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Working with contract tech writers for documentation needs

Documentation is a key to success for many IT projects, but budgeting for the effort and hiring resources can be challenging. Use these tips as a guideline when hiring technical writers to handle the job.

While technical documentation can be expensive, poorly done documentation can be even more costly and could put your project at risk of failure. Launching a “low-budget” documentation project, intended to be a periphery task, could fall flat if the documentation team is forced into an eleventh-hour effort that requires additional resources to complete the tasks.

The risks can be minimized by using better methods of budgeting for technical documentation and by creatively economizing on documentation without sacrificing quality and customer satisfaction.

Budgeting for documentation
Documentation as a budget item may affect several groups involved in product development. The following groups, typical to a development effort, share an interest in quality documentation:
  • Product management: Even technical documentation such as user guides, administrator guides, and installation guides contribute to the definition and communication of product features.
  • Development team: This group needs to document the product for quality assurance, intellectual property, and other uses.
  • Customer support/technical support: These support groups have a vested interest in quality technical documentation to reduce customer support costs.
  • Sales:  The sales group has an interest because technical documentation of a product is a useful sales tool offering resources to develop coherent sales training.

Whether your development organization uses contract technical writers or employs full-time technical writers, positioning technical documentation as a cross-functional role benefits all groups. This also means that financing technical documentation would be best served by splitting the costs with the other project stakeholders.

Bypassing third-party staffing firms
Third-party staffing firms are typical sources for the contract technical writing assistance required to document a project. They have suffered along with the rest of the technology industry in the current economic conditions. Depending on their specific business condition, they may have had to raise their margins on the contract staff they place on client sites.

It’s important to remember that the hourly rate you pay to a third-party staffing agency does not go strictly to the salary of the contract technical writer. The money goes to pay the agency’s overhead, profit margin, and, in cases where the contractor is being paid on a W2 vs. a 1099, a portion of the hourly rate goes to pay state and federal taxes, including Social Security and unemployment.

Third-party staffing firms do offer some value, including:
  • Handling the initial screening of contract technical writer candidates, including acting as a gatekeeper, enabling you to view only the candidates who meet your requirements.
  • Payroll and paying taxes, meaning that your company does not have to worry about tax issues with the contractor.

However, the firms' margins may put the costs of the skilled technical writer over your project budget. For example, while you may be paying $65 to $85 per hour (which equals about $135,000 to $177,000 in annual salary) for the services of a technical writer, the writer may only be seeing $35 to $40 an hour ($73,000 to $83,000 annually).

While everybody involved in the contract business realizes how the business works, the added overhead may prevent your organization from obtaining the needed contract services.

Other options for getting contract technical writing help include:
  • Hiring contract technical writers through online job boards and paying them through a third-party payroll service that operates on a much slimmer margin than a contracting agency. Such a business arrangement can save you money and still protect your company from any potential tax issues.
  • Hiring an independent contractor and paying the person on a 1099 basis through your own accounting department.

Budget by the project, not by the hourly rate
Another way of budgeting for a documentation project is by the project instead of by an hourly rate. This means you negotiate an overall project fee with payments at agreed upon benchmarks. This strategy can work when used with contract agencies and independent technical writers, and it gives you more control than an hourly rate plan, where costs can escalate over the course of the development effort. Some tips for implementing this payment plan include:
  • Manage the point at which the writer(s) joins the project. Projects based on a fixed rate per project fee are often deemed too risky for some contractors to touch because of the unpredictability and volatility of some technical development organizations.
  • Shoot for the later stages of the project. Fixed-price fees for projects work best with such documentation as user guides and administrator guides rather than with requirements documents and other Synchronous Data Link Control (SDLC) documentation.

Part-time writers vs. full-time writers
The technical writer's role is most often a seasonal role because the need for technical documentation peaks in relation to the product launch time frame. Maintaining a stable of trusted part-time technical writers could help save money and provide needed documentation support. However, it is important to note that managing part-time writers can be challenging, so it is prudent to set your expectations accordingly on the level of service required from the writers. Also, you should assign a liaison within your staff to handle information requests for the part-time writers.

The subjectivity involved in the role of a technical writer complicates matters when you're budgeting for technical documentation. A person with the job title of “technical writer” could offer expertise in a wide range of areas, from formatting and editing technical documentation to writing original technical content based on expert interviews, analysis, and experience working directly with the application that needs documentation. As a result, costs could vary widely.

Documentation on a budget
Depending on the status of technical documentation in your company, it may be easy to dismiss it as a $20-per-hour task. However, this dismissive approach may cost you much more in the long run: Customer support costs might mount and other crucial resources might be taxed to get the documentation efforts shored up so the documentation can ship with the product.
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