Archive for October, 2009

Estimating Short Projects

Monday, October 26th, 2009

Estimating writing projects can be tough. It’s not like you’re being asked to build something concrete, easily described, and readily evaluated like – oh, a house brick. You’re creating an experience, often for multiple reviewers, that must somehow coincide with or better yet exceed your reviewers’ expectations.

Like any tough task, it helps to break it down before hitting ‘send’ on your estimate. An estimate is really a best-guess as to how long it will take to complete the task, so we need to identify as many variables as we can that will impact our ability to deliver a successful project on time and within budget.

The Customer

Perhaps the most important piece – who will sign off your work? Sometimes it’s the person who will pay for it; sometimes not. But you must pin down the person who can decide when the project is complete. And beware the response: “I will – as soon as Fred says he’s happy with it.” In this case, Fred’s your customer.

The Deliverable

What’s your deliverable, and who is it for? Everything depends on who will consume your work; that includes what you write, how you write it, and how it’s published. Any items you may need to subcontract – graphics, audio, video?

The Purpose

Not always as clear as it seems. A whitepaper can be commissioned to educate consumers, to further one or more marketing messages, to respond to competition, or to establish a legal position. Maybe it’s really intended to simply fulfill a job requirement or help get your customer a promotion. To satisfy the purpose you may need to be accurate, truthful, imaginative, or persuasive. And you may be asked to leave one or two of those out.

The Process

Who gets to review, edit and signoff your work? Are there any fixed dates (for publication, or for key reviewer availability)? What are the key milestones — drafts, legal review and intermediate edits?


Who are required subject matter experts (SMEs) and what is their availability? Do they know what you’re doing, and are they committed to this project? Nightmare scenario: you customer has commissioned you because he doesn’t have the rank, persuasiveness or popularity to coerce the required SMEs himself. Make sure you’re aware of any required template or branding. You may also need to build in time to get access to customer equipment, materials, or facilities; take great care when a milestone depends on getting security clearance from someone who has never heard of you or your project.

Anticipated Pitfalls

Number one pitfall is: you sign up for a schedule that cannot be met. Assuming you know your stuff and can meet your own deadlines, common reasons for slipped milestones are:

  • SMEs aren’t committed or were misidentified.
  • Reviewers cannot reach consensus on required changes.
  • The purpose of the deliverable changes during the course of the project. Often happens when a new reviewer is introduced or a previously unidentified but influential staff member gets wind of the project and decides to become a key decision-maker.
  • A key reviewer – perhaps a legal reviewer – is a required signoff, but cannot be persuaded or strong-armed into meeting her deadline.
  • The world changes during the course of your project, priorities change, and your must-have deliverable becomes a nice-to-have.
  • A subcontractor slips.
  • Your network credentials never did get fixed.
  • Oops – you didn’t know your stuff as well as you thought.


There aren’t really any insurance policies that can protect you against project slips. You can ensure there are names against action items in the schedule, and that every milestone has a date. You can line up subcontractors ahead of time, and you can get every assurance that what you believe you will deliver is what the customer believes they want. You can even add a standard time and materials disclaimer to account for project overrun, but you really don’t want to use that if you want a happy and long-term relationship with your customer. In the end it’s best not to expect that every project will run exactly as planned.

To help ensure your and your customers’ satisfaction, best to stick to three general rules: produce a professional and comprehensive estimate, be flexible throughout, and trust that in the long run more projects will go well than don’t.