Technical Writing 101: Working with SMEs
One of the unique things about technical writing is that we are often tasked with documenting processes, codebases, software, and more that we don’t fully understand. Because of this, technical writers document things about which they have a strong working knowledge but lack complete mastery.
So, how do technical writers fill the knowledge gap? That’s where Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) come in. Working with them is one of the key functions of being a technical writer. And, if properly handled, it is one of the most rewarding and fun aspects of being a technical writer.
What is an SME?
Subject Matter Experts have advanced knowledge and specialized skills in a specific field. For example, when it comes to software engineering, an SME may have advanced knowledge in Android development, iOS development, machine learning, and so on. They are authorities in a specific area, so they are qualified (and often asked) to give guidance around strategy, uses, implementation, and learning in the field in which they’re an SME.
They’re needed and used in a wide range of industries, from technology to energy to chemicals to transportation, and SMEs remain SMEs by continuing to grow and learn in their given field. An SME is an industry-agnostic role and concept, but we often see them in technical fields. As a technical writer at a tech consulting firm, the SMEs I engage with are usually focused on software engineering.
Why do technical writers work with SMEs?
To be a technical writer is to be curious. And with that comes the endless desire to learn. As technical writers, we are constantly learning. We are brought in to document things we are familiar with but not fluent in. Luckily, there is often an SME who is fluent in what we, technical writers, are familiar with and tasked to document. Enter the SME/technical writer pairing.
These pairings are used on various projects—from internal work to user-facing work and consulting. A technical writer and an SME are paired to fill knowledge and skill gaps. An SME might be an incredible engineer but lack confidence in their writing abilities. As for the technical writer, they might be an amazing writer, but their hard engineering skills might not be at a high level. Thus, the technical writer and SME combine to fill one another’s knowledge and skill gaps. Through doing so, they offer a lot of value and bring a lot to both their work.
For technical writer and SME pairings to do stellar work, they need to know how to best work with one another. I can only speak to this from a technical writer standpoint, but the tips I will share go both ways.
How to work best with SMEs
Communicate early and often.
This tip sounds a bit obvious, but in the fast-paced environments we often work in, communication can fall by the wayside. So, be intentional about communicating with the SME(s) that you work with—whether that is asynchronous communication through Slack and email or in Zoom and in-person meetings—and always leave ample time for discussion before any work is due. And what I mean by that is to bring to light any concerns, gaps in knowledge, potential blockers, and more before they become issues that could slow your work down or hinder your work in any way.
Once again, this might sound obvious. But friendliness goes a long way! A technical writer’s relationship with an SME is often somewhat one-sided insofar as we often ask way more of them than they do of us. From questions about new API changes to double-checking basic code snippets we write, SMEs do a lot for us. So, it is essential to be kind. And better yet, get to know them on a personal level. This is important with any coworkers, but the ones you work the closest with should be individuals that you can get to know on a personal level.
An SME is not a walking knowledge bank. Don’t treat them as such, and don’t reach out only when you need help. You likely have shared interests and commonalities. Get to know them, and you never know. You might make a new friend or mentor.
As a technical writer, you need to ask your SME(s) a lot of questions about what you’ve been tasked with documenting. This is because you need to translate the knowledge that lives in your SME’s head into consumable words. People say there is no such thing as a bad question, and while that is true, there are bad ways to ask questions.
It is also important to do your homework before asking questions. For example, if you have a question about a code snippet an SME passed to you, run it in an IDE first to get a better understanding of it before you ask your question. A little legwork can help you answer your own questions. Ask questions clearly, break a question into multiple simpler questions if it is complex, and ask them in such a way that you and an SME can work toward an answer together.
Knowledge transfers between an SME and a technical writer often start with the technical writer asking questions or reaching out for guidance and support. This is important because SMEs can teach us so much and asking active questions (where examples can be created or talked through) is a great way to learn, and important questions should never wait. Waiting until the last minute to ask an SME about a project-related question puts undue stress on them to get you an answer immediately, and rushing to an answer or teaching something rapidly might not lead to the best solution. Be diligent, timely, thoughtful, and thorough with your question-asking, and SMEs will repay you with brilliant answers and knowledge transfers.
Be transparent about skillsets and boundaries.
A technical writer and an SME should always be open and honest about their skillsets and the places where they may start to feel out of their depth. This also applies to roles and responsibilities. There might be some overlap between tasks between a technical writer and an SME, but letting one another do what they do best and not overstepping is very important. You’ve been paired together for a reason: to highlight one another’s strengths and fill in one another’s weaknesses.
Openly discuss and share these strengths and weaknesses so you and your SME know how to best work with and support each other. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses, you can do your best work together. And more importantly, you can start learning from one another. An SME and technical writer pairing is as much a soft mentorship as a business practice. Make the most of it.
As a technical writer, being paired with an SME can prove to be one of the most fun and fruitful experiences in your career. You need to be intentional about how to go about that experience, and I’ve shared some tips on how to make the most of it. Any project where I am paired with an SME is a joy for me because I get to learn from the best while also doing impactful work.
Next time you find yourself working with an SME, try these tips. They will help you build rapport more quickly—and collaborate more effectively.