May/June 2019

Would You Mind Looking at This? Five Answers to the Request for Free Labor

By Shelley Thomas | STC Senior Member

Recently, I was at a public house and ordered my adult beverage. While I was waiting for my order, the owner of the public house began chatting with me about my work as a technical writer. Conveniently, she just happened to have a draft of their new menu; she also happened to have a red pen. Just after my drink arrived, she asked if I could “review” the new menu. Well, not “review”—edit. As the owner’s friend and as a regular at this particular public house, I took the draft menu and went to work. In the dim light of the bar, I edited the entire four-page menu.

Comped meal? No. Comped drink? No. Acknowledgment listed on the revised menu. No.

Frequently, as technical writing professionals, we get asked: “would you mind looking this over for me?” Sometimes the answer is, “sure no problem,” as in the example above. At other times, however, the request might be too much to fit into our busy schedule, or the request might be inappropriate and awkward in that particular situation.

Putting These Requests in Context

Do I mind reviewing documents for colleagues? Absolutely not! We are there to support each other. Do I mind editing for relatives (resumes and other short documents)? No, not really. At least, I get some sort of acknowledgement—a plant, a bottle of wine.

Do I mind, when I am out for a relaxing evening, to be put to work with no compensation? Yes. I mind. Would I ask a lawyer to review my will when she was invited to a dinner party? No, I would not.

Full disclosure: my husband and I had several people over for ribs, and I asked my vet what his position was about dogs eating rib bones. He responded: “About $1,200.”

I’m not opposed to helping people with editing or document design, but our skills have value, and we need others to acknowledge that. It is possible to demonstrate the complexity and value of what technical writers do by following some of these suggestions.

Work Together

One approach to a request to “look a document over” would be to ask the “requester” to sit down and work through the document together. This situation provides agency to the writer of the document and provides realistic limitations for the work of the technical writer. When a technical writer works with a client, one-on-one (even informally), the client can “see” what we do. By demonstrating that our work is not simply making documents “look pretty” or “sound good,” we show a client how clarity and consistency help make a document successful for a given audience.

Set Limits

Since a technical writer will not rewrite a client’s entire document without pay (hopefully), a writer/editor must set limits. Asking “what do you mean by ‘look this over’” helps a technical writer understand the expectations of the author. If the expectations exceed what you want (or have time) to do, then you should say no. For example, a cursory proofread (something that takes fewer than 15 or 20 minutes) is within my acceptable “freebies.” When a document is less than a page: freebie. When I see a “look over” request that is over a page, I start to calculate a pay scale or a graceful way out—“I’m sorry, my schedule is full.”

When I see a “glance” request turn into several pages of substantive edits, I have to consider my own advice: either work with the author on the revision, perhaps indicating repeated errors that the author could attend to on his or her own, or set limits about the level of the edit and about how much time I am willing to spend. If the document is more labor intensive, then I consider a request for reasonable fee (by the hour, by the word, by the page), or I take the cowardly way out and pass the buck—refer the writer to someone else.

Request Deadlines

If you are a technical writer with a kind heart and want to revise a multi-page document pro bono, then you need to set a deadline with the client (whether it be a friend, colleague, or acquaintance). After you have set the limits for your review (surface, content, global), then you must request a deadline. If you are like me, freebies always end up at the bottom of my to do list. To that end, I request that the client contact me before the deadline as a gentle nudge about the upcoming deadline. Placing the onus of the deadline back on the client to receive the document before the deadline alleviates pressure on me. Having a client remind me about their deadline demonstrates the relative importance of the document to them and allows me to make clear the amount of work it takes for a technical writer to review and edit a document.

Ask Questions

Sometimes it helps to ask questions while I am sitting with a client or writer. Below are some questions that can guide a conversation between technical communicator and document author.

For this first scenario, I asked the owner of the public house some questions.

Formatting
Technical Writer (TW): Would it be easier for a customer to locate the price of an item if the menu item description were closer to the price?
Client: I had not thought of that.
TW: Or you could place the price after some leader dots to help the customer locate the price of a menu item.

Formatting
TW: Why have you formatted this document using all centering (all caps or a distracting font)?
Client: I have always done it this way.
TW: What if we left align the text (or use title case or change the font to something more professional)?

Suggestions for Resume Clarity
TW: (In the context of a resume) What does teamwork mean?
Client: Well, I managed seven team members, delegated tasks, and completed a $30,000 budget before the due date.
TW: Employers need to see quantifiable information. How about “coordinated 7 colleagues, delegated 12 tasks according to each member’s strengths, and completed proposal estimated at $30,000.” (Proposal was fully funded.)

TW: (In a more generic case) What do you mean by X here?
Client: I mean…
TW: Can you clarify that terminology?

Consistency in a Technical Document
TW: In this document, you have used the words turn, twist, and rotate—all referring to using a lug wrench. Would it help your user to use a single term?
Client: But don’t they all mean the same thing?
TW: Yes, they are synonyms, but the meaning is a bit different among those terms. Imagine if you are not a native speaker of English, and you must translate those three terms. Would it be easier for the user to use consistent terminology?

What It All Means

Engaging the author in the process of editing creates an atmosphere of teamwork. The editor feels less harried, and the author feels more invested in the final product. Additionally, rather than flat-out editing a word-processed document, the writer could use the commenting feature to suggest places where the client could be clearer. This way, the technical writer is not doing all of the work, and the client can choose. After all, this is the client’s document, and she ultimately owns the content.

Should technical writers work for free? Well, it depends.

The author thanks Scott Rogers and Becky Jo Gesteland for their pro bono work in suggesting edits for this piece.

 

Biography

Shelley Thomas (sthomas@weber.edu) is a Senior Member of STC and is an associate professor at Weber State University. She has taught technical editing for 15 years.

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