Job Strategies

From the Tech Writing Trenches: Getting Information

By Fran Sullivan

Beg, Borrow, and Steal. Don't you often feel that is what you have to do to get questions answered or have review comments returned on your manuals or online Help? I do. Well, all except for steal. In addition, over the years I've added bribery to my bag of techniques for getting information.

Beg. I've gotten very good at begging. I start begging even before the review goes out. I start telling Subject Matter Experts in the hall: "You know the Widget Help is coming out for review soon. Make sure to get me comments." I beg on the review cover letter with phrases similar to "Please read this; your input will make for a better product." I even make the review cover letter pleasing to look at by having it photocopied on green paper and highlighting the due date in yellow. This has the added benefit of showing up when it is tossed on a desk covered in white papers.

I continue to beg when the review date approaches by visiting Subject Matter Experts in their offices with a cheery "How is the review coming along?" I also use team meetings to mention how important it is to return review comments, which raises awareness that comments are due without having to go to managers or supervisors to elicit cooperation.

Borrow. If there are two manuals or help systems similar in nature I borrow comments made on one and apply it to others. We reuse information so why not reuse comments? This works well if you are documenting similar products delivered on different platforms.

Bribe. If Subject Matter Experts return comments to me or answer questions, I tell them they get to be on my Cookie List. I don't specifically bake for them, but I've been known to bring in homemade cookies left over from various family functions or my mother's baking sprees. Subject Matter Experts have even asked if they've been added to the Cookie List when they return comments.

My techniques seem to be working. Just this week, two reviewers returned comments a week early. I was amazed, so either the begging or the baking is working.

Fran Sullivan is a technical writer at Teradyne, where she designs and writes online help systems and end user manuals. Fran can be reached by e-mail at .