9 Questions Tech Writers Should Ask Before Signing a Contract

Who am I?

As a long-time contract technical writer in New York City, I’ve interviewed about 70 times. When I began, I had no clue what questions to ask.

Back in 2000, the (contract) game was slower. The process, simpler. But new technical writers today seem as clueless about contract technical writing as I was (over 20 years ago).

I hope this article helps technical writers navigate the often confusing, complex, and lightning-fast world of contract technical writing.

9 Questions Tech Writers Should Ask Before Signing a Contract 1
Signing that first contract!

How to ask these questions

You want to ask these questions in a natural manner, ideally on the phone, or by email (in an email thread). Not rat-a-tat-tat machine-gun style. It’ll just put the other side on the defensive.

Note: I use “staffing rep” as a catch-all for anyone working at a staffing company. It’s typically a recruiter, but can be the president of the firm.

THE 9 QUESTIONS

What kind of flexibility do you have in the wage you quoted?

I always ask this, even if the wage meets my initial expectation. Leave one dollar on the table, it becomes thousands over a long contract. It’s not customary or advisable to try and negotiate your hourly wage once you’ve begun a contract.

I know this from painful experience.

Don’t ever worry about being “overpaid.” All an end client wants is for you to complete the work satisfactorily and on time. Some companies have deep pockets and pay well. You might even use that top level for leverage in a future contract. “How can I accept that wage? I performed similar work but made more than that in my last engagement.”

Note: This is better than asking “can you pay more?” This tends to put staffing reps on the spot when they might not know the answer.

“Flexibility” is a more nuanced way of asking if the end client or their firm sees any wiggle room in the quoted wage.

Is this an exclusive contract for your firm?

If it’s exclusive, their client has assigned this (“Req” or requirement) only to their firm. Not the preferred list of vendors or an entire regiment of vendors.

It’s a big deal.

Every staffing company wants these. And every tech writer should want to interview for exclusive contracts.

It means less competition. There are fewer candidates overall.

However, because this is a plum and the agencies want to encourage more plums, they’re under more pressure to get it right. Your resume may be one of only 3 or 4 submitted. But the competition may be stiff (see the last question below to find out about them).

How’s the end client? (industry and culture)

This is an open-ended question and allows the staffing rep to discuss what they know about their client. They typically don’t share the name of their client, though some do when it’s high profile.

When they open up about their client, they may answer some other questions (listed below).

Sometimes, you’ll hear something like “Oh, they’re awesome. We’ve been with them for years and have placed a lot of people with this hiring manager.”

They’re not going to tell you they’re a pathetic troupe of jerks, even if they are. So, If they laugh awkwardly, take note.

What’s the hiring manager like?

Another open-ended question. You may hear “Oh, she’s awesome, we talk all the time” or “no clue. First time dealing with her.”

If they balk, you can ask a follow-up like “are they easy-going and have a sense of humor?”

Have you worked with the end client before?

This may come out by asking the questions above. If they haven’t worked with them yet, then they’ll be intent on winning them over by presenting a first-rate candidate like yourself.

(If yes) Do you have staff there now?

They may have projects in flight or have done work in the past. A “yes” sets up the next question.

(If yes) Are they connected to this particular project?

If they already have other staff, whether another writer or business analyst or project manager, ask if you might be able to talk to them about the project. I’ve done this and the “inside advice” has been valuable.

What are your other candidates (my competitors) like?

Assuming you’re not first in line, they’ve talked to other tech writers and have reviewed their resumes. You’d be surprised at how much detail they’re willing to share. “Well, the other two have solid backgrounds, but they don’t have your operations or infrastructure experience.” Bingo. You might have the inside track.

How can we make this minor change in your contract?

Good contracts are an art form. And like good art, I’ve seen them infrequently.

So many companies go cheap and don’t pay an attorney for a good contract in SIMPLE ENGLISH. Instead, they cobble something together, make sure it’s long and nearly unreadable, then hope nobody reads the contracts they sign.

Have an attorney read the contract and insist on changes that compromise your rights.

You’ve interviewed, the end client likes you, you’re the “chosen one” and a staffing firm gives you their contract. You think they’re going to let you walk away because you hired a real attorney to read their baroque document?

Yes, it’s expensive, but after a few contracts, you can do it yourself.

9 Questions Tech Writers Should Ask Before Signing a Contract 2
$1 passed up could become thousands lost over the life of a contract

Why these questions are important

Asking the questions above shows you’re not a newbie or rube. You’re less likely to be hurt by an unscrupulous recruiter.

These questions show an understanding of end clients and staffing companies and how contracts work. Even if it’s your first contract.

YOUR TURN: If you leave a question below, I’ll be happy to answer.

PS: Read This Book

Buy and read “Never Split the Difference” by Christopher Voss.

It’s essential when negotiating to learn how to assert yourself without putting the other side on the defensive. This book teaches you how to use techniques that few people use. But I’ve found them to be extremely effective. Not just in negotiating work contracts, but in negotiating smaller things on a daily basis.

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