Using a freelance author in your development process

How a document is written

Whatever information you want written professionally, the process for using a freelance technical author (TA) is much the same. The usual series of steps is listed below, but for a small job (a newsletter or a brochure for example), each one will be pretty informal. Note that getting the finished document requires input from the client well as the author!

  1. Agreeing a proposal for the job, detailing how long it is likely to take, who is responsible for providing what, and a summary of the scope of the job. For complex jobs, a formal synopsis of the documentation will usually be produced.
  2. Preliminary information-gathering by the author. Sources may include system/technical specifications, interviews with experts, and/or using a product to see what it does and how it works. Concurrently, a project plan and schedule will be worked out in consultation with the client.
  3. Writing a first draft. The draft may contain questions or comments about alternative approaches for the reviewers.
  4. Commenting on/reviewing the first draft. At this stage, the technical experts will usually be asked to correct any errors or confusion, and marketing experts will comment on the general approach.
  5. Writing the second draft, incorporating comments and, if necessary, reconciling conflicting opinions.
  6. Client review of the draft again. At this stage, comments should be relatively minor.
  7. After incorporation of the final comments, preparation and approval, by the client, of the final draft.
  8. For electronic documents, the final step is for the author to prepare the finished article (for example, a Word document, an Adobe Acrobat (PDF) file, web pages or a Help file. For paper documents, the author produces the necessary input, and may liaise with the printer to get the finished article.

Working with a remote contractor

I normally work mostly from my own office here in Devon, but with visits to client sites as necessary, for example to review comments and collect source material. Using the telephone, email and remote connections for the rest is usually an efficient way of running a documentation project.

If you are unused to working this way, you may be concerned that you do not control the job as closely as you are accustomed to. All I can say is that my clients are very satisfied with my work, and that, this way, you get 100% of what you pay for — I log all the time I spend on each job, and you are not charged for overheads like drinking coffee, checking email or non-work telephone calls. And since I work on my own, there is little opportunity for idle gossip around the water cooler!

The average production rate for an employed TA (insofar as such measurements mean anything) is about 10–12 A4 pages a week (not just drafting, but the whole process from initial information-gathering to finished draft), but I reckon on being able to do about 15 for most projects; more, if the work is straightforward.