Tips & Tricks: Staying Productive-and Sane-when Working in Isolation

Your hands are cramping up and iTunes won’t update. You’ve been sitting too long. You’re a lone tech writer hammering out documentation. Deadlines are approaching. You sent out a rough first draft last month, and heard…nothing. Are your docs are so bad that mysterious forces are scouring Google to find new words to describe your deficiencies? Not really. Allow me to help you find ways to cope when working with little or no feedback.

No News is Good News

Bad news travels quickly. Good news usually doesn’t bother getting up out of its chair. The reason? Your manager is probably busy putting out fires and doesn’t have the time to come by for friendly chats, or to compliment you when you do your job. That’s what you were hired for.

Making Mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes, including yours truly. While no one wants you to commit suicide (we hope!) in payment, you have to learn to fess up and move on. If you’re caught out by email, apologize. Say “Oops!” correct your mistake, and get on with it. If you have made someone angry, saying “I’m sorry” in person, face to face, will usually suffice (provided they are angry with the situation and not with you, that is). If they are angry with you, well, that’s why we keep our resumes up to date.

Track Down Your Own Feedback

Perhaps you’re thinking, But I politely and firmly requested feedback from those to whom I sent my work. That’s great, you should. Even though you asked for feedback, don’t sit back and expect to receive it. Send an email, or pick up the phone and call your Subject Matter Expert (SME). Ask them if they got it. Sometimes emails with attachments are caught by spam filters. If your organization has instant messaging (IM), and if your SME uses it, send an IM. Your SME might receive hundreds of emails a day and their voice mail might be full.

Ask your expert if they have had a chance to begin reading the docs yet. Chances are they received it, but havent started yet because they’re deluged with other projects. Ask them to look for anything glaring that a client might see that you yourself might miss.

Suppose you need clarification on more than one point, and you are unable to guess your way around them. In this case, I might suggest making a separate note about each sticking point, and summarizing them all in one message to your SME. If necessary and if possible, make an appointment with your SME and calendar it. Sure, your meeting might get postponed several times, but they’ll get around to you. Keep your questions short and sweet, but don’t leave anything out that leaves you boggled.

Ask for Outside Help

Know when and how to ask for help from online forums such as our very own TechWhirl list. The members of TechWhirl are friendly and experienced people who are willing to share what they know. Whenever I post a question, I get an answer. Provided you are not bound by a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA), your questions can be posted directly from a rough draft. If you have signed an NDA, however, you’ll need to be more judicious in posting questions and accompanying screen shots. NDA or not, it is best to blur individual or company names and email addresses.

If you are using an authoring system, the company who manufactures it might also provide online discussion forums. For instance, I use Madcap Flare to create documentation. Madcap hosts online help forums of which I’m a member. Whenever I have posted a question that was directly related to Flare, I’ve always gotten an answer.

Keep in mind that many companies reserve the right to monitor all email and web communication. Your company might also forbid it altogether. If you don’t already know what your company’s policy is, it would be a good idea to ask.

Take a Break

We all spend too much time hunched over keyboards. It’s the nature of the beast. When I start feeling cramped, I stand up and stretch a bit to get the blood flowing again. In May 2011, I joined a local running/walking group as a walker. We meet every Saturday morning, and before we start, we do a series of gentle stretches to help warm up our cold muscles. I have begun to incorporate these stretches in my daily routine. Or just get up and go for a brisk stroll. Get that blood moving.

When the screen starts staring back at you with blurred vision, and it’s nowhere near Happy Hour yet, it may be time to relax your eye muscles. Our eyes get tired when we focus up close for too long. Try looking across the street or across the parking lot. Get up from your chair and stare out of a window for a minute or two.

Hit Your Deadlines

Remember the deadlines I mentioned in the first paragraph? Hit them. First time, every time. Better yet—beat them. Kill yourself if you have to. People might not recall that you beat your deadlines, but they sure will remember if you miss them. Managers tend to remember missed deadlines. That’s part of what they do.

When you deliver a draft, be kind to your SME and remind them which draft you’re delivering. If you’re delivering a first rough draft, say so in the subject line. “First Rough Draft – Project A.” If you’re delivering something that shouldn’t be published, say so. “Draft Only – Not for Publication.” If you’re delivering the (Tada!) final draft, tell them so. “Final Draft – Project C.” Oh, and remember to actually attach the document you said is attached.

Tech writers tend to fall off the corporate radar. Lone writers, doubly so. We’re not always in the loop when we should be. If you’re told you have two months, try be ready to publish in one. If you get two weeks, try for one. This isn’t trying to impress anyone – this is survival. The deadline might be advanced at any moment, for any reason, and they might forget to tell you. If you hand in your docs before someone comes looking for them, you’ll be good to go. Feedback or not. Let the deadlines approach. Your documentation is ready for publishing.

Craig Cardimon

Craig Cardimon wears many hats and loves all of them -- technical communicator, content curator, and freelance copywriter. In his not-so-copious spare time, he reads, writes, runs on the local trail, and watches way too much "retro" TV.

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