The secrets of effective technical authors

In early 2007, Cherryleaf carried out a survey to find out the challenges technical authors face. We looked at satisfaction levels, the status of authors and what was holding them back, if anything. We also looked at other research on what makes a good writer. We received nearly 500 responses, and we presented our conclusions at the Online Help Conference Europe 2007.

Our objective was to identify areas where there might be opportunities for new training courses and consider publishing a report on what makes a successful technical author.

In general, we found that authors were confident in their own capabilities and the quality of the work they delivered. However, when we asked “What is holding you back?” some fascinating themes came out.

We categorised these as:

(1) office politics (in other words, “nobody loves us”)
(2) project management and
(3) time management.

A key theme coming out from the responses boiled down to authors complaining that their work colleagues didn’t know their value.

When we mentioned our findings to Anne-Florence Dujardin, one of the tutors in Technical Communication at Sheffield Hallam University, she pointed us towards some research carried out by one of her former students in 2002.

This student, Deborah Shapiro, had looked at the personality traits of success in technical authors. In her preliminary study of 223 software technical authors, she had found that effective technical authors had high “openness” and “agreeableness” (defined as “trust of others” and “likeability”), when their personality was measured on the OCEAN personality and PEI effectiveness profiling systems. One of her conclusions was that technical authors should negotiate more, and be more assertive, while maintaining good work relationships. In her words, “skills, language and technical knowledge are sometimes not enough to be an effective technical writer”.

Shapiro’s findings concurred in many ways with our own experiences. It seemed that the solution to being a successful technical author lay not only in being a good writer, but also in being good at positioning, promotion and project management.

2 Comments

A-F Dujardin

Hello Ellis
I wonder if the three problems you’ve identified are not closely interlinked.

If office politics disadavantage technical writers, then our work may be poorly understood and as consequence, time allocations are unlikely to be realistic – let alone generous. If managers do not understand what time is actually required (for example, for tasks such as planning and reviewing), isn’t likely that this will be reflected as poor time-management?

Just a thought. Obviously, work circumstances do differ 😉

Kind regards

Florence

Deborah Shapiro Hemstreet

Hello Ellis,
I just happened to find this report, and would be more than happy to provide you with data, if it would be helpful.

You can contact me at deborah.hemstreet@gmail.com

Deborah (Shapiro) Hemstreet

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