The Art of Asking Questions




There are many times in your career as a technical writer or documentarian where you may feel restricted on your communications with members of other teams. Particularly when dealing with the more technical teammates, subject matter experts, and co-founders who carry knowledge in their minds that needs documented, asking questions can be daunting. What is the best method to use to interact with this person? When is the best time? Will they even respond? If they don’t respond, should you push harder? This can be discouraging and turn you away from inquisitiveness, and doubly so if you are by nature a quiet or introverted person.

This is often true to such an extent that writers will apologize for asking questions. This leads into the crux of the matter, which is this: Never apologize for asking questions. Never apologize for being curious. And never apologize for doing your job. Curiosity is one of the greatest qualities a documentarian can have. Anecdotally, I just hired two technical writers for our documentation team, and one of the qualities I and other interviewers were screening for was just this. What questions do they ask? Are they inquisitive? Do they take on new subjects to learn because they want to? Are they comfortable documenting things they’re unfamiliar with before starting?

You should never be worried about or discouraged from asking questions. If you’re not in the mental space to be comfortable with this part of your job, it’s an easy enough habit to pick up, and it’s a critical part of documenting anything. There are of course times when you can read about what you need, and simply rephrase and organize existing information. That’s useful for the presentation of disorganized information, but when you are tasked with documenting something new, questions are essential. The people providing you with raw information, no matter how familiar with the product or feature, often do not know everything that the customer, and by proxy, you, will need to know to use it. That’s your job — that’s why you’re being paid — to be the expert in generating, crafting, and refining the documentation. Don’t sell yourself short.

In this talk I’ll cover the above points in more detail, provide some clear real world examples, and discuss how to take into account things like domain knowledge, egos, internal politics, and more while still gathering the information you need to do your work. It’s your job as a documentarian to ask the questions the customer may not be able to ask easily, so that you can answer them yourself!

  • Conference: Write the Docs Prague
  • Year: 2022

About the speaker

Jeff Smith