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Around the Table: Succeeding as a contract technical writer
1996, Sep-Oct (July 10, 2007)
by Mike Uhl

At this year's summer conference, three groups of technical communicators sat around a large round table and enthusiastically discussed how to work successfully through contracting agencies. We agreed on several important issues:
  1. Beware of the agency that offers you "benefits." Often these benefits are merely statutory, the ones they have to offer. In any case, calculate the difference in the salary they offer you and the hourly rate you'd like and then ask yourself if the "benefits" are worth the reduction in cash. Keep in mind that you can buy your own health insurance, disability insurance, etc.
  2. If you see something unacceptable in the contract document the agency is asking you to sign, cross out the specific parts and write in any text you feel is needed. The agency can always tear up the document if your changes are unacceptable. Attorneys frequently use this simple change technique.
  3. Some agencies lie to their clients and employees. This is unacceptable. Do not do business with dishonest agencies.
  4. Focus on satisfying the client; that's where the money is, and possibly a long-term relationship. The agency is merely a broker, a money changer. Your work feeds the agency; they will always want you back as long as you can make money for them.
  5. What does "permanent" mean? Who feels more secure: the contractor with a three-year contract or the employee at a company in the middle of downsizing?

In general, we agreed that a technical communicator can make a good living as a contractor, but only if they follow these principles:
  1. Be honest and work hard; a good reputation is essential for long-term security as a contractor.
  2. Negotiate the best deal you can, but then work according to what you promised.
  3. Take cash over "benefits" where possible.
  4. Always look toward the long term; use each contract as an opportunity to build a good relationship with a client and as an opportunity to improve your skills and value in the market. End of article.

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