How Can a SME Work with a Technical Ghostwriter to Create Company Documents?

05 Nov 2021


Can scriptwriters edit movies, or farmers manage grocery stores? In theory, yes. But it’s not the go-to solution for a reason.

Scriptwriters understand their movies but rarely possess professional grade editing skills. And farmers know their produce but generally lack the interest and knowledge needed to run an entire store.

The same logic applies when you ask SMEs to write company documents. Sure, some SMEs can reach into a hat and pull out the particular interest, mindset, expertise, and time needed to create those documents.

But that’s the exception, not the rule. For most companies, hiring a technical ghostwriter is a much better approach to getting those important documents written.  

Now, that may seem like a fairly broad—and possibly expensive-sounding—proposition. And you probably have many follow-up questions.

So, let’s begin by talking about SMEs and their relationship with writing technical documents. (Spoiler alert, it’s generally not ideal.)

The issues that most SMEs have with writing technical documents comes down to more than raw wordsmithing. After all, even SMEs who generally enjoy writing can struggle with technical documents. In most cases, the very qualities that make people excellent SMEs render them ill-suited to create great company documents, especially ones directly related to their particular projects.

When it comes to technical writing, SMEs’ strengths usually morph into these pain points:

  • Too close to the subject
  • Too distracted by details to focus on the larger picture
  • Don’t understand their target audience’s mindset or desires
  • Lack the bandwidth for work outside their “real” job

But when do these broad pain points actually manifest in the technical writing process, and how can a technical ghostwriter solve them? The answers depend on the specific document at hand.

Let’s start by breaking down the different types of technical writing, and identifying exactly how a technical ghostwriter can help with each of them.

  1. Documents that attract and persuade the general population
  2. Documents that instruct non-SMEs
  3. Documents that persuade decision makers
  4. Documents that inform other SMEs

Documents That Attract the General Population – Why Should Average Joe Care?

Photo by Pressmaster from Pexels

Brochures, press releases, and trade publications are the shiny toys of technical writing—they exist to catch and hold the average reader’s notice. Why is this product interesting to me? How does it make my life easier?

Such questions are to a SME what the following are to a Parisian-trained, only-buys-gourmet-beans barista: Would it kill you to drink instant instead? For that matter, what’s the point of caffeine when we could all just get more sleep?

SMEs, knee-deep in their field, don’t instinctively ask those larger-picture, accessible questions. And when someone else asks them to explain, they hardly know where to begin. A career spent obsessing over a particular stem, leaf, or twig makes it difficult to back up and view the entire tree, much less the combined landscape of forest, mountain, and lake.

That becomes the technical ghostwriter’s first job: Asking those large-picture questions in the first place, and then teasing out a useful answer.

“If you ask a pipeline services engineer what was cool about their latest project, they’ll first say something like ‘We cleared a pipeline by using x tool instead of y tool,’” technical ghostwriter Barbara Adams explains. “They won’t automatically produce answers like ‘We reduced this many emissions, which in turn reduced greenhouse gases,’ so you have to be able to get them to dig a little deeper and describe what the reader would care about.”

It’s not surprising that SMEs don’t easily pinpoint which parts of their field lay people find interesting or meaningful, and which parts boring. After all, if SMEs weren’t already inherently fascinated by their field, they wouldn’t be SMEs.

And even SMEs who do have a knack for asking and answering those questions won’t consider it a priority; their primary job is to complete the project, not defend or explain its existence.

“If you ask them a wider question like ‘Why was this important?’ or ‘How does this solve a problem?’ they can usually think of a good answer, but they consider it a waste of time to sit down and do so,” former cyber-engineer and writer Joe Brule adds.

It’s not surprising, then, that SMEs particularly dislike writing such attention-getting documents. It takes time and several mental somersaults for a SME to back away from those fine details, find the larger picture, and use the picture to catch an audience’s attention, all to convince the audience of something the SME already believes: The product or development is interesting and worthwhile.

And that’s just the mindset needed to write such documents. We haven’t even gotten into the actual time and labor involved in writing, editing, and formatting. If a SME is already reluctant to pile a fun writing project onto their full plate, they’ll run screaming from one they actively dislike.

Barbara Adams says it best: “For a press release or a trade publication, they’ll usually just hand it over to me.”

Everyone’s happier when the technical ghostwriter asks the larger questions, translates the answers, considers the audience, hooks the audience, gives them a call to action, and, most importantly, gets the words onto paper.

Documents That Give Instructions to non-SMEs – Press X While Holding Y and Gluing On Z

User manuals, policy documents, and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) teach non-SMEs how to do something. Anyone who’s ditched the user manual for a YouTube tutorial knows exactly how difficult it is to follow, much less write, good instructions. How do I use this thing? It’s a simple question. Why am I being forced to read someone’s dissertation?

Even SMEs with writing talent usually aren’t well positioned for creating instructions like manuals or SOPs—they’re simply too close to the process to break it down properly.

Teaching what feels automatic to us takes particular patience and skill, akin to showing a toddler how to hold their fork or tie their shoes. But at least parents can backpedal and answer a child’s questions in real time—someone reading a bad SOP can’t immediately run screaming to the writer.

As former Hewlett-Packard technical writer Dennis Chiu points out, SMEs often overestimate what a typical user already knows and understands. One of the ghostwriter’s main functions, then, is to catch those gaps from the beginning.

“Experts don’t break out of acronyms easily,” Chiu says. In an on-the-nose example: “You and I know what S-M-E stands for, or you wouldn’t be writing this article. But do you think the average reader knows? When I write a manual, I usually repeat the acronym several times, just to make it easier for the user. But someone else in the industry might not think of that.”

Of course, omitting information is just one pitfall—SMEs are just as likely to include far too much.

“Engineers are data people; they love to give you all this data and show off all the wonderful things this piece of software does. Most users don’t give a damn about how it works, they just wanna turn on the car and drive,” Chiu says.  

This is another case of the gap between a SME’s instincts and reader’s needs. From the SME’s point of view, the product’s extra features, backstory, and improvements are fascinating and worth knowing.

An engineer would love to tell you about tensile strength, heating element, and cost-effective material—but most buyers just want to make sure their coffee pot is dishwasher-safe.

“Even at work, SMEs sometimes overestimate what people need to know—for example, not every employee who reads news stories on the company’s internal website wants to hear all the details of a project,” Barbara Adams says.

Even if the SME could magically transmit their thought process onto a Word document, the result might be an unusable behemoth for the specific reader.

A huge part of the technical ghostwriter’s job, then, is sifting for information that actually belongs in each document, for the particular audience.

“When it comes to a user manual, I always say, ‘Just the facts, ma’am,’” Chiu says. “Don’t you hate it when you’re reading a manual, and they don’t get to the point until the fourth or fifth paragraph? My job is to make it as easy as possible to find the answers.”

Documents That Are Technical but Target Decision Makers – What Matters to the Bottom Line?

White papers, case studies, requests for proposals (RFPs), and technical request documents (TRDs) form a counterintuitive category. On one hand, they’re highly technical and thus tempting to hand off to a SME.

However, such documents usually target decision makers, not fellow SMEs. As a result, the language, goal, and scope of the paper still require a professional writer’s focus and editing skills.

SMEs often assume that people in their field speak their jargon—but in reality, a decision maker might be too far removed from those niche details.

Once again, a technical ghostwriter has good instincts for what their target audience will actually understand and writes accordingly.

Above all, the ghostwriter understands that these documents have a very specific goal—and they know what information actually pursues that goal.

Despite its technical content and language, Adams reminds us that a white paper has a marketing purpose. If left to their own devices, a SME may pile on data and details that distract from that marketing purpose.

A technical ghostwriter, however, knows what raw material is actually necessary to make the sale—and what to cut.

“When writing an RFP [Request for Proposals], SMEs often want to include their suggestions on how to do something. Which makes sense, because they’re experts and have their own opinions. But that’s not the point of an RFP—it’s a document that asks vendors to provide the solution. If you wanted to solve it yourself, would you be writing the RFP?” Joe Brule says.

Documents for Fellow SMEs – Finally, a Chance to Geek Out!

SMEs feel much more comfortable writing for fellow SMEs—that’s where conference papers, technical manuals, some white papers, and some trade publications come in.

A familiar audience, plus the rare chance to share those details, data, and tangents, make a much more inviting writing experience.

“When it comes to a conference paper, they want first crack at it,” Barbara Adams explains. “They do want help with the organization and editing, though, so I’ll look at drafts in various stages of doneness.”

Yet even with conference papers, those familiar pain points crop up. For starters, SMEs don’t always understand fellow SMEs’ language.

“A mechanical engineer may assume that a civil engineer will understand their language and world, but that’s not always the case,” Adams says.

Even two engineers in the same niche may find language barriers. “A fellow mechanical engineer who works for a different company may have picked up company-specific terms or slang,” Brule adds. “In practice, the technical writer ends up standardizing the language for the SME.”

Once again, it comes down to time—SMEs have no interest in formatting, standardizing, or editing on top of their “real” job.

Help me to Help You

With all four document categories, the SMEs’ pain points occur in at least some form: being too close to their field, not understanding their audience, being distracted by the details, and not having enough bandwidth.

And in each case, the technical ghostwriter provides objectivity, targets the audience, sees the larger picture, and—most obviously and importantly—actually gets the job done.

It’s not surprising that, according to Barbara Adams, half the SMEs she’s worked with really welcome help; the rest are willing to get help.

Then there are those who are reluctant to have someone even attempt to give them a hand. “The ones who are reluctant to work with a ghostwriter are usually afraid I won’t have the technical savvy to help them . . . there’s a learning curve, but eventually they grow to see me as a partner,” she says.

What was that last word? Ah, partner.

We’ve discussed what the technical ghostwriter brings to the table, but what can the SMEs and decision makers do to make the process easier? After talking with several technical ghostwriters, we’ve compiled some best practices they would love to see from SMEs.

1. Keep the ghostwriter on the same project from beginning to end.

Decision makers might be tempted to save time by assigning multiple writers to one product’s array of documents—one for the press release, one for the user manual, one for the technical manual, and so on. In the long run, though, assigning everything to one dedicated ghostwriter results in better documents all around.

“If I was the boss I would have the same writer create the installation manual, user manual, and technical manual,” Dennis Chiu says. “[Ideally] I’m with the engineer every day. As they write the software, I’m interviewing, I’m sitting down at the computer, I’m playing with the software myself, I’m doing revisions to my manual.”

This method also assuages the SME’s greatest fear of writers—that they won’t be tech savvy enough to keep up with the engineer. If the technical ghostwriter works on the project from beginning to end, they become an expert in their own right.

Sure, it’s tempting to bring on the ghostwriter later in the process to save money or time, but that’s like waiting until the last minute to see the doctor—problems may arise that can’t be fixed.

“If [a SME] submit[s] an abstract and it gets accepted for a conference, I can’t edit it at all, [even when] the abstract is really poorly written,” Adams says. “In an ideal world, they’d give me their white paper draft first, then I’d pull the abstract from it and edit both. When [that happens], I’m so happy.”

2. Refer to the specific style guides, glossaries, and authoritative sources.

Sure, SMEs often don’t understand each other’s jargon—that’s exactly why standard language and glossaries exist in the first place. And writers love SMEs who actually use them!

“Here’s what often happens,” Brule says. “Engineers often say ‘weakness’ or ‘susceptibility’ when they should be saying ‘vulnerability’—the National Glossary of Information Assurance has a specific definition for vulnerability. Always refer to an authoritative source like that to look up the proper terminology.”

“Please, please use the style guide,” Adams says simply.

3. Be open to questions – both low- and high-level.

Taking the time to answer technical ghostwriters’ questions can irritate SMEs, who generally want to focus on their main job.

Even technical writers with considerable expertise, however, often find interviews a necessary step in the process.

“Accept that sometimes I’ll have to ask more elementary questions,” Adams says.  

Chiu, armed with his own engineering degree, reveals that, “I like to start with the thousand-foot view, and then get into the data and details.”

“I ask the engineer to talk to me like I’m a first-time user—that’s who I’m writing for,” he says.

That being said, SMEs are often pleasantly surprised by technical ghostwriters’ savvy.

“The greatest compliment I ever had was when a SME assumed I was an engineer,” Adams says. “I wish SMEs knew that technical writers actually find this stuff interesting, and like it.”

4. Keep the technical ghostwriter informed.

Even for projects where the SME remains fairly hands-off, there’s one vital way to kick things off.

“Send me all the relevant background information at once, early on,” Adams advises. “It’s better to share too much than too little. If you leave something out at the beginning, I may have to start over.”

It’s the same reason Chiu prefers to work with programmers from beginning to end. “One update can mean I have to ditch my entire manual draft,” he said. “That’s why I talk to the programmers, I work in the same room with them.”

5. Tell the technical ghostwriter what you want.

Remember that the ghostwriter is here to help you—and they can only do that if they know what you need.

Do you want them to write the entire document from beginning to end, just edit and format, or combine existing documents? Experienced technical ghostwriters have done all of these things and are happy to be of service.

Ultimately, though, this is your document.

As Adams says, “Take ownership. It’s your paper, not mine. I’ll make suggestions, but you’re the decision maker.”

Remember the “ghost” in “ghostwriter.” They’re here to quietly help, not take over the company brand. When you have pain points, they’ll step in–just as little or as much as you want.

Cecile Brule 

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