As a technical writer, sooner or later you will find yourself in the position to write on topics about which you have little or no knowledge and that are hard to grasp. Your first instinct is to panic and give up on the assignment. However, if you act smart and do things one step at a time, you can deliver valuable documentation. Here are my tips and tricks when you find yourself in a technical “terra incognita”.
Start by researching your topic
Don’t be afraid to spend enough time on research before you start planning and writing your documentation. Identify your knowledge gaps and try to find resources online to fill them up. Do your research in a focused manner and be careful not to diverge in general topics that will eat up your time.
Find your “best buddy” for the assignment
After you’ve done your homework with the research, it’s time to find your “best buddy” for the assignment. You will usually need the help of a developer or a technical person inside your organization. Look around you: who are the people that possess the most expertise and knowledge about your topic? This task can be harder if you’re working in a large organization. You may have to interview several people before finding the right information. Just keep looking for the right technical person who can act as your “best buddy” for the assignment.
Just start writing
If you’ve confronted a hard topic, you already know how hard it is to start writing in the first place. Yet, the best thing you can do is start writing early even if you’re feeling unconfident. Just force yourself to sit down and start writing what you already know about your topic. At this stage of the process, you don’t need to worry about the quality and organization of your content. Putting down on paper what you already know will help you identify the information you’re missing and fill it up one step at a time.
Seek support from your colleagues
If you run into a hard assignment that makes your head hurt, don’t hesitate to seek support from your more experienced colleagues. They can give you valuable advice on the assignment such as where to start from and where to search for the right information. Your senior colleagues can also console you and help you relax on the assignment.
Deliver something unique
My last tip is applicable to technical information in general but it’s especially important for hard topics. With complex concepts, it’s easier to drift in superfluous information that is already available to your audience. For example, you may find it tempting to copy technical data from an API reference guide and paste it into a user’s guide. Work with your subject matter experts to understand what information would help your end-users do their tasks and concentrate on this. You may decide to provide a diagram to explain a difficult concept or to compile a use case to guide your users through a task. It’s up to you to decide what you’re going to deliver. Just make sure it’s unique.
Valentin Zanev is a technical writer, currently working for the global leader in virtualization software. Valentin is a career changer and is excited by the great opportunities the IT industry has to offer. He says that the JPDocu School of Technical Writing provided him with the know-how to land his first job as a technical writer.