Book Review: Managing Writers by Richard L. Hamilton

by Arnold Burian

I have read my fair share of books about technical writing, and  used numerous books in my technical communication courses. Books about technical writing run the gamut from welcoming and accessible to dry and intimidating. Given what I know about books written for technical writers, I was excited to read a book written for documentation managers.

Many variables ultimately contribute to the effectiveness of a manager; I believe one of the most important is the availability of a strong mentor. Many technical writers do not have access to a strong documentation manager, and even fewer managers have access to a mentor with documentation management experience. If your organization is fortunate to have one, use that opportunity to learn as much as you can from that individual. Whether or not you have access to a good mentor, there is much you can learn from reading Managing Writers by Richard L. Hamilton.

Hamilton has condensed his extensive experience as a documentation manager into a very accessible book. Reading Managing Writers is like having a conversation with a trusted manager, peer, or mentor. Hamilton organized his book into three major categories: managing people, managing projects, and managing technology.

In his section on managing people, Hamilton captured the idiosyncrasies of managing a typically unique group of individuals (liberal arts backgrounds) working in a fairly rigid environment (engineering). Although personnel management strategies are often universally applicable across industries, he spends little time focusing on the generic and almost all the time focusing on the specific. We can all identify what makes a good employee; Hamilton identifies what makes a good technical writer.

Hamilton also provides excellent information on managing projects. If you have experience in managing documentation projects, you are already aware of the difficulty in tracking, collecting, and sharing quantifiable data to project managers. I found Hamilton’s advice on managing projects invaluable; this should be required reading regardless of whether you are a lone writer or part of a large team. For example, metrics have been a controversial topic in the technical writing field for as long as I can remember. Hamilton provides detailed information on how to use metrics in a meaningful way, as well as the pitfalls of letting metrics negatively impact the writing team.

Hamilton touches on both single sourcing and outsourcing, but I would not consider Managing Writers to be a true resource for either. Having said that, he does provide excellent guidelines and recommendations that should be considered by managers involved in making decisions on single sourcing. For example, the section on managing technology includes a number of factors to consider in selecting software. These factors are completely applicable to single sourcing. Additionally, Hamilton provides a clear and sobering perspective on how technology supports the business of technical writing, and not the other way around. I know that I have been personally distracted by the feature set of a software package rather than focusing on what is important to the team.

In Managing Writers, Hamilton assumes that you are either a documentation manager or work for an organization that understands the value of having a documentation manager. Unfortunately, many technical writing teams struggle to establish an identity and fail to justify the need for a management role. I would be curious to read his thoughts on this; his experiences could help unite technical writers stranded across multiple development or training managers.

In summary, I highly recommend Managing Writers by Richard L. Hamilton to documentation managers, those considering becoming managers, and those who would like to better understand their managers.

Hamilton published a blog about his experiences writing this book, which I also recommend reading (link).

Managing Writers is available at Amazon.

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