RE. SMEs and me?

Subject: RE. SMEs and me?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "Techwr-L (E-mail)" <TECHWR-L -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 5 Jul 2000 15:53:20 -0400

Sierra Godfrey continues the war of the SME:

<<How often do SMEs give you their write-up of a manual, or at least the
information, before you start on your work?>>

For software, never; they're so grateful they don't have to write the
manuals that they are more than happy to leave the work to me. For our
technical reports, almost all of them write their own material, and then I
more or less have carte blanche to edit them (lightly or so heavily as to
comprise a complete rewrite, depending on the author).

<<If you do have experience with SMEs giving you their information in what
they think is a manual (or other output) format, how much liberty do you
take to change it into readable and digestible information (what we all are
trained to do as technical writers)?>>

I once turned on revision tracking, did a "select all", and hit the delete
key, but I never actually had the courage to send the "edited version" to
the author. <g> Over the years, I've worked with authors who were almost
pathetically grateful to have me rewrite their stuff, other who fought every
change until I finally resorted to a final authority, and a broad range of
characters in between. The conflicts have grown fewer over the years as I've
gotten better at my job and as I've learned to "sell" my changes instead of
just imposing them. But my official job title is "editor", and that means
I've got an enormous amount of freedom to improve a manuscript. Fortunately,
I've got a good enough relationship with most of my authors that they trust
me to make these changes.

<<I'm catching a lot of flack now from him for formatting his information
(with much addition of my own research) into a user manual, different from
the way he originally wrote it. He didn't want anything changed.>>

Sounds like a clash of job descriptions. The obvious question becomes: "Who
is really responsible for producing the manual?" If you're the one who
catches hell for producing a poor manual, politely point this out, thank him
for providing the source material, and remind him that you're the expert,
not him. If he's responsible for the writing, then it isn't really your
problem, is it? Stick to your own work, make sure someone (maybe even you)
gets to do a review of the manual for conformity with house style (if you
have one) and for effectiveness, and offer to fix things when he proves
himself incapable of writing good manuals. If you get to play editor, I've
found that the house style guide is often an excellent tool for beating SMEs
into submission. ("I agree that your argument makes sense, but my way is
also sensible and it follows house style. So if you want an exception made,
please see Fred and get him to call me with permission.")

<<how often do you have the problem of just being about to send the manual
off to the printer and then being told you can't because there are so many
changes to be made suddenly by the SME? What do you do other than stress

(1) Daily? (2) Grin and bear it?

With a ship date in two weeks, I thought they'd finally stopped mucking
about with the interface, but just today I spotted something else new that
nobody bothered to warn me about, and I've probably got to redo a bunch of
screenshots to account for the edits I finally got to do in the label files
last week (assuming they accept and incorporate my changes). Good thing this
is just the beta release... even though they don't want to call it that.

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

"Technical writing... requires understanding the audience, understanding
what activities the user wants to accomplish, and translating the often
idiosyncratic and unplanned design into something that appears to make
sense."--Donald Norman, The Invisible Computer

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