Subcontracting, also known as outsourcing, is a business practice where the chief or lead writer hires additional writers, called subcontractors, to help complete a project.
Here’s a look at how it all works from both sides of the subcontracting coin.
When would I hire a subcontractor?
Three common scenarios where you might bring in a subcontractor.
Scenario 1: Too much work
I receive a job enquiry to write 100 articles, due in 8 weeks.
I estimate I can write about 30-40 articles in that time frame. So, I can either:
- Refuse the job, because I can’t possibly do this alone, or
- Hire a subcontractor(s) to help.
Scenario 2: Deadlines are tight
I have a steady flow of work, and deadlines are close, but on track. Suddenly, my daughter gets sick, and I need to take four days off work.
At the same time, I realise that I underestimated how much time I needed to complete one of my projects, and I am soon running about two weeks behind schedule. My options are:
- Carry on, work nights and weekends to catch up, and remain stressed, or
- Hire a subcontractor to help me get on top of my workload.
Scenario 3: Inexperience
I receive an enquiry from a company I admire. The problem is that the work is too far outside of my skill set for me to confidently take on the project. I can either:
Why would I hire a subcontractor?
There are many reasons why you may wish to hire a subcontractor. Subcontracting allows you to:
- Take on more significant projects you could never do alone – scale your business
- Make more money – increase your rates
- Learn new skills – develop management skills and learn different styles of writing
- Oversee work rather than complete all work yourself – get more time to focus on other aspects of your business
- Collaborate with others – develop relationships, and build teams
- Get on top of your workload – feel less stressed, and increase your productivity.
Getting started with subcontractors
Here are my top tips to ensure a positive subcontracting experience.
Tell your client before you hire a subcontractor
You must always be transparent with your clients and tell them if you are bringing in a subcontractor.
In rare cases, your client may not be happy with this arrangement; perhaps they only want to work with you. Or, maybe the client has internal policies about who they are legally allowed to hire.
Importantly, your client needs to know why you aren’t completing the project yourself, so make sure you have a valid and professional explanation ready.
Your client will appreciate the open and honest dialogue, and usually, there are no issues.
You also need to understand your legal requirements and obligations before you hire a subcontractor. In some scenarios, subcontractors may need to be paid superannuation. Always check your local tax laws before you begin.
Work with a subcontractor you know and trust
Subcontracting should make life easier, not harder! Sadly, I’ve heard countless stories of writers who have had nightmare experiences because they’ve had to redo all the subcontractor’s work.
To avoid issues, make sure your chosen subcontractor can do the job you’re hiring them to do; ask for samples and examples of previous work.
You’ll need to look for someone who:
- Has the skills to get the job done
- Is pleasant to work with
- Communicates well, including sharing any grievances
- Has a solid work ethic
- Is grateful for the opportunity.
Remember: while your subcontracting arrangement is a business one, it’s vital that you both treat each other with respect.
Work out your budget
Subcontracting is an effective way to grow your freelance career, though you need to consider whether you really can afford a subcontractor.
If you’re not careful, hiring a subcontractor can cost you more money than you make.
You’ll need to work out how many hours you’ll spend on:
- Project managing
- Checking and editing the work
- Rewriting and revising, if the work is not at the right standard.
The fee you pay your subcontractor needs to be fair on both sides. If you can’t afford to pay your subcontractor a decent rate, you shouldn’t be entering into this arrangement.
- Total project budget = $12,000 for 40 items (eg articles/product descriptions)
- I write 20 items, and I outsource 20 items
- My fee per item is $300 ($6,000 total)
- I pay my subcontractor $200 ($4,000 total)
- The additional $2000 difference/markup covers my time spent project managing, briefing, checking, editing, revising etc.
- Remember: Subcontracting is not free money or a commission! You still need to do (a lot of) work.
Create valid contracts
Before you work with a subcontractor, check your client’s contract for any clauses about subcontractors. Some clients have specific agreements about who they are allowed to hire.
You should also create a separate subcontractor agreement (I like legal123.com.au for this).
Tell your subcontractor they can only communicate with you unless otherwise agreed
Unless you explicitly agree, your subcontractor shouldn’t communicate directly with your client.
Make sure your subcontractor is aware of this. If your subcontractor communicates with your client without your knowledge, there may be confusion, which can look unprofessional and cause issues.
Start small, with one item at a time
You may find that it’s safer to commit to one piece first, as this allows you to:
- Get used to working with your writer
- Understand the subcontractor’s style of writing and work ethic
- Iron out any issues before committing to a large project.
Subcontracting challenges to be aware of
While working with a subcontractor can be a beneficial arrangement for both writers, there are some challenges you’ll need to consider.
Quality of work
If the work is not at the right standard, you’ll need to rewrite it (which takes extra time).
Make sure you are familiar with the writer’s skill and expertise before you agree to work together.
Ask for examples of previous work, even if you know the subcontractor personally.
Take the time to plan and work out if you can afford a subcontractor.
Work our a realistic and fair markup (e.g. 30%). Remember:
- You don’t have to tell your client how much you are paying your subcontractor, and
- You don’t have to tell your subcontractor how much you are getting paid from your client.
Discuss and confirm your payment terms with your subcontractor before commencing the work.
Your subcontractor may need payment before you get paid from your client. That means you’ll need to allow for this if the client doesn’t pay you on time.
Provisions if the subcontractor can’t complete the work
Sometimes, things may not go to plan, and your subcontractor may not be able to complete the job.
Always have a backup plan, and don’t leave projects to the last minute.
Make sure your contracts allow you to part ways without losing money.
Consider who will be responsible for the project revisions. You’ll need to:
- Confirm the agreed amount of changes with the client before you commence work
- Understand that edits can be time-consuming and plan accordingly
- Work out a plan if the client is not happy with your subcontractor’s work.
How to find a subcontractor
The good news is that there are plenty of health & medical writers looking for work! Here’s how you can find good-quality subcontractors:
- Your network – start with writers you know, as long as you think you can work together effectively
- Word of mouth – ask people you trust for recommendations
- Forums and discussion groups – you could put a call-out in relevant groups on LinkedIn or Facebook
- LinkedIn and other social media – look for a personal connection.
Tips for subcontractors
Subcontracting is perfect for aspiring writers who are new to freelance health writing. But even experienced writers can benefit from working with other writers.
Subcontracting is ideal for people who are:
- New to the industry – and want to gain experience working with a professional writer
- Looking for feedback – and would also like mentoring and industry exposure
- Experiencing quiet periods – and need extra work
- Happy to collaborate with other writers – and enjoy working as part of a team
- Wanting to make the most of their specialty knowledge – and have skills to share
- Interested in short-term roles – without the long-term commitment.
Getting started: Becoming a subcontractor
If you’re thinking about finding a freelance writer to work with, here’s what you need to consider when getting started:
- Contract – you’ll need one if your writer does not supply it
- Terms and deadlines clearly defined – including your revisions
- Payment terms explained – remember, your writer pays you via the client
- The chain of approval – how many people will edit your work, and what are the implications of that?
- Rules – are you allowed to say you worked with this client, publish their logo on your website, etc.?
Maintaining a positive relationship
Happy subcontracting relationships lead to satisfied writers and clients. and ongoing work. Here’s how to keep a positive relationship with your writer, so everybody is pleased:
- Get a precise estimate of timeframe and cost – make sure you’re not under-charging, as the job must be worthwhile
- Respect the arrangement – don’t go around your writer and speak directly to the client
- Go above and beyond – if you’re new to freelance writing, subcontracting is a great way to get repeat work but you must show that you care and are dedicated
- Don’t take on too much work – know your limits, and remember that it’s okay to say no
- Communicate with your writer regularly – share your thoughts and feelings with your writer, including any frustrations.
Being a subcontractor is not without its challenges, too. Here’s what you need to be aware of:
- Getting paid enough – don’t accept the work if the fee is too low, and have an open conversation with your writer about fees
- Numerous people editing your work – your original version may change significantly, to the point where you’re no longer happy with it; you’ll need to consider how you deal with this
- Getting feedback – it can be challenging to find out if the client approved of your work when you’re not dealing with them directly
- No byline – a key benefit of subcontracting is getting the experience so you can use that to market your freelance services, so always ask if you are allowed to use the client’s logo on your website.
How to find subcontracting work
As a subcontractor, you can find other writers through:
- Networking and associations – connect with experienced writers; online groups as well as AMWA, AMWA (American) and EMWA are great places to start
- Health Writer Hub Alumni – feel free to ask in the group, or contact me if you want to put the word out
- Your inner circle – it can’t hurt to ask people you know, as they may know someone who knows someone
- LinkedIn – you may have contacts you can reach out to, but remember to write a personalised message and be respectful.
The final word
Subcontracting is an effective way for writers to gain experience and grow their freelance businesses – but it’s not always easy.
Being prepared and having transparent systems in place are key steps for maintaining successful subcontracting arrangements.
Has subcontracting worked for you? Still have questions? Let me know in the comments.