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“Judge a person by his questions, rather than his answers.” Voltaire, 1694-1778, French Historian, Writer
Normally, every new project begins with a start of work (SOW) meeting. It’s then that the writer meets the client’s team and finds out what the job is all about. This is when he finds out everything he needs to know to complete the task.
At times, though, the writer is a bit whelmed (that’s one step down from being overwhelmed) at this meeting by all the new faces, names, and data. He becomes passive and takes in everything the client lays out without asking for more. That can result in some information that’s very important to the writer being missed.
I recently met with one of my regular clients for a SOW. It was pretty informal. We’ve been working together on various types of projects for years. That’s probably why I left with the usual information dump but not all the information I needed to know about the white paper she wanted written. A day or so later, after I’d already started organizing material, outlining, and doing research, I realized that I didn’t know how long the document was supposed to be. It was a big topic, and I’d been given a pretty large information dump. The paper could have gone on for volumes. I’d already laid out enough information for a good twenty or thirty pages.
To avoid being in that situation, you need to know what it is that you need to know. Here’s a list of questions that will give you the minimum information you need regardless of what the job is. The questions can be put into three groups. The first thing you need to know is:
What kind of project is it?
You don’t want to write an executive report when the client is expecting a user manual. Even if the client says specifically that it’s a user manual or a report or a white paper, be sure you understand exactly what that means to this client for this particular project.
Who is the audience?
You don’t begin to write anything without this information – the more specific the better. Who are they? What do they know about the topic? How will they use the information? This is also the time to find out about the readability index. You won’t communicate with the audience if you don’t write at a level it comprehends.
What is the purpose?
You need to know why the client is creating this particular document. Find out how the client expects the audience to think or act differently after reading the document compared to how it thought or acted before reading it.
The second group of things you need to know is:
What is the timeline?
This isn’t just a matter of knowing when you’re expected to complete the project. A timeline shows when key events must be completed during the process of creating the final deliverable. There may be specific tasks along the timeline that you must complete before others working on the project can complete their tasks.
What are the key information sources?
You need to know who the SMEs are and where to find them. Also, you need to know whether everything you need is housed in one place or if there’s travel involved. This will let you estimate how much time you’re likely to spend on individual portions of the task and how much you’ll need to complete the whole task.
Will original research be required?
If all of the content can’t be based on or extracted from existing data, you may have to spend time on-site observing a process or finding answers in places no one else has looked. Like the key information sources, this information will help you figure out whether there’s enough time for you to complete the task within the timeframe the client has set. The third group has to do with the document you present to the client.
What is the writing style?
This will depend on the purpose of the piece. For some things, you’ll be formal or academic. Others call for a more informal style but with some hard-sell built in. Sticking to a specific style is especially important if your work will be combined with material written by others working on the project. If possible, use similar material written for the company in the required style as a guide.
What is the go-bys in the right places. Language tone?
You’ll approach the task quite differently depending on the tone of the document. Based on the audience and intent of the piece, you may be asked to write in a serious tone or one that’s lighter – even folksy. There are many ways to present information from satirical to reverential. You want to start with the correct tone right from the beginning and then stick to it.
What is the “look” of the deliverable?
Even for a simple Word document, you need to know how the client wants the copy laid out on the page and how illustrations are indicated. This includes margins, indentations, and lay-out style. There may be very specific requirements if the material has to fit in with other documents produced by the company.
What is the format of the deliverable?
Clients may require that the deliverable is in a specific format such as Word, Excel, and Power Point. The company may have a standard font, type size, and color you’re expected to use to save time in the final formatting. It may not be enough to turn in a document in Word. The client may expect it to be in 11 point Ariel Narrow with headlines in PMS-Blue 072. If it’s a brochure, you may need to do a writer’s rough that has the folds and
These are basic need-to-knows to even get started on a project. Be sure you get answers to them all. Make a check-list if you need to, and take it with you to the SOW. If information isn’t supplied that gives you all the answers on the list, ask questions – even if it’s something you think you should know and don’t. A wise man once said that it’s better for the client to see your ignorance at the beginning of the project rather than your incompetence at the end.
By the way, when I emailed the client with my question, she said she wanted a white paper but also something she could place in trade books. Her estimate of length was, “Maybe 5 pages max.” You can get into trouble when you don’t know what you need to know.
If you can write a simple sentence and organize your thoughts then technical writing may be a rewarding field. You can easily make it a second income stream in your spare time.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average salary for technical writers is $60,380. Freelance technical writers can make from $30 to $70 per hour.
The field of technical writing is like a golden city. It’s filled with wealth, rewards and opportunities. After learning technical writing you can branch out into business writing, marketing writing and communications writing. All of these can become additional income streams.
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