Reviewers play an absolutely essential role in technical writing.. They help to make sure your instructions are correct, your writing and supporting media are clear and easy to follow, and that you communicate using the organization’s style.

Whether you are a new technical communicator or a seasoned documentation manager, you have likely discovered something about working with reviewers: it’s really hard to get the review you need, because some of them seem to hate reviewing.

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That sounds harsh. However, it is not a lost cause. There are things that you can do to improve the relationship, so that reviewers feel appreciated, understand the importance of the reviews, and may even start enjoying the opportunity to contribute. You can then work together towards a mutual goal: to deliver the best documentation to support your organization.

The Importance of Reviewers in Technical Writing

In most organizations, technical documentation needs to be reviewed before you publish. However, there is much more to documentation than getting it drafted and hitting publish. There are many complex relationships that need to be established and nurtured with subject matter experts (SMEs) that ultimately need to sign off on your work in order to deliver the best content to customers.

Time spent on reviewer relationships in the organization is time well spent for all technical writers.

The job roles of the people you need to review your content can vary, depending on the organization, industry, and project needs. Typically, reviewers may include:

  • A subject matter expert who may catch a critical error in the order of your instructions, helping avoid injury or a system breakdown.
  • A product manager who could review and realize that the messaging around the documentation does not fit with the rest of the communication/sales/marketing strategy.
  • A colleague with less knowledge of the product who may catch areas that are too wordy, unclear, or just in general confusing to the audience.

With this information, you can improve your documentation – but that’s your motivation rather than that of your reviewers. You can help them understand why their role as a reviewer is critical to the organization (and hence, their own job), and that their time will not be wasted.

Often, it comes down to people, processes, and tools.

Managing reviewers in technical writing may not be something you’ve been taught to do. Your reviewers may not mention any issue when you ask them to review content, but you can sense their reluctance to get involved. There can be many reasons for this, and each can pose a challenge that you will need to overcome. Here are some common challenges, you may encounter, and strategies for building more trust and value within the review process to overcome them.

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  1. They Don’t Care

    It’s easy to take it personally when a reviewer appears not to care. But is it really that they don’t care, or is it that they don’t understand why the review is important? Often, reviewers don’t appreciate that reviews are not just a box-checking exercise. They don’t consider that good documentation impacts on the customer experience, and therefore the company’s success. Great documentation is key to the customer experience – a critical business metric today.

    To establish value and trust in the process, you must explain why the content matters. Try to understand your reviewers’ roles and responsibilities, and relate the review process to the success they can achieve when the documentation improves customer experience. For example, a product manager values how good documentation helps customers maximize the value they get from a purchase, and a customer service manager appreciates fewer calls to the help desk.

    When you meet as a larger review team, you can even share stories about what bad documentation has cost companies. When you can, include data to show how your well-developed documentation reduces errors, minimizes help tickets, and improves customer experience. Always frame these conversations around valuing your reviewers’ help and why their help is critical.

  2. They Don’t Have Time

    Your reviewers have their own roles and expertise that span various areas beyond writing and editing, such as product design, sales, or customer support. They may have tight timelines, budget concerns, or resource issues that are perceived as more urgent than having to review your documentation. Being called away from their pressing responsibilities to make sure you wrote content clearly and accurately does not match their motivations, goals, or agendas.

    To establish a working relationship, don’t just talk to them when you need them to review something right now. Provide scheduling options so they know you are respectful of their time.

    Consider breaking down the content to be reviewed into smaller chunks that can be assessed more quickly (but when you do, always make sure that they have a chance to see the full context if needed). When they start reviewing, give them clear guidance on which areas you want them to focus on by giving them exact instructions on what you need.

    This puts the onus on you to pull together the best documentation product you can before you bring them in for review. That doesn’t mean you have to build the whole set. Try to use an agile, iterative approach. In these environments, it’s even more important to review in iterative chunks so you can focus reviewers’ attention and get quick answers (avoiding rework and frustration).

  3. They Aren’t Confident Sharing Opinions About Writing

    Reviewers’ comfort with writing and editing varies based on their own talents, experience, and previous interactions with writers. You can help by creating a more comfortable environment. Have a chat with reviewers and let them know that you’ll consider their feedback, but will use your own judgement too. Explain that you may not implement every suggestion, especially if they start suggesting new topics or reverting back to content that had already been ruled out.

    Also make sure the reviewers understand that even no providing no comments is fine. When given a task, people have a natural tendency to want to produce something, and may be reluctant to just approve a review with no comment, but sometimes that’s all that is needed.

    On the flip side, you need to be confident. You don’t have to apologize if there are minor mistakes or if someone with more authority disagrees with you. It’s best to establish an escalation process so that you’re not caught in the middle of who has the final say.

  4. They Don’t Want to Learn New Tools

    Reviewing content is a time-consuming process even if you’re using a simple, familiar word processor. Most likely you as a technical writer will be using a more advanced tool to make your technical documentation more efficient, to achieve single-sourcing and content reuse. And you’ll want the reviews in the environment where you work. That presents an additional obstacle, as people generally don’t like being forced to learn new tools, especially if it’s more advanced than what they’re used to.

    reviewers-dont-like-new-tools

    To help reviewers use the review tool:

  • Make sure they know why: even people with little or no experience of technical writing can easily understand the concept and benefit of content reuse. Explain why that requires different tools than they are used to.
  • Avoid using jargon from the documentation writing process: try to explain the point of structured authoring and single-sourcing in a non-technical way.
  • Provide them with quick tips, and walk through the areas in the tool that you need them to use.
  • Make sure it is easy to provide feedback, so they can just log into the tool and start commenting. If they need to review a specific variant of the documentation (if you use filters, variables, etc), make the settings for them so they just see the version they need.

Keeping the End Goal in Mind

High-quality content is critical to customer satisfaction, repeat business, product evangelism, and continuous development/improvement. The quality of the documentation is a direct reflection on the product. Your relationship with your reviewers should be built on that foundation, with all parties acutely aware of these shared goals. Reminding your SMEs of the value of reviewers in technical writing will make working together so much easier because it will no longer be misunderstood as a time or energy sink in their eyes.

Help your reviewers remember that if their customers can’t find an answer from you, they will go elsewhere.

Or, you could always bribe them with chocolate. It rarely fails!