Coping with sub-par contractors (was: Frustrated)

Subject: Coping with sub-par contractors (was: Frustrated)
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, iam nobody88 <iamnobody888 -at- yahoo -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 30 Jun 2006 10:26:36 -0400

<<iam nobody88 wrote>>

For future reference, there's an anonymous forwarding feature you should use for such inquiries. The only reason I opened your message was because I was interested to see how it made it through my spam filter: both your pseudonym and the subject should have blackholed the message. I suspect you won't be that lucky with many other techwhirlers. I've changed the subject in the hope that you'll get a bit more sympathy if people actually read your message. <g>

<<I've had my share of handling/coordinating with technical writers. Having been assigned as a lead writer a couple of times, I usually have to face the issue that I must outsource other projects to writers in a particular country, because they're cheaper... But what do you do if the work they produce is horribly written? The format is a mess and the usage of English is terrible, it's like a 7-year old was explaining the content.>>

What to do depends on your passive-aggressive quotient, your level of personal ethics, and whether you still have any investment in your work. The simplest solution is to write a memo, then say nothing, let the product fail horribly, and try to duck all blame. "Hey, I didn't choose them, and I told you it wouldn't work [produce your memo that proves this]. If you're willing to listen to me, I'll tell you how to do it right."

While you're looking for your new job (which will happen about 5 minutes after you try this trick <g>), ponder a more ethical and professional response.

Start by demonstrating the results of the current process to people who have the chops to make a difference. Show it to the sales and marketing managers, for instance, not just your own manager. Point out that in your professional opinion, the results are simply unacceptable, and offer them several alternatives, each supported by a simple but clear "business case" (advantages, disadvantages, costs in time and dollars): hire native speakers of the language locally, hire a better class of offshore worker (they certainly exist), or develop a procedure for bringing the foreign writers up to speed.

The amount of time investment required increases proportionally as you move from the first to the last option. But since you're not responsible for resourcing this job, all you can do is let the manager who is responsible make an informed decision.

<<English is not my first language too, but I grew up in an English-speaking household, so I think "in English", if that makes any sense. I hardly speak in my local dialect.>>

It makes perfect sense, and the quality of your writing demonstrates that it's not the location or origins of the writer that is important, but rather their skill as a writer. Of course, it can be next to impossible to make this case to Dilbertian managers, in which case, I'd point out that there are plenty of _good_ jobs out there where our profession is respected. If you can't live with the quality compromises you're being asked to make, leave. (Or if you freelance, as I do, fire the client.) Your reputation is your only stock in trade, and if you produce crappy work, you won't be working much longer.

<<I have tried editing their work, and the ones I've worked with refuse to accept any constructive means to improve their writing. Everytime this happens, I request to discontinue acquiring their services. It's a whole big mess since you step on a lot of toes.>>

If you're nominally the lead writer, insist on getting the authority to make your decisions stick, and having hire or fire authority for these contractors. If they won't give this to you, ask your boss to make these decisions and enforce them. And if they won't, give them 2 weeks notice and start looking for new work if you haven't already done so. And at your next job interview, your first question should be "do you offshore work and, if so, will I have authority to hire and fire and impose quality control?" If you don't get a satisfactory answer, politely thank them for their time and leave the interview.

If the problem is as common as you say, there's undoubtedly a huge market for "last-minute saviors"--people like you who show up 2 weeks before the deadline, use the current documentation only as a reference, and rewrite the entire doc set from scratch. Best of all, you can charge more than if you had to write it yourself. You might want to consider freelancing and offering this service to your former employers, who clearly need it.

<<If I move to another company, it starts all over again. This is a reality in our industry, I know that.>>

Not inevitably. The documentation produced by the biggies, like Microsoft and Adobe, is deficient in many ways--which is why the people who publish "For Dummies" books, and possibly even some of their authors. are getting rich. But at least the writing is reasonably good. Plus, I make a decent living helping ESL writers write better English. So it's a question of finding the right niche.

<<Sometimes I wish I could just say "Please stick to programming! You're all good at coding, but most of you are horrible writers!" Forgive me for having to say that, but I really encountered no decent writer from there. And they are getting all the jobs.>>

Actually, programming is no different from writing: both require practitioners to use a language skillfully. Except that programming is easier, because the rules are clearer, the skills are very similar in many ways. But just as some people simply can't master a specific other language (I'm proficient at French, lousy at Mandarin), some people speak C++ better than English, or vice versa.

People are people everywhere in the world. So I'll bet you that the programming will prove to be no better than the writing: which is to say (pace Sturgeon's law), 90% of the people doing the work will be at best competent (many are far worse) and only 10% ever really excel. Okay, it's Friday, and after a rough week of editing shockingly sub-par science, my misanthropy is showing. <g>

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
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frustrated: From: iam nobody88

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