5 relationship-building secrets for technical writers

I just got through a job hunt in December and through the course of speaking with recruiters and hiring managers, I got a fresh perspective about the critical importance of relationship building for technical writers and other content creators in the IT industry.

Here are some of my favorite tips for writers to help build working relationships:

Secret #1: Start the answer for the subject matter expert

Sometimes a writer or content creator has to bring the answer to the subject matter expert. This can be hard for some SMEs and technical writers, but I’ve used it with great success in flattened hierarchies.

Too often, a busy SME is a primary writer for white papers, blog posts, presentations, and other marketing collateral. They lack the time and often the writing chops to kick off the documents. When they complete the document, only then do they send it to a technical writer to complete.

Starting the answer as I like to call it requires being able to research topics and knowing the value of building your own body of work outside your daily job.

I’ve been able to build strong working relationships by being able to kick off drafts and write them to 70–90% completion before opening them up to SME review.

Secret #2: Align yourself with the business

As a technical writer, you always want to align yourself with the business. It’s important to work for people who are leading the projects and initiatives critical to corporate strategy and important customers. It’s easier to maintain positive relationships when you’re contributing to projects that move the business forward and bring in revenue.

My general rule is when I feel like my job or manager isn’t in alignment with the business is to survey the situation first. Alignment can change after a merger or acquisition or a management change above you. For example, if you find yourself reorged into a group living in a fantasy or their values don’t align with yours then look for other options either inside the company or in your market. It can be harder to build and maintain relationships in this scenario because

Secret #3: Distinguish between real and pretend smart people

I’ve had the good fortune to work with some of the smartest people in the technology industry during my career. I’ve seen my share of people who were complete fakes if not total frauds. These pretend smart people (for lack of a better term) get by through hiding behind their position, kissing up to the right people, and stealing other peoples’ ideas including the ideas of technical writers.

Building relationships with smart people in my experience is as simple as finding the best way to collaborate on projects. You must prove yourself as a team member but once you do, then you can find yourself in a collaboration that’ll benefit the project and the team.

Some of the most lonely times in my writing career have been interviewing such pretend smart people and seeing straight through them. It’s happened to me as an employee and a contractor during my career. These people can be hard to forge relationships with because they’ll dismiss you as just being a technical writer. Look for the cultural cues on how to manage this person if you’re stuck having to deal with them on a project. I’ve been in some corporate cultures where you just tuned these people out. Ask around about how other team members handle the person. In my experience, such managers carry with them so much baggage that their reputations inside the organization proceed with their new management role.

Secret #4: Work beyond your job description

One valuable relationship-building tool I’ve used in the past is working beyond the traditional technical writer job description. For example, I always try to pick up the SharePoint site owner and management tasks when I can. I know the platform and SharePoint doesn’t frustrate me like it does other people. I help shoulder some of this very common frustration for people and do my best to respond to SharePoint questions and issues in a timely manner.

Look for tasks you can pick up that can add value to the team or help bridge some gap. Look beyond the usual content tasks. Do you know a tool like Trello? Take the initiative and introduce the tool to your team.

Secret #5: Know the value of executive sponsorship

I’ve had the good fortune of some strong executive sponsors over the years both as clients and as managers.

When I was working under strong executive sponsorship I had space to do my job and write. It’s a person who understands the value of technical content for their business. Strong executive sponsorship can help open up opportunities and give you the high-level cover to do your work.

Poor executive sponsorship can impede your progress as a writer. Your work might just be a checkbox for them. They could be frustrated writers themselves and dismiss the work you do. They might be one of the pretend smart people I mentioned earlier in this post. Even worse, they could be the personality type who wants to make a project or projects more complicated to build a dependency on themselves to look better to those higher up the corporate ladder. These types also steal credit for work even from technical writers. My only advice is to study your new leader and learn about the political landscape.

Final thought

I came to see that technical writing is ultimately a people game. The best working relationships I’ve ever built were through collaboration and stepping outside of the traditional technical writer role.

What are some of your favorite relationship-building tips?

Hi! I’m Will Kelly. My career has given me the opportunity to write about cloud computing, DevOps, enterprise mobility, enterprise collaboration, project management, and related topics for publications, corporations, and government agencies. My focus is on white papers, marketing collateral, case studies, and thought leadership content. Follow me on Twitter: @willkelly.

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Will Kelly

Will Kelly

Product marketer and writer | Learn more about me at http://t.co/KbdzVFuD.