Click to print this article Working With Subject Matter Experts

by David Tinsley


One of the (many) challenges of life as a technical writer is working with subject matter experts (SME). What or who is an SME? It may be the software developer who is developing code for the API, the mechanical engineer who is designing a front panel interface, or the regulatory guy who is testing the system against specific standards. In essence, anyone who is providing you with expert knowledge about the subject you are documenting.

As technical writers we obtain a lot of our source material from SMEs and we need to develop the skills required to work with a wide range of people. Technical writers are often introvert by nature and overcoming our natural reticence can be difficult, but it is something we should be continually trying to improve.

So, what are some of the challenges that you may encounter in your day to day working with SMEs and how can you overcome them? The following list is not meant to be exhaustive, but it describes some of the common challenges you may face with suggestions on how you might overcome them.

Providing Reviews on Time

This is one of the biggest issues we have to overcome. We request a document review and it disappears into a black hole. When you deliver a document for review, always do it face to face and discuss and agree on deadlines and expectations. Ensure that the SME realises that you cannot complete the document without feedback and what a lack of review will mean to the overall project. I know some writers who offer incentives like donuts for a timely review, but I consider that unprofessional. If it is part of the SME job function to provide reviews then there is no need for bribes!

On our part we need to be aware that the developer SME you are haranguing for a review may just have pulled a week of 16 hour days trying to iron bugs out of the software. We need to be "plugged in" to the project so we know what is going on. Maybe someone else can review the document? Maybe there is a business case to move on without this review. Build a rapport with the team so you get to know them personally. Spend a couple of minutes in small talk when you deliver the document and a spot of humour never goes amiss.

Useless Reviews

I am sure you know the situation. You deliver a 150 page document for review and get it back 30 minutes later signed off as satisfactory. Hmm, something fishy there, but what do you do? Talk! Go chat with the SME and discuss the review. Perhaps there was miscommunication on expectations. Perhaps the SME did not take it seriously and thought the review was merely a rubber stamp job. It is our job to explain the importance of accurate and comprehensive reviews and get buy-in from the reviewer. Remember, the SME may not intuitively realise that their input is important to the end product.

The SME As Writer

You may occasionally come across an SME who wants input into layout and style. You should listen to their ideas, they may have a very good point that you would want to incorporate into the document. If it was a personal subjective preference then you need to diplomatically thank them for their input but explain you are only wanting a technical review. Having technical communications guidelines and a styleguide is very useful in this situation, as you can refer them to these documents. Just be sure that you are actually following the guidelines and styles!

Dismissive SME

Unfortunately you will meet up one day with the dismissive SME. The person who looks down on technical writers as clerical staff and acts in an offhand manner. Do as much background work as you can, so when you meet with the SME your questions are pertinent and show that you know your subject. Let them know that you need their knowledge, so you can better do your job; get them on your side. Ask relevant questions and make sure you understand the answer so you do have to go back and ask the same question again. Act like the confident professional that you are.


Over my years as a technical writer I have learned that forming good personal and professional relationships is fundamental to success. Let the SMEs see you around, involved in the project. Integrate with the team, demonstrate that you understand and have an interest in the subject and technology.

Provide your skill as a user advocate to suggest what the legend on those switches should say, their physical location and the colour of the indicators. Talk to the application developer about the layout of the GUI and the words to use in the dialogs. Remember, you will always be "just" the technical writer, if you act that part.

I would be interested in hearing other writers experiences. You may have the very answer to the situation that I do not even know is waiting around the corner for me!

About David Tinsley

David Tinsley is the founder of KW Technical Writing and maintains his blog entitled "The Writing Piper".


In this issue:

Contents | President's Message | Content Re-Use | Upcoming Events | Council Meeting Recap | Working With SMEs | Employment Progression | Education Days 2010 | More Communication! | STC Elections Candidates | STC Conference Winner!