Assessing technical writers

This page discusses how you can assess a technical writer's skills and suitability for your technical writing project. You can ask writers directly about some topics; for other topics, you need to form opinions based on answers to questions on other pages of this website.

The primary means of assessing writers is likely to be through their written proposals. This approach plays to their strengths and there's no excuse for poor writing. When comparing proposals, consider these factors:

  1. Mode of working
  2. Availability
  3. Credibility
  4. Experience
  5. Skills
  6. Attitude
  7. Price and terms

Mode of working

Do you want to retain a technical writer directly or through an agency? The decision may not affect the cost, given that freelances sometimes charge more than agency contractors but there is no agency commission to add. With a freelance, you have the benefit of a single direct relationship with the person doing the work. Conversely, an agency can offer the benefits of a larger organisation with access to more contractors with varied skills.

Do you require limited company status? Many good writers operate as sole traders, so think carefully before you exclude them.

Do you require someone to work on your site? Are you willing to pay for accommodation? Or are you happy with a largely remote relationship using telephone, email and post?

Who will do the writing? If the writer intends to sub-contract some or all of the work, are you happy with that?

What services does the writer provide? Do you want someone who will focus on writing alone or will you need skills such as graphic design, illustration or indexing.

Do you want a long-term relationship with a writer who will maintain your documents and work on future projects? Such a relationship gives you a dependable resource who knows your company and products and who can bring consistency to your documents, but what turnaround and costs can you expect for updates? If you will maintain the documents, do you have the skills and tools within your company to do so? What arrangements are offered for handover and, if necessary, training your staff?

Availability

How urgent is your requirement? Technical writers cannot work without information, and their projects are often delayed by the lack of it, so be realistic. Accurate specifications provide a foundation but demonstrations, prototypes, test systems and training courses all help.

Think carefully about timing. Is the writer available for enough time at the right time? How accurately can you forecast the time required and the dates on which milestones will be reached? If your schedule is fixed, select a writer who is available when required and look for a track record of meeting deadlines. If your schedule may change, flexibility may be more important than a firm commitment to a particular date. Flexibility will also be a consideration if you will want the technical writer to update the documentation when required.

If you expect a technical writer to be available full-time for a fixed period, you will have to pay for the writer's time whether work can start or not. If you want a more flexible arrangement to accommodate unforeseen changes in your project plans, you will need to be prepared for your work to be interleaved with other commitments.

A contract should have a clear end-point (either a date or a deliverable) or, for more open-ended relationships, a review structure by which it can be evaluated at intervals.

As with other types of projects, it is challenging to deliver high-quality documentation that is on time, on scope and on budget. If you allow inadequate time, the scope or budget will almost certainly suffer.

Credibility

Can the writer demonstrate a track record of meeting or exceeding requirements? What similar projects have been completed? Is the writer's correspondence accurate and precise? Does the writer offer advice on ways in which you might be able to improve your documents, reduce your costs or otherwise work more effectively?

Aids to judging a writer's credibility include:

Experience

The experience you need in a writer depends on various factors. If you are in a position to specify and manage the documentation project, you may need only a good writer. If you need strategic advice on the most appropriate options for your project, you are likely to need a more experienced technical writer who can:

In either case, ask to see samples of past projects and discuss them in detail. Explore whether they are the writer's own work and what brief they fulfilled; decide whether you agree with the rationale and like the result.

You are unlikely to find a technical writer who is a good match for every aspect of your requirement so consider which types of experience are most important to you. Does the writer need to be familiar with:

In each case, ask both whether the technical writer has that knowledge and whether the writer needs it. It is difficult to generalise, but documentation written for novices often benefits from the learning process of a writer who has no background knowledge, whereas documentation written for experts often benefits from the writer having a deeper understanding.

Skills

Can the technical writer use the required documentation tools? If the writer needs to learn new tools, who will pay for the time spent on that? How quickly will the writer become productive? Will you provide the tool or will the writer? Will you pay for the tool or will the writer? If the writer is to choose the tool, should the choice be for a new tool or an established tool? Will it be easy for you to find other technical writers who can use the tool? Do you need an open format rather than a proprietary one that requires particular expertise?

While tools are important, they only facilitate documentation work. The writer's skills in designing, researching, creating and delivering information are more important. Do you need the writer to be able to create illustrations and indexes as well as text?

What process does the writer follow? Typically, this will include establishing the requirements, collecting information, writing a first draft, arranging a first review, writing a second draft, arranging a second review, finalising the document, arranging for approval and then publishing the document in whatever media is required. The writer should be able to talk you through this process with confidence.

How will you evaluate the writer's work? Using a trusted writer who knows your business has many benefits but extended relationships must be based on good work. Discuss how you will monitor the process, the drafts and the published documents.

Attitude

Is the writer's philosophy compatible with yours? Is the writer sensitive to the needs of your business, considering commercial and practical factors when planning their approach? Will the writer follow your processes and workflow? Will you work well together?

Can the writer demonstrate effective relationships with past clients, showing how they have worked in partnership to deliver imaginative and appropriate solutions?

Is the writer honest enough to admit areas of uncertainty or inexperience? Few technical writers will match every aspect of your requirement, so be wary of those who claim they can.

If you have several potentially acceptable proposals, consider 'softer' factors. Explore the writer's knowledge and opinion of your company and business area. You are likely to get better work from someone who is interested and highly motivated.

How does the writer view quality? Will the writer deliver documentation that is barely adequate or something that far exceeds your requirements? How does this translate into value for money when related to the estimate?

Some attributes may be judged better in a face-to-face setting. Writing is often seen as a solitary pursuit but most commercial projects involve interpersonal contact to gather information and organise reviews. If the technical writer will need to interact with your staff, consider the impression the writer will make and how well the writer will fit into your company's working environment.

Price and terms

Broadly speaking, there are two approaches to pricing:

For fixed-price projects, at what stages will payments be required? For time and materials, when will the writer invoice and will hourly, daily or weekly rates be applied? What credit period will the writer extend to your company? Does your accounts department normally make payments within that period?

What is included in the price? How many drafts and revisions does the writer intend to do? Will this suit your project? What other charges will be made? These might include travel, accommodation and meeting time.

Look for detailed estimates that take into account all stages of the project, state assumptions made and allow contingency for unforeseen extras. Don't be tempted by unrealistically low estimates: if the writer has to work within an underestimated fixed-price quote, quality is likely to suffer. Remember to take into account the damage that poor documentation can do to your brand and image.

An estimate is a starting point for negotiations. If you like a proposal but the figures don't work for you, discuss it with the writer. Know roughly how much you are prepared to pay for the work. If you have a larger budget available, ask what other options the writer would recommend: it might be possible to improve on the documentation that you originally envisaged. If the price is too high, ask how it can be reduced: a good estimate will include nice-to-have features that can be delivered in a more basic fashion if required. It may be possible to deliver minimal documentation, describing only those aspects of your product or service that directly affect your customers. Sometimes it's better to do less but do it well than to try for a comprehensive approach for which there is insufficient budget. If you know your budget is tight for the requirement, you may state the amount and ask what the writer can do within it.

As well as price, consider other aspects of the writer's terms and conditions. Who is responsible for the accuracy of the content? Who owns the copyright or any other intellectual property rights? Does the writer offer any warranty for their work or terms for correcting errors detected after approval? What rights does the writer retain? The most common business model is for all rights and all responsibilities to reside with you.

Is the technical writer willing to sign your company's non-disclosure agreement? Do you require a commitment not to work for competitors and, if so, for how long? Writers use samples of their work to support proposals. You are likely to want to see samples so be aware that future clients are likely to feel the same. If your documents are sensitive, writers should expect to keep them confidential. However, consider granting exemptions so that writers can add selected documents to their portfolios.

Once you have selected the writer who seems best suited to your company and project, you can then work together to establish the full requirements.

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