Hiring a Tech Writer: What to Expect

I’ve worked with customers who are used to technical writers and know how to smoothly integrate them into their workplace. Others…not as much. A friend recently described what we do as “this whole other world,” which hadn’t occurred to me before. However, if you’ve never hired a technical writer before, today I’ll take a little time to explain what tech writers do, can’t or shouldn’t do, and how they can best add value, whether as a new employee or a temporary contractor.

What You Should Not Expect a Technical Writer To Do

Okay, these are my own preferences noted here, to some extent based on problems I’ve encountered in the process of freelancing and even working as a full-time employee. A hiring manager should not expect the following from a technical writer unless it’s stated up front in their interview, employment agreement, or resume:

  • Know your business as well as or better than you. Examples:
    • Know how your technology works right out of the gate.
    • Know the history of your technology, i.e., what’s been done before and who the competition is.
    • Know who the decision makers are at your customers’ organization or what their motivations for buying are.
    • Know who your future customers should be.
  • Be able to “guarantee” you a proposal win. If you’ve never worked with a technical or proposal writer and you suddenly hire one, you might think that these individuals have some magic powers or insights that mean you will automatically get the money you’re seeking. However, you could have the best damn writer in the industry and still not win due to factors utterly beyond his or her control.
  • Advise you on legal matters. They can offer cautions about some activities such as using images from the internet, but however detailed their questions, they are not lawyers, nor should they be treated as such unless they have an actual J.D.
  • Enjoy frequent conversations in which you question how the technical writer is wording something. You hired them to write. If their style is not to your liking, sit down and explain what your expectations are. If they are writing in a style the matches your guidelines and you’re still not happy, you might have other issues prompting the conflict. Perhaps the writer is just not a good personality “fit” for your organization.
  • Know what your preferred writing style of document format is. In fact, I’ll just come right out and say it…
  • Be able to read your mind. This behavior, plus the expectation of an automatic win, are two signs that someone has never worked with a technical writer before and needs to manage their expectations.

What You Can Expect From a Technical Writer

  • The quality and organization of your prose will improve.
  • He or she will ask you questions about why you use particular language in your content.
    • The writer is not doing this to question your genius or intelligence; s/he is asking because they don’t know your business and want to know if the way you say something is a standard in your industry.
    • And yes, it’s entirely possible that the reason a writer is asking why something is phrased a certain way is because he or she thinks they know a more elegant way to say it. Assume that before taking offense.
  • He or she will ask questions about your “secret sauce” (trade secrets, performance specifications, production methods, management processes, etc.).
    • They are not being nosy, they want to know how things work so they can help you best showcase your strengths in your organization.
    • They are not spies and they are not going to take your information to a competitor. If you’re worried about that, ask them to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). They have a vested interest in keeping your information secret.
  • They will expect to receive answers from the subject matter experts assigned to their work. This is not to inconvenience anyone, even if you’re the CEO–this is because they do not read minds and do not want to just make up an answer.
  • If they spend enough time with your organization, they will eventually sound like a subject matter expert.

The Care and Feeding of Technical Writers

Understanding the dos and don’ts above, here are some things you can do to make yourself or your organization ready to hire a technical writer:

  • Have a clear idea of what you want the writer to do for you or your organization and allocate the resources necessary to ensure they can do that for you.
    • Resources include: background data on your organization and its specific project(s); a workspace, equipment, and information/network access to do their job (or let the writer know what she or he will need to bring with them on day one); in-house templates, logos, acronym lists, and style sheets; money to pay them; subject matter experts they can tap for specific questions; and sufficient time to do the task at hand. You want to set up the writer and your organization for success.
    • If you’ve got some sort of bureaucratic fight going on and you deliberately do not provide the necessary resources for the writer to succeed, you are wasting their time and your money.
  • If they don’t have a laptop or you don’t want them using their own equipment, make sure they have an organization/company laptop with active user ID ready to go the day they arrive.
  • Set expectations up front regarding the scope and duration of your task. If this is a one-off job or a first task that could lead to future work, let them know.
  • Provide a big pile of information–paper or electronic files–ready for them to read and absorb. Don’t be surprised if they spend much of the first day or week just quietly acting like a sponge. They are learning your business.
  • Introduce them–in person or online in a meeting–to the people they’ll be working with and set expectations up front between the team and the writer.
  • Treat them as part of the team and encourage your team members to be helpful and cooperative as they join the organization. You might or might not include them in your various office social activities–if appropriate. Just don’t treat them as some sort of outsider, nosy interloper, or necessary evil. You hired them for their ability to improve how you word things, so respect their ability to do that.
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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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