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A Mentor's Approach to Managing Technical Writers
Published
1998, March (March 05, 2007)
By Bill Sullivan, San Diego Chapter

Let's say you are the boss. You have been put in charge of one or more technical writers. How can you create a positive and productive environment? One way is to consider the difference between managing and mentoring.

A manager, especially a more hard-nosed type, may pick up a writer's draft and attack the writer, circling mistakes with red ink, demanding rewrites, and peppering the work with negative remarks. If the manager is uptight, it doesn't take very long for subordinates to become uptight also. And being too managerial may end up creating an adversarial relationship, which can thwart the writer's professional growth.

On the other hand, a supportive and nurturing fellow worker — a mentor, in other words — can help create a positive and productive team environment. Mentors may have to be patient with their writers at times, but that patience should pay off, long-term, in results and accomplishments. When you find ways to make your people look good, they will in turn make you look good.

Making Mentoring Work

As a mentor, you might consider the differences between professional writing in an ideal world and professional writing in your shop. Taking a realistic view of the environment in which your writers operate may help you develop realistic expectations of those writers. For one reason or another, your writers may have been thrown into less than ideal situations. You can help improve such situations if you understand them.

How does a mentor teach a writer and still manage the writing project? A mentor should offer constructive criticism during the writing project. Often, the temptation is to rewrite a faulty sentence or paragraph to show how it should be done. Instead, why not diplomatically point out that the passage has some flaws and ask the writer to try again? Your goal should be to help the writer grow, not to do the writing yourself. People seldom learn when another person does their work for them, even when that person is the boss.

Mentor to Improve the Writer's Communication

As a mentor, quality communication with your writers can foster their quality communication with readers. When you edit a writer's work, comment as copiously as you can. But learn to make comments that will help the writer become better. Avoid at all costs such unhelpful and unspecific chidings as This sentence is bad. Untactful discussions of good and bad style can easily lead to resentments. Instead of saying that a passage is bad, say that you find it unclear or too detailed, and explain why. Then, meet with the writer, and sitting beside the writer — psychologically a better position than facing across a desk — talk calmly about the parts that bother you. If the office environment is too hectic, suggest a lunch meeting. Remember that a writer's best friend is a reader who takes him or her seriously enough to read carefully and provide constructive criticism.

Before and After a Writing Project

A lull in activity between major projects can be an excellent opportunity to help writers develop the style you are looking for. Encourage writers to study other technical documents you feel are successful. Develop a collection of good model documents, categorized by genre, so you can quickly find the right document for a given circumstance. If a writer is having problems describing a procedure, you can show the writer a model procedure, and examine together how it's done in that one case.

If you feel a writer needs personal instruction, devote some time to critiquing and perhaps rewriting after you release a job, especially while constructive criticism is still fresh in the writer's mind. Such post-release reflection can help prepare for subsequent projects.

Encourage your technical writers to practice their craft in between projects. E-mail is a wonderful tool for daily writing practice. Mentors should encourage writers to participate in discussion groups such as TECHWR-L (this writer's favorite) for technical writing, UTEST for usability testing, INDEX-L for indexing, COPYEDITING-L for editing, or discussion groups for specific software that the writers use. Encourage writers to broaden their skills by writing letters to the editors or articles for journals and newsletters, or even for various Web sites.

Taking on the role of a mentor as well as a manager can go a long way toward creating a positive and productive technical writing environment.

Bill is a technical writer for the Exide Electronics Network Systems Group in San Diego. You can reach him at bsullivan at email dot exide dot com. End of article.

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