Starting a New Technical Writing Contract – 11 Tips for Success

Starting a new contract can be both exciting and daunting. Most technical writers who work as contractors are lured by the thrill of meeting new people and learning new things, but there is always an initial period when they don’t know what the hell is going on. There are however, strategies to apply to quickly understand the lay of the land and what is expected of you. Here are 11 tips I’ve learned from working on multiple and varied contracts. 

Contracting is great! You continually meet new people and never stop learning

1. Clarify goals

Following your first meeting, start a slideshow and capture the goals of your contract. State the pain points that have led the company to engage your services and what they want you to achieve. Define the deliverables. Get your information from the sponsor of the project, so that you are not receiving a second-hand, possibly misinterpreted version. Present the slideshow back to them, to check your understanding.

2. Get an overview of company structure

Find out about the company as a whole. Look up their website and find out what else they do, not just the division you are going to work in. Then, for your division, and your site, find out about the different departments and how they interact.

3. Find out who’s who

Obtain an organisational chart. Familiarise yourself with the leadership team (you never know when you might cross paths with them) and who is responsible for each area.Find out who you will need to interact with. Add a “People” slide to your slideshow and list key people. Add what you know about them, so that you can refer back to it and remember who’s who. Google them or look them up on LinkedIn to learn more about them.

4. Sort out access

If you need an access card or key, make it a priority to sort it out early and follow up daily until you receive it.Find out the log-ins you will need, such as intranet access, data drive access, wiki access, document management systems, software access. Once again, pester the IT help desk until you have access to everything you might possibly need.

5. Get to know the terminology

Whenever you hear a term or acronym that you don’t understand, ask what it means, even if everyone else seems to know and you think you’ll look stupid. Start a list and add the term and its meaning. You know you won’t remember it otherwise, and you will start to look stupid if you keep asking the same question.

6. Use company branding and templates

Chase up company templates and use their colours and styles. You can always request changes to layouts, but don’t deviate from colours and styles. Most companies will at least have letter and presentation templates. If they don’t have standard templates, create them, using their logo as your guide to colours and styles.

7. Identify the experts

Ask for the top performers to be your Subject Matter Experts. Make sure you interview the people who can provide the best information, not whoever is the least busy. The best people will inevitably be busy but will usually find time for you because they want to improve the business. They’ll also be the most interesting to speak to.

8. Check documentation already available

Ask around about the documents currently used. Ask several people, not just your main contact. Poke around the intranet, shared drives, wikis and document management systems and see what else you can find. Check if what you find is still up-to-date. Sometimes there’s a reason they’re not in use, but other times you may turn up gems that current employees simply did not know existed.Current documentation can also give you an indication of writing style and company culture and you can follow that style if it is appropriate. However, if it is formal and stilted, naturally you will try to move them towards concise but friendly language.

9. Make sure deliverables meet goals

Discuss the strategy with your stakeholders, and if you don’t think the deliverables will meet the goals or ease the pain points, speak up. As a consultant writer, you have a certain amount of credibility, as well as a responsibility to deliver according to the goals. Clients are often looking for ideas and will take your advice. There are other clients, though, who have already made up their minds what they need, and they may be right, so don’t be too insistent. In every contract, it is likely you will need to yield on some points. If you find yourself diametrically opposed, lie low and do your time in the contract, or find a way to ease out in a professional manner.

10. Track progress

Add to your slideshow as you learn more about the company or the project, the extra people you meet and the terminology. Add your achievements and what you plan to do next. Jot down any difficulties you encounter.

If it’s a complex project, take the time to create a project plan, including a timeline and checkpoints.

Keep checking your plan against the original goals. Does it all lead to the goals, or are you being side-tracked?Use a spreadsheet to keep track of documents you’re working on: title, identifying number, where they’re stored, who’s reviewed them, and when you received feedback.

11. Communicate

Review documents you create early and often. Ideally review them first with the person you interviewed, then other stakeholders. When you ask for feedback, copy in your manager and their manager. Before you do too much work, make sure the project sponsor gets to see what you’ve created and is happy with it.Book in regular catch-ups with your manager if they haven’t set up regular meetings. Reference your slideshow to keep them up-to-date with what you’ve been doing, what you plan to do next and any roadblocks you need them to remove for you.

Enjoy your success

Follow these tips to settle into a new contract quickly, to minimise stress and lead to success. They help you to keep on track and perform at a high level. You can enjoy the excitement of meeting new people, learning a new topic, adding to your skills and knowledge and continuing to be a contractor in high demand.

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