5 tips for outsourcing your technical writing

Even as so much of the software development and cloud industries move to agile development and DevOps, they can’t escape technical documentation. Having product and operations documentation in place can also help foster your corporate knowledge base taking technical information out of oral history and making it available to your entire technical staff and partners.

While you may not have the budget to have a full-time technical writer on staff, you can always outsource technical writing to a contracting agency, independent technical writer, or an editorial services firm on a project basis.

1. Write your technical writer job description

The technical writer role can be quite subjective so it’s best just to write your technical writer job description and set your organization’s standard for a technical writer. In the IT industry, there are workers with the technical writer job title who format documents and do light copy editing with no concern for the technical subject matter to technical writers who author original technical documentation based on their analysis of the subject matter.

If you want a proofreader, desktop publisher, or copy editor that improves the technical documentation produced by your technical staff, then you can go to an editorial services firm and save money because those jobs carry a lower hourly rate than a technical writer does.

However, if you want a technical writer who works independently and interacts with your technical team and with experience in your technologies, so be it. Put it in the job description. To spare your technical team and the project the indignities of a long learning curve, be specific on technical fluency of the technical writer you want to hire. A broad question can tax your team’s time unnecessarily while a technical writer already somewhat fluent in your technologies asking short questions and verifying technical facts means they are a benefit and not a resource hog.

2. Seek a technical writer with similar industry experience

While the last time you may have written a lengthy document was in Junior Composition class in college, you can still find and judge an outsourced technical documentation provider to meet your documentation requirements. When talking to the prospective contractor are they engaging you in a language you understand? Alternatively, are they just telling you what they think you want to hear? Probing prospective technical writer candidates for how they interact with technical staff

Don’t be duped into “Ignorance as an asset” because it is an industry myth that says a technical writer doesn’t need any technical grasp of what they are documenting. Bringing a technical writer onboard who can work independently and communicate effectively with your technical staff is going to be worth the extra dollars in hourly rate if it keeps your staff focused on the core business. While documentation reviews and iterations are the nature of well-done documentation, putting a writer on the project that is analytical and technically savvy can mitigate risk and shorten review cycles.

If the technical writer’s resume leads heavily with Society for Technical Communication participation and contest wins you may want to disqualify them outright. The Association is a vehicle for college technical writing professors to publish their theories. While they count many professional technical writers amongst their membership, the organization’s focus is on the theories and methodologies supporting technical communications and forgets about the execution and delivery.

Focus on their experience that meshes with your technical documentation requirements and not academic awards. SME Datacenter managers seeking a contract technical writer in most metropolitan markets can focus on the technical writer with data center and large-scale network infrastructure.

While you may not feel qualified to judge a technical writer for their work, you are more than equipped to hold a technical conversation with them during an interview. Probe them on their previous projects

3. Use a third party contracting agency to find a technical writer

Contracting agencies can be a viable third party for outsourcing your technical documentation because they handle the back office paperwork and have a staff of recruiters.

Unfortunately, since most agency sales people and recruiters come from non-technical backgrounds, you must be explicit in your position descriptions and statements of work and prepare yourself to explain to them the job at hand. Active feedback on the candidate resumes you receive from an agency is important because you don’t want to tie up your time sorting through resumes that don’t meet your requirements.

One minus is if you find a technical writer, you like is that most contract agencies

4. Hire a freelance technical writer

If you want your organization to skip past a contract agency’s high margin to provide you a technical writer, then you can always seek an independent technical writer.

5. Contract the work to an editorial services firm

There are full-service editorial services firms that may be an option for you. All the tips in this article still apply, but the agency’s margin remains.

Building the Better Technical Writer

Outsourcing your technical documentation doesn’t mean you have to forgo control. You can write your position description, and with some discrimination in the hiring process, you can find a technical writer who complements your technical team and does the heavy lifting on technical documentation projects leaving your technical team to focus on their core duties.

Will Kelly is a technical writer and analyst based in the Washington, DC area. He has worked with commercial, federal, higher education, and publishing clients to develop technical and thought leadership content. His technology articles have been published by CNET TechRepublic, Government Computer News, Federal Computer Week, Toolbox.com, ZDNet.com and others. Follow Will on Twitter:@willkelly.

Image by Negative Space via Unsplash.com

5 things your technical writer isn’t telling you

You can learn a lot about an organization when you develop their project documentation. In my time, I’ve had the benefit of working with a lot of smart people and even more people who thought they were the smartest person in the room. When you dig into project features, then the fun begins as the dynamic between engineering, product management, sales, and the executives can make or break a product and gamble with the future of the company. How folks answer questions remains a fascination to me.

Technical writing can also be a real interesting venue for observing ego and human nature.

Here are some more things your technical writer or requirements analyst isn’t telling you:

  1. If you fessed up and told me your product is vaporware, I’d be OK about it and could offer you some appropriate documentation and communications options that can satisfy (y)our potential customers or venture backing to give you and (y)our management team some breathing room. Just be honest with me and we can come up with a professional solution. However, you seem to think you are fooling me and many others. If I know you are full of s**t, then lots of other people sense the same thing that I do.
  2. While I am not an expert in the technology, I know you don’t know what you are talking about when it comes to the intricate technical details. If you aren’t fooling me, then who are you fooling?
  3. I am keeping a lot of project meeting notes. You’d be surprised how much you contradict yourself outside of those meetings.
  4. You danced around my technical questions. I played it off, so you could save face. I kept asking you the questions because I knew you couldn’t answer it.
  5. You don’t know as much about our technology as you portray. Your lack of technical knowledge isn’t a bad thing. However, you make it suck because you aren’t willing to sit down with the people who know and educate yourself about technology. Your underlings are willing to help if you would only ask. You can’t hide forever.

Will Kelly is a technical writer and analyst based in the Washington, DC area. He has worked with commercial, federal, higher education, and publishing clients to develop technical and thought leadership content. His technology articles have been published by CNET TechRepublic, Government Computer News, Federal Computer Week, Toolbox.com, ZDNet.com and others. Follow Will on Twitter:@willkelly.

An earlier version of this post was published on willkelly.org

Image by Thomas Martinsen via Unsplash.com