Hiring Contract Technical Writers
by Scott Hartmann
So you’ve got approval to hire a contract technical writer. Maybe it’s for overflow work or a special project. Nevertheless, it is your responsibility and you want to do it right.
Preparing a Job DescriptionBefore you start calling writers, take some time to write a job description. This can be anything from a formal document to a simple list of notes about the job and/or project. Ultimately, the description should identify:
- General duties
- Specific project goals and responsibilities
- Location (on-site or off-site)
- Estimated start and end dates
- Who will manage the writer
- Other people (SMEs, for example) who will be working with this writer
- Resources needed
- Software tools required to accomplish the work
- Ideal background and skills (the must-haves as well as the like-to-haves)
- Budget and/or rate range
- STC Job Board – The Society for Technical Communication (www.stc.org) is a national job board created by Technical Writers. Each major city has its own chapter in which local writers participate. Employers have an inexpensive option to find writers by submitting a job requirement to a local chapter. Posting a job should result in receiving several resumes, but it may take more time than you have to find a writer.
- Referrals – Like any job opening, the best candidates are sometimes found by word-of-mouth or referrals from your business associates and friends. Send an email to people you know to get the word out about the position. Your friends may know of someone who has the right qualifications and is available to work on your project.
- Newspaper or Online Ads – This is a common approach for hiring permanent employees, but it is usually labor intensive and includes a longer timeline to post and receive resumes. Like any ad, you will need to sift through lots of resumes to find potential candidates.
- National and Regional Resume Databases – These include Monster , DICE ,CareerBuilder , Hot Jobs , and other local and state databases. Most candidates on these systems are looking for permanent jobs, but some are available and interested in contract opportunities. But keep in mind that not all companies have access to these databases, as they can be relatively expensive.
- Other Online Databases and Contracting Sites – Examples of these include www.guru.com, www.upwork.com/ and www.sologig.com. By using these sites, you can post a job or project, and/or search through contractor/freelancer postings. Although these sites offer plenty of freelance writers, they typically offer limited search capabilities. This can make it especially difficult when you’re searching for specific skills and experience. Also, many candidates claim to be “technical writers,” but have little or no relevant experience. Typically, when you use one of these services, you are required to hire the writer through them. The service will charge a fee – usually to the consultant.
- Third-Party Staffing Agencies – There are a number of staffing agencies around the country that market contract technical writers. Most are generalists, IT staffing firms, or other technical staffing firms. Occasionally, they place technical writers but have minimal understanding of this specialty. However, some firms specialize in technical writers and maintain a large database of writers with the related expertise in this profession. Depending on your situation, timeline and requirements, these agencies are a great source for finding the best available technical writers in a short amount of time.
What To Look ForWhat to look for in a contract technical writer? This may vary from situation to situation, but some of the considerations should be:
- Overall Technical Writing Experience – You are hiring a temporary contract writer, not an employee. So, you may want to focus on senior writers with five or more years of experience. These writers should have solid expertise in the types of documentation you need and require very little or no training.
- Industry/Subject Matter Experience – A good technical writer doesn’t need to be an expert in your field. However, if you are hiring a temporary writer, why not look for someone who understands the subject area and terminology that can hit the ground running.
- Writing Ability – Obviously this is a priority. Even though the candidate may be an experienced and successful contract technical writer, he/she still might not have the writing style you are looking for. So ask for writing samples and/or ask the candidate to prepare a short one- or two-page writing assignment.
- Contracting Experience – Although it’s not necessary, ample contracting experience may prove to be beneficial. In most cases, contractors usually know how to get up-to-speed quickly and be productive with little supervision. They will also be assertive and have good interviewing skills that allow them to gather information from your SMEs promptly and efficiently. Once they start a job, contractors know their role and do not expect to be coddled or treated like staff employees (i.e. perks, offices, company phone #, and email address, company events and meetings etc.). But this doesn’t mean they should be treated as second-class citizens. They need to be treated like part of the team so they feel that way.
- Personality Fit – This is not as important as hiring a staff writer, but depending on the length of the project, personality should be a consideration. At least one interview should be conducted with one or all of the persons involved with the project.
- Rate – Depending on skills, experience, and geographic location, most contract technical writers in the U.S. charge between $40- $70/hr. Although your budget may dictate your limits, don’t always assume that writers with a higher hourly rate will cost the most. In many cases, a more experienced writer with a higher rate may work faster and more effectively than one who charges less – resulting in less overall cost.
- On-Site or Off-Site? – Most contract writers have a fully equipped home office and are accustomed to working off-site. A common scenario is for a writer to be on-site when the project begins, then on-site for periodic meetings throughout the contract. The contractor completes the bulk of the project off-site from home. This can be very cost-effective, since you don’t need to supply office space, a computer, a phone, etc. Even though some writers are willing to work on-site like full-time staff employee, others are not. So requiring writers to be on-site may greatly limit your choices of available candidates. We are also in an age of virtual offices where more and more companies are using virtual programmers and engineers. So if they can do it, writers can too!
- Availability and Time Requirements – Is this a full-time, 40-hour-per-week need, or a project with varied hours? Some contractors are looking for 40-hour-per-week gigs while others have multiple clients and look for off-site projects with part-time hours. Potential contractors will also want to know the anticipated start date and contract length. The longer the contract the more attractive it will be to most writers. Longer contracts may also be of interest to technical writers who normally don’t consider contract work.
- Tool Experience – Most writers will tell you that experience with a certain software tool is of little importance, since most can learn new tools relatively quickly. However, as with industry and/or subject matter experience, a writer with experience with the appropriate tools will probably be more efficient at the onset of a new project, saving you time and money. The shorter the contract, the more important tool experience becomes.
- Other Skills and Experience – Project management, translation, Information Mapping, Instructional Design, HTML, online help, among others may be important to your project, and may even be the reason for hiring a contract writer. Still, be cautious not to let other skills outweigh writing skills. Remember: Many people market themselves as technical writers when in fact that may not be their primary or strongest skill.
- References – It is always important to check references for prospective employees and contractors. Rule of Thumb: Don’t just rely on the references the writer hand picks for you. Instead, ask to speak to the writer’s last two managers. If the writer did a good job for these people, then he/she should have no problem providing their names and phone numbers. However, keep in mind that due to company policies and legal issues, many managers are reluctant to answer many questions about the writer outside of the timeframe when he/she actually worked for them. In these situations, the best question to ask those managers is whether or not they would hire this writer again. A simple “yes” or “no” should tell you plenty.