Six Steps for Working with Subject Matter Experts for Better Technical Writing
29 July, 2021
As a technical writer, your mission is to clearly convey information—some of which may be very complex—to your readers. To make the mission even more challenging, the topics you’re writing about will often be completely unfamiliar to you. How do you proceed?
You’ll have a secret weapon: a subject matter expert, also known as an SME. SMEs are the brains behind any technical writing project. They know everything there is to know about the topic at hand, whether it’s repairing an exhaust manifold, driving a forklift, or installing a server. Your job is to be a conduit for their expertise; to extract their insights and present them in a format that’s easy for readers to navigate and understand.
Before you schedule an interview with your SME, you’ll want to do a bit of homework first. Plopping down in front of them and saying “tell me everything you know” will waste both of your time—and likely won’t get you the focused content you need.
Instead, take an organized approach to working with an SME. Here are six steps to guide you through the process.
1. Establish Your Focus
Before you start thinking about your SME, think about your reader. This basic principle of writing is particularly important for technical writers. You must be sure that the content you’re presenting matches the knowledge level of the intended reader, whether it be a member of the general public or an established professional in a particular industry.
Just as important as knowing your audience is knowing why you’re writing what you’re writing. Is it an instruction manual or an online help topic? Are you publicizing a new product or service? Is it a white paper or proposal response? Technical writers are tasked with creating many different types of material. Having a clear understanding of your document’s ultimate goal will help you craft a piece that effectively communicates information to your reader.
2. Do Some Research
Once you know whom you’re writing for and why, it’s time to educate yourself a bit. Making sure you’re acquainted with the subject at hand will be reassuring to your SME, and it will also ensure you don’t waste their time asking 101-level questions.
Wikipedia may not be a bibliography-worthy resource, but if you’re starting from scratch, it’s a good place to gain a basic understanding of a new topic. Build from there by looking at pertinent professional organizations or industry journals. They can give you a feel for current issues in the field, as well as trends, terminology, and acronyms. You might even find articles written by the person you intend to interview, or references to them in other documents.
Now, think about what you still don’t understand. As a technical writer, you’re serving as a proxy for the final reader of your document. What will they be clueless about? What connections or relationships will they not know about? What concepts, processes, or tasks will they need to learn?
Make a list of any questions you’d like an SME to answer and develop an outline with all the points you want to make sure you address.
3. Embrace Your Role
Sometimes it can be intimidating to ask questions of an expert. But remember that everybody is an SME in something. Don’t be afraid of asking “dumb” questions—you’re asking questions that will help break down a complex subject into digestible pieces to help the reader understand a topic or perform an action. Your role as an “average reader” is invaluable. The questions you ask will prevent a future user of your document from getting confused or frustrated.
4. Conduct an Efficient Interview
SMEs are often busy doing what makes them an SME—engineering solutions, conducting research, developing technology. Be mindful of this when you contact them and ask for some of their time. Here are a few tips for maximizing the efficiency of the interview, for both you and the SME.
- When you set up the interview, relay the information you’re most interested in talking about and share the purpose of the piece you’re creating. This will give the SME a context for the meeting.
- Consider emailing your questions in advance, so the SME has time to think through their answers before you meet. If you’re asking questions about content that’s already been created, specify exactly what part of the document your question refers to (e.g., in section 3.4, in the subsection titled “Software Installation”).
- Advocate for a phone, Zoom, or in-person interview—even if they’ve answered your questions via email. It can be enlightening to hear someone talk about their area of expertise in their own words; you’ll pick up nuances that don’t come across in email. A one-on-one conversation will also allow you to quickly clarify questions you have and ask follow-up questions that naturally arise from their responses.
- Ask the SME if you can record the interview so you can refer back to it for accuracy. You want to be an active participant in the interview, rather than being preoccupied with taking notes.
- Go through the questions on your list, but don’t be afraid to let the SME go a little off topic. Sometimes these tangents can be unexpectedly valuable sources of additional detail. They may also suggest other topics to write about later.
- Ask the SME if it’s okay to contact them later if you need more information or want to clarify something you’ve already discussed. If you’re concerned that they might not be responsive, set up a time for a brief second interview before you wrap up the first.
- Finally, if you need them to provide additional material (e.g., a list of references or an updated graphic), there’s no crime in telling them your deadline is a bit earlier than it actually is.
5. Start Writing
Now it’s time for you to work your magic. As you write, carefully fact-check terms and acronyms to make sure they’re correct (even SMEs can make mistakes). Note any gaps in the information and list any follow-up questions you have for the SME. Make sure your list is complete before you start shooting off emails to the SME. There’s a fine line between contacting the SME for more information and pestering them with endless emails.
6. Stick to Your Style
If you’re a tech writer, you probably don’t have one SME. You probably have many. And as you create a document, you may have content from each of them using different language and terminology—dozens of separate bits of text that all need to be presented with one voice. PerfectIt can help to ensure consistency and that your writing speaks with one voice. You can customize it with manufacturer or house style and language preferences. And you can teach it to eliminate any jargon and ensure the document speaks in plain language.
As you polish your final product, PerfectIt will catch details that might otherwise slip through the cracks—inconsistent capitalization, acronym use, and any comments may have inadvertently been left in the document. And if you have a library of documents you draw on for content, you can run each file through PerfectIt to ensure there are no inconsistencies there either.
To learn more about PerfectIt and how it can help make your technical writing clean and consistent, visit intelligentediting.com.