Independent Authors SIG, autumn 2006

Part-time communicators?

What do freelance technical communicators do during slack periods? Tony Kershaw sparked a lively discussion when he posted a message saying he was too busy to take on more work. Members responded with comments about 'feast or famine' from which we all suffer. Interestingly, some are busy while others are going through a lean period, so it's not just the economy that affects workloads.

Some people have second incomes from work related to technical communication, such as computer tuition and web design. I was surprised that many others offer services or take employment in unrelated areas, such as driving instruction, literacy classes, and selling bets on the Tote! One member suggested that a second string is part of the package in technical writing because 'no one is purely a writer'. I disagreed strongly but another member countered with, 'independent authors are constantly working two jobs. We're not only authors, we all have the "second string" as sales people too.'

Contract to permanent

One of Tony Kershaw's clients approached him with the possibility of becoming a full-time employee, but that wasn't an option for him. The client suggested part-time and Tony asked the Group for comments.

Jean Rollinson suggested that job sharing might be an option, if the client really needed someone full-time.

Part-time work could be a good deal, according to Peter Finch. It would leave Tony free to work for other clients, while having the security of a regular income that should be proportional to a typical full-time salary. Being paid under PAYE should be no problem; Tony has to pay tax one way or another. Peter's wife gave up self-employment as an online university tutor to take a permanent position. She retained the right to work for other clients provided it didn't conflict with her primary role as an employee.

Tony eventually declined the job because he wanted to maintain his flexibility to work with other clients, and other commitments meant he could offer only two days a week. His client is seeking a replacement through the ISTC's Discussion Group and Newsletter. When current projects are complete, Tony's relationship with the client will end, which is 'sad, but that's the nature of self-employment'.

Contractor Calculator provides financial calculators, one of which is 'Contracting To Permanent Calculator' at

Healthcare documentation

Does a technical writer need to be a subject-matter expert? Mike Gascoigne wanted to talk to people who had produced documentation for health-related industries including healthcare providers, pharmaceutical companies, and medical equipment manufacturers. He wanted to know the boundaries of medical work and the stage at which medical qualifications become necessary. As healthcare is expanding, he thought it would be a good market.

Steve Rickaby suggested Mike choose a few samples of poor documents, rewrite them and then present them to the intended readers or the document owners to see the response.

Lois Wakeman ( does process-related work for a pharmaceutical company. Contracted to document processes not to offer clinical judgements, she's never been asked for medical credentials. Sometimes she corrects obvious factual errors but the final authority is either the trial data manager (who signs off trial-related documents) or the validation manager (who signs off software-related documents).

Jane Teather's biomedical background helps with her healthcare information work but isn't essential; most of her colleagues don't have a medical background. However, knowledge of ever-evolving regulations is essential for producing information about medicines and healthcare.

Alison Peck ( found medical knowledge irrelevant to her work on health-related hardware (physics was more appropriate). However, her nursing background is useful for understanding the review comments relating to medical record software.

Some off-list respondents also found medical knowledge irrelevant when working on medical equipment.


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