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Survivalist Tips for a Contract Tech Writer

Updated on February 4, 2012

The Art of Zen and Tech Writing

Making Sense Out of Chaos  -- Par for the Job
Making Sense Out of Chaos -- Par for the Job

Shields, Swords, and Daggers Ready

I've been working in the tech writing field for nearly 30 years, and much of that time on a contract basis. Within the tech writing field there is an ongoing debate whether it is better to be an employee of a company or work under a contract basis. My answer to that question is that both are difficult positions and I'm not sure I really have a preference.

For the most part not many people understand what a tech writer actually does or how they do it. As companies do less and less hiring, most of the work available is under a contract -- usually with very explicit expectations (not realistic expectations but explicit) and within a pre-assigned deadline. Most work is project driven. This is due in part because a company does not really know what they are doing. The may make a big thrust in direction (a) only to discover that they need to pivot to direction (b) without losing a step.

Everything is incremental, including budgets, so you have to be able to handle the chaos of switching projects without a moments notice. A company may feel your contribution need only last three months. If you've had any experience in the field, you'll have a sense of how much time is actually required and you should try to negotiate the time element from the onset... even at risk of losing the job. The proper way to set things up and protect yourself is to create an outline of the work the company wishes you to accomplish. With this you should break down the work into a weekly schedule. Create a chart for yourself that you keep updated daily that shows your accomplishments and obstacles.

Oh, yeah, another thing, expect the possibility that the project you came in to work on will be terminated for reasons unknown -- at any time -- even at the point when you are preparing final copy.

For anyone who wants to enter the field of contract tech writing, here are a few observations to contemplate.

  • Starting from the point when you walk through the door of a company, a handful of people will expect you to be like a Special Operations commando. The expectation is that you are battle-hardened and can parachute into any environment and immediately blend in or remain invisible (when required) or face the opposition with a Schwarzenegger-arsenal of offensive weapons.
  • Your immediate supervisor may or may not have anywhere to place you. Some companies will already have a working phone for you, a password to get into their network, pens, pads of paper, stapler, Post-It notes, and all the other accouterments one needs sooner rather than later. Yet, other companies haven't given you a thought. In a helter-skelter manner they try to find you a hobble in which to work, a PC composed of disparate and not necessarily compatible parts. Luxuries like having a working phone, a network connection, the ability to print hard copies may take weeks. And once tech maintenance has created a workable PC for you, it will probably lack most of the software you need to do your job -- thus another work request must be submitted.
  • Expect your supervisor to have a maximum of five minutes a day (if that) to listen to your needs and complaints. Often, your supervisor will be out on vacation, out of state for some kind of conference, or locked into all-day teleconference meetings. Compile a list of questions and other matters. If the list becomes overloaded, try sending the components to your supervisor in email chunks. They will probably be ignored, but you have to protect yourself. The clock is ticking from day one, and you don't want to be minus an unwritten record of your set-backs.
  • The staff: The staff will look upon you as an alien or (worse) some kind of over-sized insect that has invaded their space. Some of the members may mistake you as a quality assurance assessor, or work measurement analyst and unconsciously hold you in a kind of dread. The staff you contact directly for information will not be cooperative. The last thing they want is for their work contribution reduced to a series of written procedures (even though this is part of your assignment). They will feel that if their work can be summarized as a series of steps, their job security is in jeopardy.
  • To the extent possible get to be buddies with the computer tech manager. Your ability to move forward more rapidly often rests in his/her hands. Find out where his/her cubicle is located and try to have a face-to-face meeting. If he/she is not there (usually the case), leave a big Post-It note on their screen then follow up a bit later with a phone call (assuming you have a working phone).
  • Never neglect to keep your personal performance chart up to date -- do it on an hourly basis -- because you will never know when your supervisor will call you in for a dress-down. The chart is indispensable because you will be bombarded with details -- sections of manuals or self-help that are dependent on one person vs. another. Sometimes you will be blocked from documenting a section of an application (for instance) because the programmers are still working out the kinks or quality control has a lot of issues. Sometimes you have no choice but to document applications that are in mid-stream. Be prepared to move backwards as fast as forwards.
  • Chances are your time allotment will expire before the work is completed. Send copies of your latest drafts to everyone involved. Because everything is budgeted in advance, it is unlikely you will get an extension, so try to leave what you've built to date in a comprehensible fashion.
  • Try to ignore the frustration factor of not being able to complete your work. Chances are the company hired you with unrealistic expectations about the delivery date of a final product. Your supervisor and others may seem a bit sour that the application release got hung up in programming, but that really has nothing to do with you.
  • If possible, try to ask at least one person in the team as a possible future reference. You may have finished your work in sync with the other units (or not) but it helps to have one reliable reference for whatever awaits you down the road.
  • Lastly, though you may be attempting to produce good product in a chaotic environment under impossible handicaps, don't lose your cool. Just keep EVERYTHING documented so that if you need to, you can justify delays and set-backs.

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