In my capacity as Project Manager I often visit companies who had worked previously with a freelance writer but were unsatisfied with the work and wanted to switch writers. I never ask the name of the previous writer or insult work done by previous writers as this is bad form. However, in order not to make the same mistake I always ask them what they were unsatisfied with. Here is a list and my way of avoiding these problems (in itlaics):
1. Unresponsive–We sent the writer feedback and it took too long to get back to us with a new draft. They don’t return my calls and e-mails. a)Writing is like volleyball, the draft should be in the client’s court as much as possible. Set a realistic deadline for returning the draft and stick to it (See following). b) Let the client know that you are working on it. Acknowledge reception of the feedback and send an e-mail with questions after a day or 2. Don’t be a noodnik but too much silence makes the client nervous. c)Send the client a list of material you are still waiting for to complete the draft, if you don’t receive it by deadline send in the draft with the list attached. d) Calls and e-mails should always be returned the same day. Don’t put it off or you might forget.
2. Missed deadlines–He never submitted the material on the date that he promised.–To me this is the biggest crime in freelance technical communication. If the product has to go out without a manual you might as well take what have you written and throw into the trash. There are several ways to avoid this–a) Don’t agree to set unreasonable deadlines. The client always wants it yesterday. It is your responsibility to gave them a realistic date. b) Early drafts don’t have to be 100% perfect and complete. If the client has not sent you material that you need to complete a draft don’t sit on the draft. Send in the incomplete draft with a list of things that you are still waiting for. c) Stay up all night to get it done. The client generally doesn’t care about your personal problems (And shouldn’t have to). You managed your time poorly and now are stuck. Now is the time to stop whining, put on your big boy underpants and get it done no matter what. d) If for some reason you can’t get it in by deadline, send them an e-mail before the date explaining why you can’t make the deadline and giving them a new deadline.
2. Just didn’t get it–We had to spoon feed the writer all the information. After all the time we spent babysitting him we could have written it ourselves.–There are some clients who like to spoon feed information but most don’t, and there are some projects that have such a learning curve the client is better off writing a rough first draft. But for most projects the client is not interested in spending too much time with you. a) If you don’t understand the material do some research on the internet before you ask the client questions that may expose your ignorance. b)Ask questions about the material but don’t ask them to write the manual for you. c)You also may want to consider sending in a pre-first draft just to make sure that you are on the right track at an early stage.
3. The writer wanted to start from scratch–We had a perfectly good manual and all we needed was an update. The writer insisted that the whole manual was no good and started from scratch. Say you are a house painter and someone hires you to touch up the paint in one room. You wouldn’t repaint the whole house would you? The same goes for writing. Before starting the project settle what the project includes and don’t stray from it. Sometimes the client himself has written the previous draft of the manual and is proud of what he has done. Sometimes the client know his needs better than you do. Even if a manual is not perfect it may be adequate for his needs and he is not interested in paying for a perfect manual.