Making it as a lone writer

Lone writers have their work cut out for them. But the lack of processes and resources also gives them flexibility and freedom to work towards improving both, the documentation and their situation.

The plight of a lone writer

Life’s difficult for lone writers. They are usually the only person in the company who creates and maintains documentation. They are tucked in with the marketing or development department. They often operate without a dedicated budget or specific managerial guidance.

(Photo by jc-pics)

However, such “benign neglect” which treats documentation as an afterthought also offers opportunities – which are best exploited by the tech writer. After all, part of the problem is that many managers don’t fully understand what tech communicators could do if they let them. And change management is much easier when you only have to worry about management buy-in and not employee buy-in, too.

The promise

It’s a lot of work for a lone writer to re-invent how documentation is done and perceived at your company. It once took me a couple of years to get from a shaky reputation due to unmaintainable Word manuals to appreciated documentation written with MadCap Flare and delivered as web help as well as printable manuals and tutorials in PDF.

But if you’re up for it, it can be very rewarding, too. It can

  • Increase the value and raise the profile of documentation
  • Make your job more interesting, more diverse
  • Secure your job in the mid-term
  • Secure your career in the long term

A matter of type

There’s no one sure-fire way to do it. To give you the best odds, take into account your personality: Many of us tech writers are introverted types (else we might have gone into marketing or training… 🙂 ) If you are introverted, focus on your work, and let it speak for itself – but put it somewhere your colleagues can “hear” it!

If you are a more extroverted type, consider giving documentation a face – your face! You’re it, anyway… If you know you do good work, you might as well reap the rewards rather than amble along in anonymity.

Focus on your work and your strengths

Regardless of your type, I’ve found that these four strategies can contribute to raising the profile of documentation:

  • Manage your work efficiently
  • Make your work easy to use
  • Know your strengths
  • Leverage your strengths

These four things are basically what a good manager should be doing for you. But none are so difficult that you can’t learn them and apply them for yourself.

Learn more…

To learn more about making it as a lone writer, especially about implementing the strategies, check all posts about “lone writers”.

Update: Two posts about buying yourself time as a lone writer have appeared since this post was published. Check out part 1 and part 2.

If you’re attending the TCUK conference in September, try to catch my session “Getting ahead as a lone author” on the morning of Wednesday, September 22.

Your turn

What are your experiences as a lone writer? How have you been able to raise the profile of your documentation? Can you imagine that the strategies above could work for you? Leave a comment!


11 Responses

  1. Great post. Yes, I am an introvert. How did you guess? Grin.

    Also, I would love to get a summary of your talk on “Getting ahead as a lone author.” Is that possible?

    Thank you.

    • Thanks, Craig. I’m still working on the talk. Some of its ideas will show up on this blog, and I will probably post slides or something after the session. So may I ask you to watch this space?

      • No worries. I’ll be watching. I’m a regular reader, if not a regular poster.

  2. I’ve almost always worked as a lone writer and have enjoyed being able to work as an integrated member of a development team.

    As you mentioned, being a lone writer provides a lot of opportunity to do more diverse things – I also maintain UI standards, help design new features, and keep the development wiki up to date.

    You may have to push a little bit to get what you need (and nag frequently) but the most important things to me are to be good at what you do and to treat everyone with respect.

    • Thanks, Janice, for your comment. Yes, that’s been my experience: Being the lone writer, you often have a choice where you aim the loose cannon that you can be… 🙂

      Striking that balance of nagging (getting on people’s nerves about tools and processes) and respect (not getting on people’s nerves about each other) has helped me get ahead, too.

  3. […] Weber discusses how to survive and thrive as a lone tech […]

  4. Kai, your post is certainly encouraging. I am a lone writer for three separate product lines that are mostly custom products (only half are standard manuals). None of these products lines are planned. I hardly have enough time to finish what is required, let alone look ahead to the future of my “department”.

    My strengths are technical understanding and an ability to communicate with a technical audience. Weaknesses in planning and management.

    So without divorcing my family and marrying my career, do you have any suggestions for employing the suggestions you offered to my situation?

  5. Tactics that help me as a lone writer at a software company:
    Be the person everyone wants to see. It may take practice, but you can get good at smiling and saying “Good morning” to everyone. Keeping a supply of chocolate out on your desk doesn’t hurt. 🙂
    Share your work early and often. post drafts of your work (or completed portions of it) in an accessible place and let your subject-matter experts and other “allies” know that it’s there. Ask for feedback on it. (I post nightly builds of my help system on a shared drive.)
    Ask the technical support team what customers have the most trouble understanding, and what would make the team’s job easier.

    • Thanks, Karen, for sharing your tactics!

      Personally, I tend to put my work in the foreground, hoping that this is what everyone wants to see… 🙂

      I’m intrigued by your idea to share early and often. In my experience, it’s difficult enough to get good feedback by the right people when I ask for it, so I feel more comfortable to share when I’m ready and to ask for specific feedback. But it’s definitely an interesting idea!

      And thanks for emphasizing close ties with tech support: I’ve found them a most valuable corrective to my perspective on users and their needs!

      • I’m with Kai on this one. Posting early and often would be great, but it is tough enough just getting feedback. I post when I have something and need feedback.

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