge and more likely to be dealing with others in the chain of command. Depending on the organizational culture, I might need to make a formal appointment to interview someone or I could just walk into their office/cubicle. Some organizations are fond of “sir/ma’am” language or get cranky if you don’t use someone’s title/rank. Some of this can be learned by observation, some of it can be learned by asking.

Bottom Line

Regardless of my customer, I do my best to get my content correct and to understand clearly how the customer works with that content. There are the facts and then there are the organization’s methods for working with or interpreting the facts, both of which need to be respected well. And along the way, I’m doing my best to respect the organization’s culture and ways of doing things. How the content is worded is where I add value.

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About Bart Leahy

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