Features

A Chicken in Every Pot: The Freelance Technical Writer and a Style Manual for Every Client

By Myra Cook Brown

Unique Challenges for Freelance Writers and Editors

As a freelance writer, I recently met with a new client—let’s call this person My New Client—to talk about a proposed project. In our discussions, I asked the questions all good freelance writers and editors ask their clients, including querying My New Client about her organization’s preferred style guide. At that point, the conversation took a sudden and marked turn for the worse. My New Client observed that she assumed I, as the writer, would handle “that sort of thing, as that is what writers are paid by their clients to do.” What My New Client interpreted as incompetence, I saw as fundamental to good writing and editing for an organization. We were, obviously, not on the same page. Misunderstandings between client and freelance writer regarding expectations of the work to be done, as in my experience with My New Client, are all too common. There are logical reasons for this.

Freelance writers and editors have their own unique set of challenges. Indeed, they often carry responsibilities that those working inside an organization might not face. For example, a consortium of tech writers and editors negotiates with the client regarding the expectations and parameters for the work. Large organizations that hire freelancers typically have internal resources, such as style guides or other style instruments, at the freelancers’ disposal. Mid-sized and smaller organizations, on the other hand, often do not have such resources. Given that mid-sized and smaller organizations comprise a significant portion of many freelancers’ clientele, it makes sense to have a strategy for dealing with this lack of resources.

Validating My Observations

My unhappy meeting with My New Client was not the first of its kind for me, and I suspected that at one time or another, other freelancers faced similar experiences. Thus, before developing strategies for effectively dealing with clientele who do not have their own preferred organizational style guides, I conducted a small survey among five freelancers to see if their experiences and observations would be similar to my own. The survey’s goal was to help determine two things: The percentage of clients who do not have a preferred style instrument and any residual difficulties caused by the lack of a style guide.

Question 1: Including continuing and new clients, in 2015 and 2016 what was the total number of clients for whom you did freelance writing and/or editing?

Question 2: Among the number of clients listed in your response to Question 1, when you first took them on as clients, how many belonged to organizations that did not have preferred style guide?

Question 3: Of the clients listed in Question 2, what was the size of their organization: Small 20 ≥; Midsized 50 ≥; or Large 51 ≤?

Question 4: Of the clients listed in Question 2, how many were not familiar with the concept of a style guide?

Question 5: Of the clients listed in Question 2, how many expressed the opinion that your questions regarding an organizational style guide reflected negatively on you, the writer/editor?

Question 6: Regarding Question 5, what were some of the negative comments made by clients?

Question 7: What specific difficulties in writing and/or editing did the lack of style guide create for you?

Figure 1. Survey Questions

Question 1 Question 2 Small 20 ≥ Question 3 Midsized 50 ≥ Question 3 Large ≤ 51 Question 3 Question 4 Question 5
TechWriter1 15 10 5 4 1 2 1
TechWriter2 14 8 6 2 0 2 2
TechWriter3 7 6 1 4 1 4 3
TechWriter4 8 6 5 0 1 2 1
TechWriter5 18 12 4 6 2 2 2
TOTAL 62 41 20 16 5 12 8

Figure 2. Survey Responses: Questions 1 – 5

As shown in Figure 1 (the survey) and Figure 2 (responses to questions 1-5), the survey tallies 62 total clients during 2015 and 2016. Of this total, 66 percent did not initially have their own preferred style guide or other style instrument. Of the total clients counted, 58 percent were small to mid-sized organizations who did not have an organizational style instrument. Of the group of clients without a style instrument, a whopping 88 percent were small to mid-sized organizations. Many freelancers consider small to mid-sized organizations to be their bread-and-butter, so these numbers can tell freelancers a lot about their clients.

Responses to Question 4 of the survey indicate that nearly 30 percent (12 total) of the group without a style instrument were unfamiliar with the concept altogether.

Three Primary Problems Emerge

The survey points to three main problems for freelancers working with clients who lack an organizational style instrument. The first problem is to convince the client of the merits of a style guide. While this is often an easy sell, there is the occasional hard sell, as typified in the new-client scenario described above. Of all clients tallied, 13 percent (8 total) expressed the opinion that questions regarding an organizational style guide reflected negatively on the freelancer. Table 3 provides reported negative responses from clients. This is a PR problem that needs to be addressed (tactfully).

What? Don’t you know your job well enough to do it without a cheat sheet?

We don’t have time for stuff like that; that’s why we outsourced this project to you.

Well, I thought you’d answer those questions for me.

You came highly recommended, so I’m a little taken aback by your questions.

Figure 3. Survey Responses: Question 6

The second problem is the stylistic inconsistencies in an organization’s existing written material. Figure 4 includes comments from the freelancers surveyed regarding difficulties in writing and/or editing created by the lack of style. These inconsistencies cover a broad spectrum, including punctuation, formatting, document organization, visual design, and content. Every good technical writer knows that one communication artifact for an organization is a part of a set of communication artifacts. When there are inconsistencies in the whole, what does the writer do with one?

No consistency anywhere. ONE BIG MESS.

Lots of confusion. Client started out without a style guide. We settled on APA. The client was very “hands on” and questioned many of my decisions. So, we spent a lot of time combing through APA Style looking for their guidelines on several things.

Even though we decided on AP (UGH!) for the client, nothing the org. had already done conformed to anything, so bringing everything into line was a real pain – especially since I didn’t know AP all that well.

The client didn’t think a style manual was important. Some of his employees tried to talk him into one, but he thought writing and editing the way “we learned high school and college” should cover everything. Which composition class did he NOT take?

I worried about what to do with materials the company was already using. My newly created materials looked good, but they were so different from what the organization had already done. I wondered if I had made the right decision to choose a style.

Was really hard at first with Company X. I had some tense conversations with my supervisor. After he saw my work and started to trust me, things went better. I think if we had both been on the same page from the start of the gig, things would have been a lot better. I learned my lesson. I really force the issue with style manuals with new clients.

Most of my jobs have been fine, but it takes only one bad apple. On one job, I did what I thought was quality work on a project. Some of the people at the organization didn’t like what I did, because its look was dissimilar to some of their older material. The old stuff was all over the map, so there wasn’t a pattern to follow. They asked me (to) justify to them almost every editorial decision I made. I think if we had had a conversation about guidelines for things like formatting, things would have been a lot smoother.

Figure 4. Survey Responses: Question 7

The third problem, which grows out of the second problem, is how to introduce a new style instrument quickly and efficiently into an organization. Style manuals are often unwieldy, and freelancers need to have at hand something they can implement with minimum fuss.

Two Strategies for Three Problems

To address the three problems defined above, I suggest a two-fold strategy for freelancers. The first strategy addresses the first problem. I recommend creating a set of questions freelancers can ask new clients. Most freelancers have a mechanism for eliciting information about the size and scope of the proposed project, so adding specific questions about style guides to that mechanism should be straightforward. The questions should be designed to not only obtain information from the client but to educate the client when necessary. The questions should be crafted to open a friendly conversation, as opposed to something abrupt, which can be misconstrued as confrontational and put a client on the defense.

Questions such as these can educate a client about style manuals, while allowing the client to save face:

  • Many clients’ organizations have their own preferred style guides, such as APA (American Psychological Association) style, Associated Press Stylebook, Microsoft Manual of Style, or Chicago Manual of Style. Does your organization have a preferred style guide, and if so, what is it? This question can open a dialog.
  • If your organization does not have a preferred style guide, would you like me to suggest one?
  • If you would not like me to suggest an organizational style guide, why not?

Even if a freelancer has a face-to-face meeting scheduled with a new client, I recommend sending these (or similar) questions to the client before the meeting. If the client does not respond to the questionnaire before the meeting takes place, the questions still provide good talking points for the meeting.

Once the client has settled on a style guide, the freelancer confronts the second problem. The freelancer needs to be able to quickly and efficiently begin writing and editing to the client’s preferred style. If the client settles on a style guide the freelancer is familiar with, this is usually manageable. However, if the freelancer is not familiar with, or is rusty on, the selected style, a quick turnaround can be particularly hard. My second strategy—creating a style manual quick reference (SMQR) for more than one style—addresses this. A freelancer’s clientele pool can vary widely, so having an SMQR at the ready for more than one type of client is prudent. As a side note, one result of this project is that the freelancers surveyed for this project have created a pool of SMQRs to share with each other.

Ideally, an SMQR addresses the issues that come up the most, the things that are looked up the most. In most instances, an SMQR covering general formatting and page design, along with punctuation practices unique to the style manual, will serve the freelancer best. The guide should be easily accessible, at most two pages in length. Another handy inclusion is links or page numbers, depending on format, to detailed discussions frequently consulted in the unabbreviated style manual. With formatting and page design specs at hand, the freelancer can immediately set up the bones of a document and start working. A freelancer can save a great deal of time and effort by quickly reviewing punctuation niceties at the outset of a project and incorporate them while writing.

Once the work is well underway, the freelancer must address the third problem: stylistic inconsistencies in the organization’s existing materials. Both strategies play a role here. The questions suggested above are intended to be open-ended. The freelancer can use them to start a discussion about the look of an organization’s written materials. Such a discussion necessarily includes a discussion of existing materials vis-à-vis planned materials. This approach is less likely to feel like an attack on existing materials. Further, the conversation can be used to ensure the client understands that adopting an organizational style guide might mean old and new materials will have some stylistic differences.

The second strategy, an SMQR, plays a role as well. This useful tool summarizes salient points on formatting and document design. Such stylistic concerns are naturally the most visible. A quick reference guide is a time-saver, potentially streamlining formatting and other design updates to existing materials.

Conclusion

Freelancers can streamline their work and avoid some frustration by implementing two simple yet effective tools: a client questionnaire that addresses style guides and a style manual quick reference.

And so, we come full circle. Had I prepared better questions about style manual preferences, the new client meeting described at the beginning of this article would likely have gone more smoothly. The questions about style manual preference, in turn, might have led to a productive conversation about the organization’s existing communication pieces, and how new material would look in relation to the old. That conversation might have led to another conversation about how to best update older material. And on it goes.

Myra Cook Brown (cookmyra@gmail.com) is an Academic Advisor and Technical Writer/Editor for the Computer Science Department at Utah State University. She also freelances as a technical writer/editor. Myra is currently working on a master’s in technical communication at Utah State University.

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