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From the Periodical Writers' Association of Canada

The Next Best Thing To A Clone:
Subcontracting Do's and Don'ts

Ann Douglas

To subcontract or not to subcontract: that is the question. And it's a question that many busy freelance writers struggle with on a regular basis. On the one hand, you desperately need some behind-the-scenes help in order to meet the deadlines for your various writing projects. On the other hand, you may be concerned that the subcontractor or subcontractors that you end up working with may not be capable of delivering the goods.

Sometimes subcontracting your work to others can create more problems than it solves. That's why it's important to go into any subcontracting arrangement with your eyes wide open. Here are some tips on making sure that your subcontracting arrangements ends up working for-not against-you.

- Make a list of the types of jobs you could potentially subcontract to someone else. If you're months behind in your filing and you can't remember the last time you keyed a cheque into your accounting program, it's probably time to think about bringing someone in to help you stay on top of your office chores. If, on the other hand, you're trying to juggle an insane number of writing projects, you may need some help on the editorial front instead.

- Think carefully about the implications of subcontracting writing work. It may or may not be advisable to subcontract this part of your business. Are you willing to put your reputation with your clients on the line for another writer who may-or may not-have the necessary skills? (Note: Contracts with certain types of writing clients may actually state outright that you can't subcontract any work without their written permission. Remember: they hired you-not just a reasonable facsimile!)

- Decide what you can afford to pay a subcontractor. In a perfect world, writers like you and me would be independently wealthy and able to have an entire staff of underlings at our beck and call. Unfortunately, the world is decidedly less than perfect-especially when it comes to paying writers-so you'll need to be realistic about what you can afford to pay and how many hours of someone's time you can afford to buy. I typically pay $10 per hour for basic clerical help but $15 per hour or more for research assistance. When I was researching The Complete Guide to Canada in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, I hired a university student to print out a series of articles from the microfilm machines at Trent University. (Given the slugglish pace at which this antique piece of machinery worked, I could have wasted an entire week of writing time just dropping in quarters and hitting the print button!)

- Start looking for Ms or Mr. Right. Ask other business associates to pass along the names of people who are likely to do a good job for you, and then check the potential subcontractors' references thoroughly. Ideally, you want to find someone who can do the job well and who will be totally reliable. It also helps if they have a pleasant personality-particularly if they'll be representing your business. (The last thing you want, after all, is to hire the subcontracting world's equivalent of the Employee From Hell.) Don't be surprised if you have to do a fair bit of looking before you stumble across Mr. or Ms Right-or if you have to hire more than one subcontractor to help with different types of jobs.

- Give yourself a time cushion. Don't put yourself in the hair-raising position of having a subcontractor cause you to miss a deadline with one of your clients. Factor in enough of a cushion that you'll still be able to meet your deadline, even if your subcontractor misses his or hers.

- Consider asking your subcontractors to sign some sort of written agreement with you that spells out to what extent they will be credited for their behind-the-scenes research and writing work. (Note: I always acknowledge the help of my research assistants in my books, but it wouldn't necessarily make sense to promise a subcontractor on a corporate writing job the same type of credit. After all, it's not usual for writers not to receive any form of credit on annual reports, corporate brochures, and so on.)

- Pay your subcontractors promptly. The best way to earn their undying loyalty-and to ensure that they squeeze in rush jobs for you in future-is to issue their cheques right away. (Who ever said that money can't buy you love?!)

Ann Douglas is the author of fourteen books, including The Incredible Shrinking Woman: The Girlfriend's Guide to Losing Weight (Prentice-Hall Canada, April 2000) and The Mother of All Pregnancy Books: The All-Canadian Guide to Conception, Birth, and Everything In Between (CDG Books, Fall 2000). She is also membership co-chair for The Periodical Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) and can be reached by e-mail at

Published in Sources, Number 45, Summer 2000.

See also:
Top 10 ways editors can work successfully with freelancers

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