Scope Creep and the Technical Writer

At the suggestion of my friend Susan, today I’ll be taking on the topic of scope creep. Most of the time, this is an engineering issue, such as when a NASA mission or piece of hardware starts out with one simple objective and eventually gets a lot of additional activities added onto it. However, scope creep can also happen to technical writers, whether they’re full-time employees or contractors. I’ll discuss below some of the issues that can arise from this problem.

The Up Sides of Scope Creep

Hooray! Your project just got bigger! More billable hours, more money! These are good things, right?

Not necessarily.

The Down Sides of Scope Creep

Scheduling issues

A technical writer can run into problems with a larger, more complex project if the timeline/deadline does not change. If you’re a salaried employee, that means you’ll be doing more work in the same amount of time and possibly be attending more meetings to address the additional content. Do you have other projects vying for your attention? If so, you’re looking at increased workload and stress. In that case, it’s important to let your customer(s) or boss(es) know about any potential deadline slippage or schedule conflicts.

Contracting issues

If you’re a contractor, another problem can occur, especially if you’ve bid the project based on a flat rate (i.e., one price for the whole project as opposed to billing by the hour). Your original bid was based on performing a specific amount of work within a given number of hours, which were factored into your original price.

This is why it’s important to set up and sign an employment agreement prior to beginning work. It will spell out what type(s) of work you’re liable for, and at what rate of payment. If you find yourself doing work not specified in your agreement, you need to push back on your customer and, if appropriate, ask for more money. This isn’t being greedy, this is altering your pay to match the reality of what you’re doing. If you were hired to write one article, for instance, but suddenly find yourself writing a series of them, you would need to adjust your price upward and sign a new agreement or an addendum to your current agreement so that the change is noted in writing.

Bottom Line

If the workload is going to increase, you want the option of relief somewhere else. You’re only one person with a given number of hours in the day to work your magic. You shouldn’t necessarily say no if you get a workload change, but you can, as one of my managers put it, respond, “Yes, if…” with the “if” being whatever remedy you see fit to handle the problem: deadline relief, additional funding, or accepting a delay on other work. There might be negotiation involved, but that’s okay. You don’t need to suffer in silence or just accept the change as written. You can look out for yourself, too.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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3 Responses to Scope Creep and the Technical Writer

  1. Larry Kunz says:

    Great post, Bart.

    “You don’t need to… just accept the change as written.” In fact, you ought not to, because if the boss/customer gets away with demanding extra work for the same price, they’ll surely try it again later, either with you or with a colleague of yours.

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