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Nurturing a new writer

by Geoff Hart

Previously published, in a different form, as: Hart, G.J. 1999. Nurturing a new writer. Intercom, September/October:6–9.

Technical communicators represent one of the most mobile groups of professionals I’m aware of, with some sources claiming that the average time between changing jobs is as low as 4 years. This means that many of us will soon find ourselves in the position of working with newcomers, whether permant staff or “temps”, and this means we may face the problem of how to mentor or supervise someone new to our workplace. Eric Olive wrote about how to bring someone up to speed if they don’t have formal training in the field (Training a new technical writer, Intercom, June 1999), so I’ll expand on his article by discussing how to work with someone who already has the basic training, but is nonetheless naïve in the ways of your particular organization.

Some companies don’t let supervisors mentor the employees they supervise, since supervisor–employee conflicts are common sources of friction in the workplace; moreover, the dynamics of an “I’m the boss and we’ll do it this way” relationship typically inhibit the free communication necessary for a really effective mentoring relationship. To simplify the discussion, I’ll refer simply to “nurturing” and “writers”, though both supervisory and mentoring relationships would benefit from the same advice, as would employees in other trades (e.g., editors). Because people vary incredibly in their job, interpersonal, and learning skills, giving any advice beyond “be flexible and adapt your approach to the specific person's needs” is risky. Nonetheless, the overall outline I’ve provided should provide at least a good starting point for that flexibility, particularly if you’re willing to work closely with the new writer until you learn how much supervision, tutoring, and mentoring they need.

Introduce the corporate culture

Over time, every workplace develops its own “corporate culture”: the unwritten rules for how things really work, and how employees can fit in. These rules can range from understanding how to navigate the bureaucracy (e.g., “ask Judy to handle your expense account; she’ll get it done twice as fast as the others”) to interpersonal issues (e.g., “Fred never reads notes, and you should only arrange to meet with him after 9, once he’s had his coffee”). More formal rules involve how timesheets must be filled in, where it’s illegal to smoke, and dispute-resolution mechanisms offered by the Human Resources department.

In particular, introduce the newcomer to the main subject-matter experts (SMEs) or developers they’ll be working with. This personal contact will minimize unpleasant surprises and greatly shorten the time required to get the writer working effectively with the SMEs. Similarly, warn the SMEs that they'll be working with a newbie and ask them to be patient and accommodating. You may still have to arbitrate occasionally, but don't make the mistake of automatically taking on the role of problem-solver; you’re dealing with adults who can generally be trusted to work things out together. The first few meetings are a good time to observe the writer's interpersonal skills and determine whether you’ll need to intervene before a personality difference escalates into a full-blown feud.

Start with a good plan

The carpenter’s adage “measure twice, cut once” is particularly important for newcomers who as yet lack the experience to jump right into a job and succeed, but even experienced writers may need to learn how to plan. A good way to orient a new writer would be to collaborate on developing a broad outline for the writer’s first project; if the writer will be part of a project team working with an existing outline, you could instead review the outline together to familiarize the writer with the product. Broad outlines also provide the necessary context for developing the more focused outlines writers use for individual components of the larger project, and can serve as an excellent preliminary agreement on the deliverables and deadlines—subject to the usual surprises and delays, of course.

Do at least some of this planning work before the writer actually begins writing. The collaboration gives you a good opportunity to learn how the person thinks and to identify training needs (which I’ll discuss in the next section). Resist the temptation to provide easy answers, since forcing someone to think through a problem is a more effective teaching strategy than providing predigested solutions; moreover, once someone learns to think things through, they’ll increasingly find solutions without imposing on you.

Identify training needs

Planning also involves determining what knowledge or skills the writer must learn to perform the job effectively. Even experienced workers will need at least basic training on any new aspects of the job (e.g., the particular templates you use, details of your audience), but inexperienced writers will need additional, more formal training to fill in gaps in their education or skills. You’ll need to develop a training plan to accompany the actual writing plan, and to prioritize the training so that it’s synchronized with the times when the skills will be needed.

Outlining your organization’s overall documentation process tells new writers where they fit within the corporation and provides their working context. In terms of the corporate culture, each phase of your documentation process undoubtedly has specific quirks that newcomers must learn to deal with; these may be as simple as showing the way to the editor’s office, or as complex as teaching your company’s formal usability-testing methodology.

Formal training involves an introduction to the product you’re documenting and the tools you’re using to document it. You may be able to explain the basics of a simple product in less than an hour, but large, complex products require a longer, more focused approach that may involve working with a series of SMEs over a period of weeks. This extended training will have to coexist with actual production work, since you can rarely afford to have a writer “sitting idle” (i.e., learning, not writing) for any length of time. Learning the tools of the trade imposes similar hurdles; if your new writer isn’t fully trained in your production tool, you may have to schedule formal training in-house or via local trainers. I’ve heard enough tales of unpleasant surprises that I suspect you can’t simply rely on someone’s description of their skills; sit down with the newcomer and work through simple exercises with your main production tools to confirm that the person has (or will learn) the necessary skills. Often, this will be a simple matter of watching the person use the skill, but you may also have to budget additional time to work with trainees until they learn any required skills they lack.

Some writers arrive with surprisingly little writing talent, whether because they never really learned to write or because they’re simply learning to apply existing skills in an entirely new context. (English Literature majors moving into technical writing and technical writers moving into marketing are two typical examples.) Sometimes providing a “jargon dictionary” helps writers to understand what you and their other colleagues are saying; my first week on my first job, I felt like I’d been parachuted into a foreign land without any language training. I clearly remember my fear and self-doubt upon running into a wall of incomprehensible TLAs (three-letter acronyms), and remember how embarrassed I was to be constantly interrupting colleagues to ask for an explanation.

Other writers may need to learn higher-level skills. For example, you can become proficient with a help authoring tool by running through the tutorial, but tutorials rarely explain why you're using the tool or what to do once you know how to use the tool. Maintaining a library of reference materials provides one way to bring someone up to speed. My experience in grad school taught me to keep a file cabinet full of key articles from journals such as Technical Communication as well as a bookshelf of larger references. (I’ve included some of the more important ones at the end of this article.) Once you identify areas in need of improvement, providing access to your library, accompanied by simple, brief exercises, can help the writer develop skills in those areas.

Monitor the work

During your early work together, you'll develop a feel for which areas you can safely ignore, and which areas will require ongoing monitoring and coaching until the person develops the necessary skills. Focus on the latter areas. A word of caution: if you discover to your horror that your new writer is potentially better at the job than you are, resist the natural urge to feel threatened. There’s an old truism that you can’t be promoted if you can’t be replaced, so treat this as an opportunity to train your own replacement and free yourself to move up the corporate ladder. If you’re not interested in promotion, focus instead on the fact that healthy student–teacher relationships always let the teacher learn from the student too.

No matter how good the writer appears to be, you’ll still have to review their first projects intensively to understand how well they’re doing. This is an opportunity to teach house style as you go, and problems that you catch and correct early won’t have to be corrected continually once they’ve become habits. The result is an ongoing, iterative improvement in the writer’s skills.

Even with the most careful hiring practices and the best intentions, you may still end up hiring a writer who simply can't be taught to write. “Probation periods” let you fire someone who’s truly incompetent, but you’ll need to learn your organization’s procedural requirements first. For your own protection, set up an evaluation procedure that is compatible with these requirements and that is clear to both you and the trainee. Use this to perform ongoing evaluations, because both of you must be contantly aware of how things are going. There’s nothing more disheartening—and unethical—than providing no warning for 3 months, then suddenly trying to fire someone because they're not living up to your standards. Ongoing communication (see the next section) both avoids these shocks and gives you a chance to correct problems before firing becomes an issue. But if it does become necessary to fire someone, then at least you have a paper trail to protect you.

Communicate regularly

Convince your new writer that it's better to come to you immediately with a tough problem rather than struggling futilely until the situation becomes really bad. Things don’t often get bad fast, but I’ve heard enough horror stories to know that this is a real possibility. Speaking as someone who had a very effective mentor, I can’t emphasize enough how reassuring it was to have someone to help me work through my problems. This kind of relationship not only minimizes problems, but also builds incredible loyalty.

How frequently to meet will vary. An open-door policy can resolve sudden crises, but if you’re very busy, you may want to set “office hours” during which you’ll guarantee your availability. If you’re frequently away from the office, don’t forget to identify someone who can help out in your absence and warn them when you’ll be away. Because newcomers never want to give the impression that they can’t handle situations themselves, you should schedule regular meetings so you will have a chance to detect incipient problems the newcomer isn’t yet comfortable enough to discuss. These meetings can become progressively less frequent, but even once the trainee is fully up to speed, an informal weekly “how are things going?” meeting is a valuable supplement to more formal performance appraisals; these meetings can be as short as the time required to ask how things are going, but they can also grow into formal meetings if you discover something that needs to be resolved. Encourage the newcomer to keep a notepad handy so they can jot down any questions and problems as they arise; it’s surprisingly easy to forget the details of important issues if you don’t write them down.

At each meeting, provide a judicious mix of positive feedback to reassure the writer and constructive criticism to ensure that the person grows into the job. Where you differ in your approaches, recognize that you’re not necessarily right, and have a long, hard look at your own approach before insisting that the writer adopt it; sometimes it helps to consult your own support network first for a reality check. If you’re convinced that you’re closer to being right than the trainee is, explain why and make sure the trainee adopts your approach; if not, consider carefully whether it’s a big enough issue to demand a change—or whether you might have discovered an opportunity to learn something from the newcomer.

Verify and update deadlines regularly, and clearly express your expectations each time. If problems arise, encourage the writer to solve their own problems, but never shy away from providing advice—or even an outright intervention—if the situation demands it. Suggest that the new writer develop support networks, both technical and social, so that the burden doesn’t fall entirely on you and so that the trainee becomes more fully a member of the organization and not just your personal protegée.

Learn to let go

By the time your new employee survives both the probation period and your attempts at mentoring or supervision, you’ve probably developed an overly intrusive management style. Learn to “let go”, and gradually relax your monitoring as time goes by so you don't smother the writer. Learning to trust a newcomer can be the hardest part of the nurturing process, and if you’re in any doubt about your ability to do so, come right out and ask the employee to tell you when to lighten up.

Unfortunately, working with new writers is never as easy as I’ve made it appear in this article. New writers and supervisors are both human, and thus occasionally difficult, unpredictable, and resistant to change. (So are you and I, as it happens.) Worse yet, you’re only one of the two people responsible for the relationship, and you can’t guarantee that the writer will work as hard to succeed as you’re working to ensure the writer’s success. But following the approach I’ve outlined should greatly smooth the new writer’s successful entry into your company.

References and resources

Deaton, M.; Zuback, C.L. 1996. Designing Windows 95 help: a guide to creating online documents. Que Corporation, Indianapolis, IN. 684 p.

Horn, R.E. 1989. Mapping hypertext. Analysis, linkage, and display of knowledge for the next generation of on-line text and graphics. Information Mapping Inc., Waltham, MA. 289 p.

Horton, W. 1994. Designing and writing online documentation. 2nd Ed. John Wiley and Sons, Inc., New York, NY. 439 p.

The technical writing mailing list is an excellent source of information and support from people who have “been there, done that”. To subscribe, visit <http://www.techwr-l.com>.

John Renish has compiled a bibliography of resources for technical communicators, which can be found online at <http://www.prc.dk/user-friendly-manuals/>

Acknowledgments: This article is an expanded version of my contribution to a recent discussion on the TECHWR-L mailing list, stimulated by comments from Bob Gembey, Rowena Hart, Ginger Moskowitz, and Eric Olive.


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