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Two Subject Matter Experts have a successful meeting and collaborative experience working with each other.

When developing technical documentation, it is vital for a business to keep in mind the relationship between technical writers and subject matter experts (SMEs). This relationship serves an important role for both professions, giving them the specific information and expertise they need. However, a business can not make the best use of that relationship without first understanding it. This article will explain what the relationship between technical writers and SMEs entails and why it is important.

Before describing the relationship between tech writers and subject matter experts, we need to explain what exactly a subject matter expert is.

What is a Subject Matter Expert?

A subject matter expert, or SME, is an expert in a particular topic or field, who offers their knowledge and skill to help with a program, process, or initiative. They gain this expertise through training, practical experience, and education, a process that takes many years. The topic an SME specializes in could range from a process, a piece of equipment, a practice, etc. SMEs cover a wide variety of roles and professions, and can be found in many industries. Examples of subject matter experts include experienced data analysts, operating system specialists, business consultants, scientists with degrees in a particular field of research, and more.

Defining Tasks of Technical Writers and SMEs

Technical writers and SMEs each have certain tasks they specialize in, and which clearly distinguish them from each other. These tasks require the respective skills and knowledge of tech writers and subject matter experts in order to complete them. In a way, these tasks effectively help to define what being a tech writer or SME entails. When assigning work, one must keep in mind the differences between the responsibilities of tech writers and SMEs. Neglecting to do so risks giving a task to a worker who is not suited or trained for it.

Technical Writers

Technical writers perform tasks related to creating and explaining technical documentation. This most often involves writing guides, instruction manuals, articles, product specifications, and other technical documents. Their responsibilities also include translating and editing information so that it is easier for readers to understand, such as making the instructions in a product’s manual clear so that consumers know how to use it. Technical writers keep in mind the audience and medium they are writing for and tailor their content to suit them. In addition, tech writers help to improve the customer experience through such means as running FAQ boards to answer consumers’ questions and gathering customer feedback to improve content.

Subject Matter Experts

While the details of subject matter experts’ duties often vary based on their personal field, the general nature of these duties tends to be very similar. Subject matter experts collect and analyze knowledge on their particular field to ensure the information their organization uses is accurate. They address issues related to their field of expertise and offer solutions that will fulfill the organization’s needs. When a team works on a project related to an SME’s area of expertise, they provide advice and other aid to the team. SMEs also use their own experience and skills to determine possible risks, opportunities, and strategies, and to train other workers in duties relating to their field.

Technical Writing and the SME Interview

In an SME interview, a technical writer interviews and questions an SME. This is in order to get relevant information before writing a technical document. Conducting these interviews also enables tech writers to determine how to best translate subject matter experts’ advice into usable and understandable forms that the organization can implement.

Alternatively, an organization might conduct an SME interview to consult a subject matter expert for other reasons. These reasons include gaining an SME’s insight on an issue, decision, or project, discussing ideas for projects, or confirming the accuracy of information. For instance, a subject matter expert on data analytics might be asked for their thoughts on a company’s decision to develop a predictive analytics project. It’s always better to be safe than sorry!

Steps to Take for an SME Interview

Before and during an SME interview, a tech writer should take certain steps to get the best possible outcome.

Setting Topic and Time Limits

First, the tech writer needs to remember that an SME’s time to be interviewed is limited. Thus, they should plan the interview with that in mind. At the beginning of the interview, they also ought to make clear what the goal and subject of the interview is and what kind of audience the information is intended for. This way, the SME understands how to word their answers. This helps so that the information can be most effectively communicated to that audience. In addition, clearly defining what the interview is supposed to be about will help the SME stay on track.

Making Preparations

The tech writer should determine and prepare the questions they intend to ask ahead of time. They can most effectively figure out what questions to ask by considering what information they need, and developing questions that will help them get that information. Once they have done so, they should send the questions to the SME before the interview. By doing this, the technical writer avoids needing to take time during the interview to think of what to ask, while the SME will be able to quickly and efficiently provide answers. The tech writer should also do some degree of research on the topic. This will help them to keep up with and understand what the subject matter expert is saying.

Recording the Interview

During an SME interview, the technical writer should make sure to record what is being said. This allows them to go back and find any information mentioned during the interview they may have missed or forgotten. This is quite helpful, especially in cases where the subject matter expert talks quickly. Before recording the interview, however, the technical writer should make sure the subject matter expert is okay with it.

Seeking Clarification

At the end of the interview, the technical writer should make sure to ask for clarification on anything they were confused about or that seemed unclear. It is best if they set aside some time to do so when planning the interview, so they do not risk going over the time limit.

Asking for Additional Observations

Finally, the tech writer should ask if the SME has any further thoughts or insights their questions may have missed. They can not expect their questions to cover every possible aspect of the topic, and the SME may know something the technical writer didn’t even realize they need.

Mutually Beneficial Relationship Between Technical Writers and SMEs

While technical writers and subject matter experts have individual responsibilities and are quite helpful on their own, they truly rely on each other in order to effectively perform their duties. A common way tech writers and SMEs help each other is by ensuring technical documents are both informative and understandable. While SMEs can provide the knowledge needed to write about the subject, the information is often complicated, and they might not know how to communicate that information to an audience that does not share their expertise.

Meanwhile, technical writers are skilled in writing down and explaining information, but they do not always have the same vast degree of knowledge about a subject as an SME. Therefore, SMEs give the relevant information for a document to the technical writers through the previously-mentioned interviews, who then reinterpret the information into a form more people can understand.

In addition, by working together, technical writers and SMEs learn from each other and can gradually remedy their weaknesses. Tech writers gain a better understanding and level of knowledge about a subject from interacting with SMEs. This would help tech writers determine what specifically to write when creating further technical documents on that subject. From watching tech writers work, subject matter experts figure out how to more clearly explain complicated subjects to non-experts. In this way, tech writers and SMEs not only compensate for each other’s weaknesses, but teach one another how to better perform their responsibilities.

What is Subject Matter in Tech Writing?

In technical writing, the subject matter refers to the documents being developed, such as a user’s guide or hardware specifications.  Therefore, a subject matter expert in tech writing would be someone who has great knowledge and experience in creating technical documentation and clarifying complicated ideas. As previously mentioned, such an SME could be a technical writer as well, given that they specialize in this field.

Comparing Professional Technical Writers and Subject Matter Experts

The question of whether to hire a professional technical writer is more complicated than it seems. Although tech writers and SMEs do need each other to work properly, hiring a professional has both benefits and drawbacks.  Before hiring a professional technical writer, take both the pros and cons into account.

The pros of hiring a professional technical writer include:

  • Trained, professional tech writers have the experience and skill needed to most effectively and clearly write technical documentation.  This will provide better results than recruiting a tech writer who does not work professionally.
  • Can help to train less experienced tech writers.
  • Ensures that an organization or company has a worker specifically dedicated to fulfilling the responsibilities of a technical writer, rather than needing to assign those tasks to other workers who are not trained to perform them and already have other responsibilities.
  • Technical writers perform customer service, which helps to increase the business’s public image and draw more potential customers.
  • Provide insightful and efficient feedback on content and products.

However, there are some things to consider as benefits to hiring a subject matter expert:

  • A newly-hired tech writer would not be familiar with a specific company’s projects, but this can be rectified by parties working closely together.
  • Not every technical writer has the specific set of skills a company is looking for. Finding the right technical writer could take time, but working with a technical writing firm can certainly help.
  • Not every technical writer will have extensive knowledge in your field, so acquiring information through research and SME interviews is key.

The Best of Both Worlds

The way in which technical writers and subject matter experts work together ensures the development of technical documentation goes smoothly. These two kinds of workers provide each other with the aid they need to work to the best of their ability, using their skills to cover areas where the other is weak. By considering such workers’ mutual dependence on each other, an organization can efficiently and consistently develop high-quality technical documents.

When you work with a company such as Essential Data, you receive the professional skills of a technical writer with the industry knowledge of a subject matter expert. By drawing on a wide talent pool covering many industries and experiences, Essential Data harnesses a unique process that puts your needs first.

How Can EDC Help?

Whether you need a single technical writer for a brief project or a team of consultants to produce a complete line of documentation, the quality of our work is guaranteed for you. Our clients work closely with an Engagement Manager from one of our 30 local offices for the entire length of your project at no additional cost. Contact us at (800) 221-0093 or to get started.


Written by Noah Grayson