How to Prioritize Documentation: Managing Your Technical Writing Backlog

December 17, 2020
image shows person creating documentation

A common issue many technical writers face is the dreaded backlog. When, despite your best efforts, work keeps piling up due to new documentation and maintenance requests.

Isn’t it frustrating when you fervently work away at the documentation requests, only to see you haven’t been able to shrink the backlog much at all? During such times, prioritizing documentation is vital. Not only to the writer’s mental focus, but also to the success of the organization. Clear prioritization must be developed, accepted by management, and followed diligently by the technical writing team.

How to Prioritize Documentation: Develop a Clear Strategy

In a world where everything is expected instantly, it is important to step back from the demands for immediate documentation and look at the bigger picture. The writing team must remember that a requestors’ “urgent” requirement is not necessarily the highest priority of the writing team or the organization. It can, however, be quite difficult to assign priority properly. The following questions should help guide your writing team to designate priority in your documentation efforts.

1. Is there any legal or safety documentation required to continue effective business operations?

The very first documentation to be considered as high priority is any documentation related to the legal or safe operation of the organization or customers. If a product has safety requirements, all customer and internal facing documentation that details how to build and operate the product safely must be completed with the highest priority. Similarly, all legal requirements and associated language must be consistently shared across the organization. Safety and legal requirements are the highest priority in any documentation backlog. Ensure everyone on the team and all documentation requestors understand the necessity of this priority, and push all other documentation behind this duty.

2. What are the organization’s goals, and where does the organization need support right now?

Consider the organization’s long-term goals and short-term objectives. Individual milestones are often set by yearly review processes or upper management. Any strategy within the writing team should therefore relate directly back to these goals and objectives. Otherwise, the organization will be pulled in too many different directions to allow for any meaningful forward movement.

Once you are clear on your goals, consider the organization’s weaknesses in moving towards those goals. Where in the organization is there a lack of support? Is customer support struggling to assist all of the customers calling in? Or is there an issue with consistent quality in the product due to a lack of a documented quality control process? With your team and management, determine what areas of your organization are in dire need of documentation support. Then move the appropriate documentation higher in the prioritized queue.

3. Which documents support the highest generation or savings in revenue?

The final step is to consider what documentation needs to be prioritized to support the organization’s revenue. This could include documents that support customers directly (such as user manuals and parts manuals), documents that support internal teams (such as technical reports, SOPs, and work instructions), and documents that support customer education which funnels to sales (such as data sheets, white papers, and application notes).

Meet with your management or other teams to determine where your documentation will have the highest impact in supporting your organization’s revenue (be that for generation or savings). Prioritize that documentation in the backlog.

Once these three questions have been thoroughly answered, you should have a prioritized list of documents to tackle in a specific order. Develop this prioritization with help from your management so that your team is contributing effectively to your organization. Management can also support you in your efforts to tackle the backlog in this exact order. There will be forces that try to sway your team from sticking to your priority list – that is when your management will be able to act as a guard for your developed priority strategy, your work, and ultimately your focus.

Additional advice

If you find that there is a lack of understanding on the quantity of work involved in documentation, you can refer colleagues to a previous blog post: “Creating a documentation strategy for a new or updated product.” This will help them to understand how much work needs to get done per publication!

Stick to the Strategy and Protect the Prioritized Documents

Now that you have taken the time to properly assess each document’s place in the prioritized backlog, you must stringently stick to your strategy. There will be challenges to the strategy when new documentation requests come along and other teams try to insist that you prioritize their work over other requests. But if you involved your management and team throughout the prioritization development process, they can now act as allies to help protect the strategy. Your management can block out unnecessary requests or time sinks so you can focus where your work is most direly needed.

As long as the strategy is strictly followed, you can be confident that the technical writing team is working effectively to support your organization, despite the ever-growing backlog of requests.

While a backlog can frustrate even the most seasoned of technical writers, it is important to not accept other teams’ priorities immediately as your own. By using these questions, we hope you can help your team and management prioritize your workload and protect the prioritization process.

Remember: without prioritization there is only chaos, but with a proper strategy there is only success!