Subcontract or Do It Yourself?

For some reason I’ve been craving eggs this week. Being somewhat lazy, I was driving to Panera to grab an egg sandwich for breakfast rather than buying my own eggs and making them at home. Finally I saw how much I’d spent on breakfast in the past few days and decided to forego the laziness and buy my own eggs to prepare. As a technical writing business owner, you can face similar questions with the services you procure to do your work.

Depending on the task, it might or might not be easier to do it yourself. In the technical writing business, specific delivery requirements can determine whether it’s better to call in a specialist. This can include tasks like editing, graphic design, or printing. Several factors can affect your decision, but in the end it boils down to my three favorites:

  • Who is your audience?
  • What is the situation in which your product is being delivered?
  • What reaction or response do you want them to have?

If the audience for your deliverable–say, a poster, brochure, or proposal–is internal, you most likely don’t need to take the extra step of hiring an outside subcontractor to handle the job. External customers are another matter. The situation and outcome factors refer to your reason for sending the product and how you want the recipient to respond: are you advertising a company meeting; presenting or sending brochures to a customer with the intention of getting them to buy your product; or trying to get someone to donate to your cause? Generally, the more important the occasion, the more likely you are to hire external assistance if you don’t have the skill set in house.

Another factor is time. Despite the Paperwork Reduction Act, the U.S. Government occasionally requires printed proposals (single-sided, no less), with each volume in its own three-ring binder and boxed separately, all of which would seem a situation clearly requiring outside help. FedEx Kinkos provides printing and collating services for large documents. They’ve got a variety of weights and textures of paper, and machinery to collate and bind them. And yet I can recall a few harried occasions where I’ve worked with teammates to fill large boxes with three-ring binders for multiple-volume proposals. Could we have taken the pile to FedEx and let them sort it out? Probably. However, we were working late to get everything “just right” on the proposal, and the wait time for the print job would have been unacceptable. In those cases, it was just easier to print the proposal on regular printer paper and collate everything ourselves. It might not have been as efficient or as slick as FedEx would have done things, but we were able to get the job done when we needed it, and we saved ourselves the cost of a “rush” job.

A less obvious example would be designing your company logo. Are you artistic and original, or is your design simple enough that it doesn’t require a lot of flash? You might be willing to do it yourself. However, knowing my limitations, I would take the time and money to talk with a graphic designer I know and let her work her magic…especially since I don’t know exactly what I want, and she would be able to provide high-quality designs I lack the visual imagination to create myself.

On my book, I absolutely took the time and money to hire the best editor I know to make certain the product was grammatically correct and coherent. This was especially important because I was, after all, putting out a technical writing book, where errors would call my credibility into question.

On my day jobs, I mix writing and editing because I trust my ability to manage both, but also because I know the work is going to get reviewed by someone else before it goes out to its end user. Graphic design is handled by graphic designers on the customer side.

Your specialties and skills could differ from mine. You might be a great graphic designer and be able to negotiate with print shops about paper types and the exact Pantone® color you need. Good for you–that’s one less thing for you to outsource. However, take the time to consider what is being delivered to whom and for what purpose. Sometimes it’s worth hiring a professional specialist, sometimes you can break your own eggs.

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About Bart Leahy

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