Choosing and using a technical writer

Jean Hollis Weber

Business Consulting News, November 1997, a web magazine (address no longer valid).

Last month I discussed some reasons why successful consultants and business owners in technical fields need to use a professional writer’s services. I suggested that the right technical writer can add value to your business and probably save you money in the long run – or even bring in extra money. I looked at some of the most common problems in materials written by non-writers and mentioned several ways in which a technical writer can help you.

This month I’m talking to those of you who want to hire a professional writer but aren’t sure how to go about finding the right person, or getting the most from a writer. I’m assuming that you don’t want or need a full-time writer, so you’ll find it more cost-effective to bring in a contractor or outsource to a consultant or company, rather than hiring someone as an employee. If you do want to have a writer join your staff (full time or part time), most of my comments will still apply.

Skip to Using a Technical Writer.

Choosing a technical writer

The steps to finding the writer you need are:

Deciding what you need from a writer

Do you need a consultant (company or individual) or a specialist writer?

  • You may have a clear idea what you need: someone to write user guides, for example, or proposals, or engineering reports, or specifications. In this case you’ll want to find someone with expertise and a good reputation in producing the sort of materials you need.
  • Quite often, however, you may have a general idea of your needs but be vague about the details. For example, what is the most effective way to reach your audience within your budget? In this situation, you’ll usually be better off starting with a consultant who can advise you on how to meet your specific needs. The consultant may not be the person you choose to do the actual writing.
  • If you need a range of materials written, keep in mind that any individual writer is unlikely to be an expert in all types of technical writing. For example, marketing brochures, specifications, and user guides are quite different documents and require different knowledge and skills on the part of the writer. You may need to deal with more than one person to adequately cover all your writing needs. If you outsource to a technical writing company, you should have access to that range of skills, without needing to personally select the best writer for each task.

Where do you need the work to be done – on site or off site?

  • Some people assume that a writer needs to work on your business premises. In some cases, this may be true, or at least the writer may need to turn up at your office occasionally; for example, when testing written procedures for using a large piece of machinery.
  • In other cases, on-site work is quite irrelevant. If you’re producing software, for example, and the writer has a suitable computer to run it on, you and the writer don’t even need to be in the same part of the world. You may feel more comfortable "keeping an eye" on the writer, but that’s a different issue.
  • Sometimes you may specifically not want the writer on-site – you may not have any space or suitable equipment available!

Back to list of steps

Finding candidates

You can find candidates in several ways, just as you’d find any other staff or professional contact. I’d suggest using a combination of these.

  • Network. Ask other professionals in your field if they know or have used a technical writer, and what good or bad experiences they may have had with specific individuals or companies. They may be able to suggest contacts for you to follow up.
  • Professional societies. A good place to start is the local chapter of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), if there is one; ask for their consultants’ or freelancers’ register. The STC won’t evaluate candidates for you, but they can save you time in finding people.
  • Agencies. Check the telephone book for agencies specializing in writing services or supplying writers. If you use an agency to supply temporary office staff, ask if they also handle technical writers; if they don’t (quite likely), you’ll need to find an agency that does. Remember that you’ll pay more for a writer hired through an agency (but the writer won’t get as much of the money). Other pros and cons of agencies apply to hiring technical writers as well.
  • Advertise. You could place an advertisement in a suitable publication, but it’s best to choose one that’s targeted to people who write for your field, rather than simply using the local paper. One possibility is to advertise in the local STC chapter’s newsletter, or on the Technical Writers’ List on the internet.
  • Students. If your budget is tight and your writing project is clearly defined (perhaps by the consultant you first contacted) and not too ambitious, you could consider hiring a student doing a technical or professional writing degree at a local college. The advantages to you are lower cost (but don’t look upon a student as slave labor or expect to pay typists’ wages) and some supervision of the student’s work by the instructor. The disadvantages are (sometimes) a lack of experience and (sometimes) conflicting priorities, leaving the student with insufficient time to complete your job on time.

Back to list of steps

Evaluating candidates

After you’ve networked or advertised or contacted some agencies, and you’ve got a list of possible candidates, how do you decide which one to use?

If you’re looking at companies, apply the same criteria you’d apply to any outsourcing arrangement: do they have a good reputation? Do they provide value for money? Are they specialists in the work you need done?

If you’re hiring an individual, here are some things to keep in mind when creating your short list and interviewing:

  • Don’t automatically reject writers who don’t have specialist qualifications in writing – relevant experience and happy previous employers are more important. There is no certification scheme (as for some other professions), partly because of the diverse range of work done and skills required.
  • Don’t look first for someone who knows some specific desktop publishing or other software, unless you have a compelling need and the project is very small or urgent. Your first priority is finding a good writer; the software should be secondary.
  • Look for writers with knowledge that’s representative of your intended audience. Particularly for audiences who aren’t specialists in your field, that’s often more important than technical knowledge, though the writer needs to know enough on the technical side to ask intelligent questions and interpret the answers for the audience.
  • If, however, you intend to hand writers a pile of raw data (engineering schematics, for example, or tables of environmental monitoring data) and expect them to work out what’s going on and then write it up – for any audience – you’ll obviously need to find someone with appropriate technical background and expertise.
  • Look for problem-definers and problem-solvers. Good technical writers ask a lot of probing questions. Many of these questions aren’t as dumb as they may sound at first. You may not have thought through (or even been aware of) all the implications of some of your choices.
  • Look for people who will keep digging until they find the answers they need to do the job, rather than sitting back and waiting for you or your staff to come to them.
  • Ask to see samples of the candidates’ work. Good spelling, grammar, and layout skills are important; but clear, logical thinking and the ability to organize material into a form suitable for the audience are even more important. I’ve seen many documents that were grammatically correct and beautifully presented but very hard to follow, because the ideas were out of order, the paragraphs or sentences were too long and complicated, or there was no easy way to find the information again when needed.
  • Check with some of the candidates’ other clients or former employers. Even extensive experience doesn’t guarantee that writers will produce good work, and even if their work is superb, they don’t necessarily get it done on time and within budget. You need someone who can do all three. Former clients can also tell you whether the candidate is abrasive or tactful, for example.
  • Pay at least the local industry-standard rate for the level of expertise you’re hiring. Trying to save a few dollars an hour may restrict your choice of candidates to the less-skilled or less-reliable. Someone with a good reputation may charge a higher hourly rate but may actually save you money by taking less time to do the job.

Back to list of steps

Using a technical writer

Dealing with a technical writer isn’t all that different from dealing with anyone else, as long as you treat writers as fellow professionals and not just the hired help.

Here are some tips for getting the best value from a consultant or contract technical writer:

  • Be explicit about arrangements, what you want, how payment will be made (time and materials? fixed price for the project? progress payments?) and when (weekly? monthly? at certain stages of the project?), what the deadlines and deliverables are.
  • Don’t make any assumptions if you can avoid it. Writers are not mind-readers (neither are you). What you mean by "x" may be quite different from what the writer understands by the same words. This goes for ordinary words like "edit" as well as industry jargon like "context-sensitive."
  • Agree in advance what to do if there’s going to be a delay of more than a day (planned or unplanned) in getting vital information to the writer. If you’re paying only for hours worked, or a fixed price for the contract, it’s reasonable for a writer to fill in down time with another job, but that might mean a delay in getting back to work on your job when you are ready to continue. Don’t expect the writer to drop everything to fit in with your schedule if it keeps changing. Perhaps you’d prefer to have the writer work on another project during slack time – or the writer may prefer to take a week off to go skiing! Discuss it up front, to avoid problems and misunderstandings later.
  • Write down your agreements. Some of them (costs, deadlines, deliverables) should be part of your contract with the writer; others might be made on the fly and documented in a memo or letter.
  • Be realistic in your deadlines and budget, and don’t expect miracles from the writer if you change something at the last minute, or suddenly double the size of the project.
  • You might want to have the writer start with a short document or sample, or an outline of a longer project, before committing yourself to a major contract.
  • Ask for a project plan: a detailed schedule for the writer’s work that includes milestones when progress (and therefore productivity) can be measured.
  • On a longer project, ask for weekly reports stating (a) work completed in the week to date, (b) work expected to be completed during the coming week, and (c) issues relating to the writer’s productivity, such as lack of information.
  • If you need to exchange information over the internet, be sure you test file transfers, e-mail and attachments, printing, and so on, early in the project, to ensure compatibility.
  • If you want the writer to come to your premises for meetings, be sure to provide enough notice of the meetings; consider holding meetings by telephone when physical presence isn’t vital.
  • Be available to answer the writer’s questions.
  • Pay the writer on time, according to your agreement. If you consistently delay payment, you can be sure the technical writers’ network will spread the word around, and you’ll get a reputation that you probably don’t want.

Return to beginning of article

Useful contacts

Society for Technical Communication

901 N. Stuart Street, Suite 904
Arlington, VA 22203-1854
(703) 522-4114 (voice)
(703) 522-2075 (fax)
http://www.stc.org/

Technical Writers’ List

The Technical Writers’ List (also known as “Techwhirl”) is a discussion group for all aspects of technical communication, including technical editing. For more information, visit http://techwr-l.com/techwr-l-list. Advertisements may not be posted; see this page about advertising to TECHWR-L members (there is a small fee).

Return to Finding Candidates

Return to beginning of article


Jean Hollis Weber is a technical writing consultant with over 25 years of experience writing and editing scientific and technical materials, most recently in computing and high-tech industries. Originally from the USA, Jean is now based in Australia. She has taught short courses in technical editing and lectured at several Sydney area universities. She is now specializing in open-source and online materials, including Web publications.

Last updated 28 July 2007

Follow me on Twitter  My profile on LinkedIn

Categories

Archives

Follow

Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: