Don’t Know the Answer? Deliver the Probably

Have you ever gotten to a point in a project where you’re waiting for other people before you can continue?

I have. And it’s frustrating, sitting there twiddling my thumbs (and maybe not getting paid) while I wait for some harried developer to get back to me.

But lately, I’ve done things a little differently. In short, I don’t wait.

Usually, it’s something like this:

I’m writing a bit about using the WalrusTrap 9000.

I know that you hang the trap above the SIS (Simulated Injured Seal). But I need to know how to prepare the Tusk Locking Device and I need to know whether it’ll withstand icy wind.

So I shoot an email to my dev guy, cc’ing the product manager, and maybe I leave a message on voicemail as well.

I can work on other sections of the guide for a while, but eventually, I really need those answers, right?

At this point, some writers check out for a while.

I literally had a co-writer call to say that he’ll be out of the office for a few days, because there’s nothing for him to do until he gets answers on Wednesday.

Now, sometimes the whole direction of the project is in question, and there’s really no point in doing a lot of work for nothing.

But lots of times, when it’s a matter of a procedure or two, I just guess at the answers and write as if they were true. Yep.

Deliver the Probably

Hey, I’ve usually worked enough on a project that I can make a decent guess. Sometimes I’m wrong, of course, but I bet most tech writers would get it right most of the time. (And even when I get it wrong, it’s often only a detail or two.)

So I take an educated guess about the Tusk Locking Device, and I figure it’ll probably handle the cold.

I figure that the writer who delivers the work (with a HUGE, GIANT, PULSATING note saying that it’s partly a guess) is someone who gets things done. In fact, someone who gets things done even without answers!

The writer who says, “I can’t write any more because I don’t have answers,” is not someone who gets things done. That writer is someone who can’t get answers. Of course, you can’t get answers because the client isn’t providing them, but that’s not the point!

In the end, I deliver. If the guess was wrong, then I have a bit more work to do. If it was right, then I take out the pulsating note and call it a day.

But at no time was I twiddling my thumbs, missing a deadline, or just looking limp.

What about you? Does this sound like a huge waste of time? What do you do when you’re waiting for answers?

3 Responses to “Don’t Know the Answer? Deliver the Probably”

  1. May 6, 2011 at 10:58 am #

    As a software developer, I can sometimes do the same thing while I’m waiting for someone to get back to me on the particulars. When you’ve been doing this a long time like we have, you sorta get a feel for how things must go together, and you’re usually right. I think this is a great tip.

  2. May 6, 2011 at 12:50 pm #

    Yes, I do this too. The reason it works is because people are more likely to respond when they see something in writing, especially if it’s wrong. So instead of continually bugging someone with ‘How does this work?’, I send them something to review. They read it, freak out because it’s wrong, and give me the right answer.

  3. May 8, 2011 at 2:06 am #

    Thanks for your comments. Nice to know I’m not coming out of left field.

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