Five Tips for Working with Offshore Writers

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.

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