Five Tips for Working with Offshore Writers

February 26, 2014

by Cale Shapera

Offshored technical writing is an established industry that continues to expand. In the last 30 years, Western firms in many industries have been lured to India, China and other developing nations by the promise of inexpensive workers and round the clock development. This is also the case in the field of technical writing, with one Indian writer costing about a third as much as a North American writer. So how best to take advantage of this situation? Here are five tips to help you set up a successful offshoring arrangement and avoid potential issues.

1. Ensure Your Firm is Ready for Offshoring

Offshoring can be done either by hiring foreign workers to become company employees, or by outsourcing work to a contractor. In both cases, a successful operation will involve a local manager and a team of local writers. Is your firm large and organized enough to commit the money and work hours necessary to hire and train an offshored staff? The initial investment is far from negligible, and there are always unbudgeted surprises.

Keep in mind that successful offshoring hinges on scale. One industry veteran estimates that if you expect to retain less than six writers, offshoring might not be worthwhile. Before jumping into offshoring, ensure you are ready to seriously commit. The significant savings will come only after months of setting up a solid arrangement.

2. Use Online Collaboration Tools

During the hiring process, video conferencing is a great way to see if you have a rapport with the offshore team. Resumes, references and work samples are all important, but a face to face meeting is useful in determining personal compatibility — a factor which shouldn’t be overlooked. Skype is the most common video conferencing application, but Google Hangouts is a fine alternative.

While the project is underway, video conferencing should also be done at regular intervals. Things are complicated by the fact that India is 12.5 hours ahead of the West Coast (or 13.5 in winter) with China being ahead by 15 (16 in winter). You may find yourself staying late at the office in order to have an occasional conference with your team at the start of their working day.

Another great collaboration tool is Google Drive. You can easily set up Word documents which can be edited by both you and the contractor. This can be useful for brainstorming, copy editing, or just for observing a writer’s work in real time.

3. Colocate Writing with Development

Like technical writing, technical product development is also frequently offshored. If your firm’s product development team is already located offshore, the technical writing team should be embedded there. The benefits of having development and documentation under the same roof are increased efficiency and agility. Documents can be updated and edited quickly by workers who share the same language and workspace. Even if you find cheaper offshore writing options in another place, the advantages of colocation will outweigh that price difference.

4. Handle Final Edits Locally

Offshoring can have great benefits in terms of productivity and cost, but to ensure polished copy, edit locally. Standards for layout and document usability should remain as high for foreign writers as they are for local ones. However, a foreign writer can’t really be faulted for small issues (unusual vocabulary, American vs. British English, etc) which a local editor can quickly resolve.

5. Be Aware of Cultural Differences

Cultural differences can lead to misunderstandings and poor results. When offshoring, inform yourself of potential cultural differences. Of course, one shouldn’t prejudge, but corporate culture experts claim that cultural tendencies exist which remain static over time. You and your employees should be aware of this.

To promote awareness, you may want to run a training program in cross-cultural communication. A recent poll of business executives suggested that these programs could increase productivity by an average of 26 percent. It is better to deal with this issue preemptively than to risk a costly miscommunication later on.


Curating your online professional development

October 23, 2013

By Renee Hildebrand

This article gives an overview of three recommended web services for curating your online professional development. If you already read a lot of content using a browser, this article shows how to be more organized and efficient by using a web service with built-in workflow tools for sharing information and more.

Feedly (

Reading news and blogs feeds is one of the easiest ways of increasing your online professional development. Feeds are available through a technology called RSS, which is built on XML. RSS grabs the latest updates to a blog or news site and feeds them into a news aggregator application (also known as a RSS reader). The user of the RSS reader can then control how the content is presented.


Now that Google Reader is gone, Feedly has emerged as the top RSS reader. The ability to synchronize across all your devices and use Feedly as a workflow tool – for example, to mark items as read and share items on multiple social media accounts – make it more powerful than reading the same content with a browser.

Content read in Feedly can be shared with almost any social media account directly through Feedly, or via a web service such as Buffer or IFTTT (stands for If This Then That). For advanced users, Buffer also offers click stats and specific timing for posts, while IFTTT can automate data flows between Feedly and social and nonsocial web services, such as Dropbox and Evernote.

Feedly is free, but there is a paid version ($45/yr or $5/mo) that has a handful of extra features, such as the ability to search within feeds.


There is one slight drawback: the ability to add comments or like posts isn’t tightly integrated, but can be done with a couple of clicks.

LinkedIn Groups (

Recently LinkedIn has become better for sharing knowledge, as opposed to posting news and information content, though there is a lot of that too. Each minute, more than 200 conversations take place in LinkedIn Groups across the platform. This is in addition to discussions happening within the Influencer Program, a relatively new network of experts and thought leaders whose posts receive special syndication on the homepage.

This year, LinkedIn has taken steps to encourage deeper and more ongoing conversations by adding social media-style features. Members can engage with each other more by liking and mentioning each other in comments – this used to be limited to status updates. You still can’t mention other members in groups, though you can reply privately.

After mentioning someone or liking their comment, LinkedIn sends an instant notification to the other member. This has increased the number of conversations taking place in real time. Also, the LinkedIn mobile app now includes a section for groups, making it even easier to keep the conversation going in real time.

In addition to adding features, LinkedIn also changed the design of discussion pages, to make it easier to read lengthy comment threads and see at a glance which comments were most liked. Plus, they made a few less obvious changes to improve content. For example, they removed the ability to automatically create new discussion topics from a RSS feed. The issue was that it tended to increase the amount of news and information content over questions that inspired conversation among group members.


HootSuite (

Hootsuite provides the ability to efficiently manage several dozen information streams from a single dashboard. It was originally created for marketers and community managers to send out messages over a variety of social media and monitor click stats, but has grown to include bloggers, journalists, business owners, and others.

What makes Hootsuite an efficient service for professional development is its ability to integrate with almost any kind of information source. For instance, you can:

  • add your LinkedIn account and up to 50 LinkedIn groups. Once setup, you can interact with posts by commenting or liking from within Hootsuite.
  • add blogs and RSS by installing the RSS Syndicator App, one of Hootsuite’s many free add-in features, though commenting on posts requires extra clicks (the same as it does with Feedly).
  • do almost anything you can do in Twitter and more, such as search for local posts on a specific topic using GeoCodes.
  • connect to accounts on Facebook, Google+ (pages only), WordPress, Blogger, Pinterest, Gmail, and more.

Hootsuite has both free and paid ($9.99/mo) versions. The free version has limited features, including how many information sources you can add before you have to upgrade.



Feedly is a great service if you like to keep up to date using blogs and news sites. Its unfussy, intuitive design makes it best of breed among RSS readers. The built-in workflow tools are great for busy professionals and integrate well with many other popular and up and coming web services.

LinkedIn Groups are a good choice if you get that a lot of professional knowledge comes from talking to people who do similar work. In addition to exploring ideas and learning from experts in different fields, you can use groups to boost your credibility and visibility within your network by posting articles and participating in discussions that demonstrate your skills and knowledge.

If you need a service that is capable of doing more than Feedly and LinkedIn combined, Hootsuite offers an impressive set of tools. It’s especially good if you need to manage a lot of social media activity. HootSuite enables posting to all supported networks as well as monitoring of each connected network.

All three services can be used on multiple browsers and devices. However, Feedly struggles to support users of older versions of Internet Explorer and is currently best viewed on Chrome, Firefox, or Safari.

There is one small issue to be aware of that applies to all of these services: set up can take a while. Be prepared to spend a little time getting it right. Once you’re set up, you’ll have a great tool (or tools) for curating your professional development.

Case Study

When I started researching this article, my first question was where were technical writers having conversations with each other online. As a new technical writer, I planned to use the answer to drive the majority of my professional development activity. The answer wasn’t hard to find. Technical writers were recently polled about where they were having conversations online by TechWhirl and the top response was LinkedIn Groups (see It’s a small sample size, but the results are believable when you consider that there are about 2 million LinkedIn Groups and more than 200 conversations happening every minute.

I was already a member of 50 groups when I started this article. That is the maximum allowed for a free account. I found my groups by looking at other technical writers’ profiles (and added to that about 25 more groups that reflected other interests). These are just a few of the groups I found and liked: Software User Assistance, Agile Technical Writers, Documentation and Technical Writing Management, Content Strategy, and Society for Technical Communication.

Over time, I learned that there isn’t nearly enough time in the week to follow 50 groups. This led me to do some analysis on my groups. There were some I didn’t need to follow on a regular basis, yet didn’t want to fully withdraw from. For instance, the MS Word Helpers group is a great resource when I need help fixing a complicated Word problem, but not a subject I need to follow closely.

After completing the analysis, I changed all of my email settings. The plan was to stop receiving emails from some groups and increase emails from others, plus start using my email inbox as a workflow tool by reviewing new discussions and selecting which topics to follow. If you plan to do something similar, follow these steps:

  1. Identify which groups to follow closest. No more than eight is recommended.

  2. Visit each of these groups one by one to change your settings (see

  3. Turn ON “Send me an email for each new discussion” and turn OFF “Send me a digest of all activity in this group” (which is the default).

  4. Confirm that these emails will be sent to your preferred email account, preferably one that lets you create a rule to put emails from one sender into a dedicated folder, so LinkedIn emails don’t clog your inbox.

  5. Save your new email settings.

  6. Adjust or turn off digest emails for any remaining groups that you subscribe to. You can do this from your Privacy and Setting page (see

  7. Save these changes.

  8. Wait a few days for all changes to take effect.

After participating in a few discussions, I noticed a difference in who sees what. For example, my first degree connections can see (from their homepage) my activity in open groups and any member-only groups that we have in common. Also, while member-only group discussions are only visible to other members, open group discussions are fully visible, searchable, and shareable on the web. I make slightly different choices now, knowing for example that if I hit the like button or add a comment, I could be broadcasting it to my entire network.  

Delivering Happiness Through Customer Support

September 7, 2013

The book Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh is a surprising uplifting read. It is the story of his entrepreneurial career; primarily his time at Zappos the online shoe retailer that is famous for exceptional customer support and was sold to Amazon in 2009 for ~$1.2 billion.

Some interesting notes:

– When discussing his experiences playing poker and the parallels with business, he notes that table selection (business market opportunity/opportunity in) is the most important decision you make.

– Believes that the Zappos brand, culture, and pipeline are their only competative advantages

– Zappos created a culture book written by all employees for employees; each contributes and the text is printed verbatim

– Quotes the book Good to Great; great companies have a greater purpose and bigger vision than just making money or being number one in their market.

– Ask anything newsletter; employees send questions, and they are collected and anonymously published in question and answer form in a newsletter

– Branding through customer service; took most of the money that would have been spent on advertising and spent it on customer support.

– Books he mentions: Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, lose sense of time, self-consciousness, and even self; Happiness Hypothesis and Happier

Designing service

August 13, 2013

Service Design is the activity of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service, in order to improve its quality, the interaction between service provider and customers and the customer’s experience.

It appears that service design is gaining traction in many design schools, and even has an international network of academics and professionals.

Three main directions:

  • Identify the actors involved in defining the services
  • Define possible service scenarios, verify use cases, sequences of actions and actors’ role, in order to define the requirements for the service and its logical and organisational structure
  • Represent the service, using techniques that illustrate all the components of the service, including physical elements, interactions, logical links and temporal sequences

Yet unlike traditional design, a service is both tangible and intangible. From the Wikipedia article:

“It can involve artifacts and other things including communication, environment and behaviours. Several authors emphasize that, unlike products, which are created and “exist” before being purchased and used, services come to existence at the same moment they are being provided and used. While a designer can prescribe the exact configuration of a product, s/he cannot prescribe in the same way the result of the interaction between customers and service providers, nor can s/he prescribe the form and characteristics of any emotional value produced by the service.”

Just finished This Is Service Design Thinking which provides a great overview of the topic and is generally a luscious textbook.

Running a successful beta program

March 15, 2011

Yes, there are many types of software betas. In fact, Saeed Khan claims that delivering a successful beta program is one of the hardest things for a product manager to do. Why? Because so much is out of the hands of the PM and dependent on the engagement of the beta testers. So he has created a very thorough document on beta planning to help bring as much predictability as possible: Building a Better Beta.

Some key findings:

  • Recruiting is the most critical aspect of the beta program – get the wrong sites, wrong mix, not enough, and you are unlikely to meet the program goals
  • Usage: expect only 50 per cent of your beta sites will actually install and use the tool, and only 25 per cent will provide meaningful feedback (Joel Spolsky estimates 20%).
  • So that your sites aren’t just ‘playing around’ with the tool, provide them with example beta test scenarios based on expected product usage.
  • Evaluate beta product readiness by tracking usability, performance, installation, and upgrade path separately with their own criteria and requirements; simply tracking all open bugs and their severity leads to potentially arbitrary decisions about you are ready.

The paper also notes that betas need to involve the entire organization. Dave Daniels identifies that this helps answer key questions for beta program: Is the product positioning and messaging correct? Are your delivery and support teams ready?

Drastically reducing the number of screen captures in a document

March 5, 2011

In my experience translation vendors charge per screen capture translated. One way I’ve found to drastically reduce the number of screen captures in some of my documents (and therefore the cost) is to take one screen capture of the entire desktop with several dialog boxes open, and then use this capture throughout the document, cropped to display only the section or dialog box in question.

Managing Online Forums

April 18, 2010

In reading Patrick O’Keefe’s Managing Online Forums, the most significant lesson seems to be that starting an online community is a significant endeavour (there’s a long chapter on “Banning Users and Dealing with Chaos”). Another significant lesson seems to lie in the fact that the “Making Money” chapter is very short. If neither of these lessons are a deterrent, the book is a good survey of important considerations when creating a community, and has a few insights into the area of motivating users to contribute (“user promotion,” “member of the month,” “awards programs”). Like many real-life constructed communities, in my experience, online communities can start with a fury of activity and attention, and then slowly dwindle, and usually the path of least effort is going where your users already gather (Facebook, Linkedin, etc). But if you have the resolve to create your own, this book is a good reference.