3 Ways You’re Measuring Technical Writing Wrong

Tape measure

In the technical writing world, defining performance is often difficult. For some, especially those under government contracts, service level agreements require that performance be measurable. These measurements can determine whether a writer is praised or docked based on performance. While there is no right answer for everyone, here are some suggestions for what not to measure.

  • How often you [blank].
    This phrasing is just dangerous. Whether it’s how often you follow-up with a subject matter expert for input or how often you produce new content, it’s a bad idea. Measuring all projects on a generic timescale is a recipe for disaster. Consider people (including yourself) taking personal time off. Or a project that gets put on hold for the foreseeable future. Either you’ll be making too many exceptions, or you’ll be punished for the unavoidable. Just don’t go there.
  • Content volume.
    You laugh, but we’ve all heard it before. Whether it’s number of words written or pages produced, someone or another has tried to measure your success by how much you’re able to get done. Here’s why it’s wrong: large documents do not always translate to helpful documents. Show me a writer who is measured by the volume of their content and I’ll show you a writer who copies and pastes the Gettysburg Address 20 times in the middle of everything they write. In the end, one page of useful content is more valuable than 10 pages of gibberish. Quality over quantity always.
  • Errors found.
    Say it with me “human error.” It happens. No one is perfect. If they’re trying to measure the number of errors you wrote or the number of errors you found as an editor, you can’t win. Don’t get sucked into this game. Between rough drafts, multiple contributors, and staring at the same words for days on end, it’s a miracle for a document to come out clean. Heck, even published authors have typos in first runs. It’s great for you to set perfection as your goal, but you should never be punished for not achieving it.

Suggestions

I know, I spent this article listing out all the things you shouldn’t do without giving you the right answer. Well, there isn’t one. Each office will benefit from different data. Each writer has a different set of statistics that will accurately represent their performance. While I can’t tell you what that is, I can give you a few suggestions to help.

  • Deadlines met.
    This number is always a crowd pleaser. What it says is: each project I take on has its own deadline and I can finish it by the time you need it. Statistics like this are flexible for each project while still providing reassurance to the customer.
  • Satisfaction.
    Okay, this is a little harder to define, but stick with me. Think of this as mini evaluations from each of the customers you work with. Are they satisfied with your final product? Would they work with you on future projects? Again, this statistic is flexible for each project. Meanwhile, you’re able to show your usefulness and capability across the board.
  • Averages.
    If you’re stuck with an out-of-touch manager who is pushing the “how often” or “how many” approach, offer averages as a solution. On average, how long does it take you to finish a project? On average, how large are these projects? This gives a clear picture without tying you down. It may get sticky trying to maintain your pages per day average, but that’s a much better scenario than trying to meet an arbitrary number for every case across the board.

About the Author
Greta Boller is a technical writer located in the Washington, D.C. area. For more information, please visit .

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4 thoughts on “3 Ways You’re Measuring Technical Writing Wrong

  1. Larry Kunz December 16, 2015 / 11:25 AM

    Greta, you’ve hit on something that we as a profession have grappled with for a long time. We recognize the need to measure our performance, but most of the conventional metrics don’t make sense. The suggestions you’ve made here are a good start.

    I’m reminded of this classic Dilbert, which I’m pretty sure is not how we should be measuring our work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • gretaboller December 16, 2015 / 12:11 PM

      Thanks for your feedback, Larry. That Dilbert is one of my personal favorites and even made it to my coveted comic wall at work. Great minds think alike!

      Like

  2. ppcfransen December 16, 2015 / 3:29 PM

    Deadlines met wouldn’t work for me. I’m very much dependent on others to give me correct input before I can make the manuals. This information often comes to me after the manual should have been finished. Which means I rarely meet deadlines.

    My (tiny) department is measured on satisfaction (of our internal customers) and on averages. An average my chiefs like to quote is average hours spent on documentation per €100,000 project costs over the last 25, 50, 75 and 100 projects.

    Like

    • gretaboller December 16, 2015 / 6:49 PM

      Thanks for your comments and perspective. Your averages model is very unique! I’m glad your office was able to find a way that works well for you.

      Like

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