writing assistantEvery once in a while I’m asked by colleagues about my writing assistant, Tara. It’s been a huge time saver for me to have someone to help me write my books, prepare presentations, design training materials, and even write these blog entries.

Sometimes people ask me about how they could work with someone in a similar capacity. Tara and I have recently reflected on this question—from both of our perspectives—and here are some of the principles we’ve learned over the last 15 years. Many of them would be applicable to other roles as well.

• It’s good to start on a trial basis to see how you work together. Maybe find a project to do, something small enough that gives you a chance to try out the working relationship. If you have any audio material that you want to build on anyway, you could give the person those to listen to and ask them to write up what you need from the materials.

• When I am telling Tara about a writing project I need done, she often summarizes what she’s hearing me say so she clarifies expectations. If your potential writing assistant doesn’t naturally do that, you can stop and ask, “What are you hearing me say?” Doing that also helps me clarify my own thinking. Sometimes I have to change what I’m asking for after I am hearing it back.

• A writing assistant needs to be comfortable making changes and edits. They can’t take it personally, as they’re in essence a ghostwriter and should be trying to write in your voice. The principle I work by is that generally it takes three cuts to get it right, especially for bigger projects.

• Clarify that if something isn’t working or one of you would like to see something tried differently, you should both be free to say so. Open communication is important. Sometimes I use these five questions to evaluate how a project or a working relationship is going: What’s working? What’s not working? What are we learning? What needs to change? What’s the next step?

• Set some clear expectations regarding number of hours, work schedule, and email/phone availability. This is especially important when the working relationship is done remotely rather than in an office setting.

• When you give a writing assignment, you may be able to either talk it through or develop an outline with key points. Especially at first, the more you can frame out your points, the better an idea a writing assistant will get of how you think and what you want to communicate.

• Set expectations about what the job entails. Is it just writing? Or would the person be doing some additional administration like scheduling clients or responding to email? Clarify who else, if anyone, your writing assistant needs to be working with and what their roles are (e.g. admin assistant, colleagues you collaborate with, etc.).

• Don’t overlook stay-at-home moms as potential assistants. You can often find highly skilled people if you’re willing to provide flexibility in terms of working hours. Those who have good organizational skills are especially adept at working from home.

Although it does cost extra money to hire someone in this (or any) capacity, I find that enough of my time is freed up as a result to allow me to take on extra projects and coaching relationships that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.