Your Own Best Ad: Promoting Yourself as a Contractor

Editor’s Note: The following piece by Bruce Byfield is part of our collection of “classics”–articles that stand the test of time no matter how many technologies come and go.

Cattle die, kindred die,
Every man is mortal:
But the good name never dies
Of one who has done well.
–Havamal (Translated by W.H. Auden and P.B. Taylor)

What do contract technical writers have in common with the 10th Century Vikings to whom this advice was addressed? Simply this: Like a Viking, contractors survive–and prosper–on the strength of their reputations.

Most contractors can’t afford the time or money to advertise. If they can, there probably aren’t many places where an ad would reach potential clients anyway. By default, then, your reputation as a contractor rests on your behavior at each job. Leave a happy client behind at the end of each job, and you’ll soon start a word-of-mouth campaign that will keep you employed the rest of your working life.

The reputation that you want to cultivate can be summarized in four words:

  • Reliable Do you arrive when you’re supposed to? Do you meet deadlines? Enough contract technical writers are as shaky as tectonic plates that a reputation for reliability alone can take you far.
  • Flexible Can you adjust to each client’s demands? To the flip-flops of a normal product development? Since you’re a contractor, you’re the one expected to adjust to each change in circumstances–not the client.
  • Quality Can you write high-quality documents? Manage the process yourself? As a contractor, you won’t find anyone holding your hand (unless it’s you, in which case you’re wringing them).
  • Diplomatic Can you work with the client’s employees without friction? Suggest changes without making mortal enemies? No one likes working with prima donnas. And let’s face it: A contractor with attitude is easier to remove than a troublesome employee.

During five years spent mostly on contract, I’ve developed a number of rules to help promote this type of reputation for myself. Admittedly, I haven’t always lived up to the high standards I’ve set (fortunately, truth in advertising laws don’t apply to the way you conduct yourself); however, I firmly believe that even trying to follow these rules not only helps me to find work, but has had other benefits, including giving me legal protection and minimizing problems on the job.

Establish and Keep Accurate Schedules

One of the strongest fears of any manager is project creep–the project that misses one deadline after another and never ends. If the client has never worked with a technical writer–or, worse, worked with an incompetent one–then this fear may be even stronger than usual. If you can exorcise this fear by providing an accurate estimate of the cost and duration of the project, you’ve taken an important first step to cultivating a reputation for reliability.

You’ll have to decide for yourself how to make the initial estimate. Personally, I base my estimates on the speed at which I write for three different audiences–end users, technical support, and engineers–multiplied by the number of pages. But, however you arrive at the estimate, I suggest that you respect the roughness of the estimate and allow for delays by adding more time to the estimate. I usually add 25 to 50 percent, depending on my sense of how organized the client is; if you’re new to technical writing and have no idea of your production rate, you might want to add as much as 100 percent. I also like to give myself some wriggle room by giving the final estimate as plus or minus ten percent.

The goal is to strike a balance between a rate that’s so high that you lose the job and one that’s so low that project creep is inevitable. Once you find that balance, you have at least two out of three chances of looking good. If the documents take the time you estimated, you’re reliable. If they take less time, you’re a hero. The only way you’re in trouble is if the documents take longer, and you can minimize that problem by providing regular updates in which you explain the reasons for delays.

Having given the estimate, I try to schedule a small but impressive milestone as early as possible. Once I meet that milestone, the client’s first impression of me should be that I’m reliable. After that, I can usually revise later parts of the schedule without unnerving the client.

The only exception is the final deadline. I’ll work myself into a coma to meet the final deadline. That’s the last impression the client has, and I want to look organized and competent as I finish a project.

Explain Your Requirements to the Client

One of the surest ways to be branded unreliable is to ask for more as a contract unfolds. More equipment, more time–ask for either, and the result is the same. You’ll look far more reliable if you make your requirements clear at the start.

Be prepared to spend some time on this issue. After all, few of your clients are professional writers. Some have never even worked with a writer. For these reasons, it’s up to you to educate them. Otherwise, don’t be surprised if you’re offered a five year old computer with a 12-inch screen and a workstation in the middle of a machine shop.

Do you need an onsite computer? Software? A quiet office? Maybe you need an isolated machine or small network, or a recent prototype of the hardware on which you can test whatever you’re documenting to destruction. Possibly, too, you need permission to read directories with developers’ notes, or download different software builds.

While you’re at it, mention whether you need time with the engineers. Probably, you won’t know how much time you’ll need until well into the project. Still, clients need to know when you can’t complete the project by yourself. Many imagine that the whole point of hiring a writer is so that the engineers aren’t distracted with a side-task like documentation. If you spring the need to consult with SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) halfway through the project, they might get tetchy.

In addition to establishing your reputation, being upfront about your requirements has several purposes. It gives you working conditions that won’t frustrate you, and it minimizes project delays. It educates clients on the realities of working with a writer.

But, at times, the most important purpose of specifying your requirements may be when a project is late. If deliverables are late because your requirements aren’t met–if, for example, the engineers start making retching noises and rush out whenever you approach–you’ll have a reason that was outside of your control. Passing the blame is nobody’s finest moment, but sometimes it’s necessary for self-protection.

Put Everything in Writing

A local self-help press has a book about marriage contracts called, “If You Love Me, Put It in Writing.” I feel the same way about work contracts. Nothing builds trust between a client and a contractor like a well-worded contract–and nothing makes the contractor look more reliable than being trustworthy.

Do these comments sound paradoxical? They’re really not. By spelling out the terms under which they work together, both sides are announcing that they have nothing to hide. They’re also acknowledging that even honest people can forget verbal agreements. And if a dispute does arise, there’s a basis for settlement, or at least a starting point for discussion. High-tech may be informal, but its informality is not the sort found in Norman Rockwell’s small towns.

A contract doesn’t have to be notarized or drawn up by a lawyer. A letter of agreement signed by both the client and the contractor is usually enough. Once you’re written one or two, you’ll have the material with which to copy and past a new agreement together in less than two hours. The chances are, you’ll never have to use the letter, but you’ll look more reliable simply by having it ready.

In addition, if a client balks at the whole idea, think twice about accepting the contract. Clients may want changes or additions to the letter you present, but if they refuse to sign a letter of agreement, don’t be surprised if you learn more about small claims court than you ever wanted.

Use Your Client’s Preferred Tools, Not Yours

Tool wars burst out on the Internet at the click of a Send button. But, on the job site, they’re out of place. No matter what your preferences (and I, for one, would rather bob for chips in hot grease than use Microsoft Word in my own time), insisting too strongly on working your own way only makes you look inflexible.

This rule is only common sense. While part of your brief may be to advise on tools, few companies will loosen the money belt for a program that no full-time employee can use. That’s especially true if your client is a small shop or startup.

Keeping to this rule, I’ve delivered in every format from plain text and LaTeX to WordPerfect and PageMaker. Probably, the most unusual case was the client who wanted to be able to print and assemble the manual in-house, and wanted it double-sided in Microsoft Word with no plug-ins or third party software involved. I eventually delivered landscaped pages with two text frames apiece. Working in this format, I couldn’t use styles or cross-references, page numbers had to be done manually, and text-flow between frames was non-existent. Printing was so complicated that I had to include a detailed guide.

Still, that was what the client wanted. My suggestions for something less clumsy would have lost me the contract if I had persisted. I was hungry, so I did as asked. I sometimes wonder if the client has ever tried revising the manual–but that is not my concern any more, except in the occasional dream that leaves me whimpering in my pillow. The point is I got paid, and got a reputation for flexibility while doing so.

Learn as Much as You Can

If you’re at a full-time job, you can sometimes slip into a specialist’s niche after a couple of years. As a contractor, you rarely have this luxury. Much of the time, you’re probably working for yourself. Often, your clients lack the money and the time to assemble a team of specialists. Whatever the reason, as a contractor, you have to be flexible enough to handle every aspect of documentation yourself.

Aside from writing ability, what else do you need? Tools, of course. They’re over-emphasized in want ads, but you need to know as many as possible if you’re going to deliver files in your client’s preferred format. Since contractors are often called in near the end of a project, don’t expect to learn new ones on the job. Learn the more obvious ones in your spare time; in general, the more tools you know, the more easily you’ll learn new ones. And if that seems expensive, don’t forget that as a contractor you can write off the tools as a business expense.

Other useful skills? Learning to write marketing materials or news releases shouldn’t be much of a stretch. The same is true of writing business plans or white papers. In most cases, an experienced writer should be able to pick up the basics in a day. Understanding publishing and product manufacturing is useful if you do hardcopy manuals. You might also want to consider some design skills–at least enough to lay out a brochure or product sheet. If you have an interest in technical subjects, then usability, interface design, and programming are possibilities.

Obviously, you could spend a lifetime learning any of these skills. But the goal is not to become an expert in all of them. The goal is a basic competence, so that you are flexible enough to meet all a client’s needs by yourself.

Do the Best Job You Can Under the Circumstances

Like Hollywood’s, the motto of high-tech seems to be “I don’t want it good, I want it Thursday.” Maybe this attitude explains why the quality of your work as a contractor is less important to your reputation than the way you interact with clients. However, if you think of each document as an advertisement for your work, then quality still counts.

The fact is, mediocre writing is everywhere. I’ve seen manuals written at sixty dollars an hour that didn’t use paragraph styles and used a page layout that I wouldn’t use for rough notes. And I’ve lost count of the manuals whose curt style revealed that the writers knew next to nothing about the product being explained, or what a user might want to do with it. If you want to start a buzz about your work, all you have to do is rise above these standards. Fortunately, that’s not hard to do.

At the same time, don’t forget to temper your perfectionism with realism. Given a choice between a perfect manual and an adequate one finished for deadline, many clients will choose the adequate one.

Yet even rushed work can earn you bragging rights. The most discussed line on my resume mentions the fact that I once wrote a 220-page manual in two weeks. Of course, I cut corners by using an old template and other dodges. Even then, the result wasn’t the best work I’ve ever done. Still, it was the best work I could do under the circumstances. Showing a sample of the result and explaining the situation has probably won me two out of every three contracts I’ve had.

Learn and Practice Diplomacy

A contractor is an outsider by definition. At times, you might be deliberately disregarded. Other times, clients’ employees may simply forget to keep you informed. Add changes to the code after the freeze, the slowness in processing your invoices, and other commonplaces of office life, and you can be forgiven for practicing long and colorful curses at your clients before you go to sleep at night. The trick is to keep yourself calm and polite in waking life.

For one thing, showing anger may only make matters worse. Instead of addressing the problem, all you’ll do is shift the discussion to personalities. Since problems are easier to solve than personality conflicts, all you’ll do is waste everyone’s time. For another, consultants are already seen as prima donnas. That’s why there are so many jokes about them in Dilbert and User Friendly. Throw a hissy fit, and you’ll only confirm existing prejudices. Most important of all, you can be reliable, flexible, and produce high-quality work on time, but then ruin all the good you’ve done yourself with a single snapped word or pout. The incivility will be remembered long after your competence is forgotten.

That’s not to say that you have to accept everything that clients dish out. But it does mean that you should be discreet. If a client disregards a development freeze, explain how the changes will affect the schedule or the budget. You may not win the first time, but you might the next time. Similarly, if the software doesn’t seem to work, don’t tell the developer, “This is buggy.” Instead, try, “I can’t get this button to work. What am I doing wrong?” and let the developer figure out if the problem is a bug.

It’s not that the client is always right. It’s just that if you want to polish your reputation, you want to leave ’em smiling.

Conclusion

All these rules can be boiled down to two words: Be professional. Whether it’s how you approach a project, how you deal with clients, or the quality of your work, always keep professionalism in mind. Part of this professionalism is attitude, and part of it is behavior, but a large part of it is simply being prepared and thoughtful. If you’ve ever worked a full-time job, think about your first week on the job. Contracting is like being in that first week all the time–you’re always on probation.

Fortunately, contracting gets easier the longer you do it. In any city or industry, the companies that employ technical writers are a small world. As people talk, or move between companies, your reputation will start to spread. Get a good one on your first few jobs, and you’ll have the references and experience on your resume to keep yourself as busy–or as free–as you want. But it works the other way, too; you can’t afford many mistakes in your dealings with clients.

Just as importantly, while you’re working on your reputation, you’re also making your job easier. Looking back, I can now see that most of the trouble I’ve had with clients comes from ignoring one or more of these rules. For example, I still have about $1500 outstanding from two clients whose work I completed over three years ago. Since I don’t have an agreement, I no longer expect to collect–although I do get a vicious kick at watching one of those ex-clients scuttle out the door when we meet. (The other has vanished into the wilds of Minnesota, leaving only some nifty screen shots in my portfolio.)

Above all, by trying to keep these rules, you should turn yourself into a conscientious worker. And if that’s not the secret to enjoying what you do, I don’t know what is.


Bruce Byfield is a freelance journalist, product manager, and technical writer. A recovering academic, he is the writer of the standard reference on the American fantasist Fritz Leiber and a widely published poet. His other obsessions include raising Nanday conures; running long, painful distances; listening to punk-folk music; and indulging a four to 10 book a week reading habit.

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