Haunted by Scope Creep

October 26, 2010 by John Cobb in IT Courseware, Technical Documentation

As Halloween approaches, more than one project team this fall is likely experiencing that ghastly phenomenon known as scope creep. We’re not talking about some scary person whose jail break from a local asylum has everyone in the community on edge.

No, for technical writers and editors, scope creep manifests itself in many otherworldly ways that make your hair stand on end. Project schedules get compressed and project managers start popping their jaws as the days shorten. Meanwhile clients keep doling out tricks instead of treats and the project team scrambles in the dark to make final deadlines really final.


Scope creep, which also goes by such pseudonyms as focus creep, requirement creep, feature creep, and function creep, can negatively affect every member on the project team – writer, editor, subject matter expert, and project manager alike. So how do you keep scope creep at bay?

Good project planning from the start helps tremendously, but even the best of project plans go awry when the client starts howling at the moon for late content changes, and other additions from outside sources you have no control over show up who write with blood curdling inadequacy.

What to do? Well, sometimes scope creep will just keep rising from the dead like a bad Dracula movie, even after you’ve driven a stake through its heart at least twice. Don’t worry though, there are a few techniques that our writers and editors have developed to ward off scope creep. Because even though clients have a bag full of tricks up their sleeves that can derail a project, you can go home at the end of the work day without fear of never-ending project work stalking you at every waking hour.

To help ward off scope creep (no garlic required):

  1. Hold stakeholders and clients to scheduled content review deadlines (and define them clearly up front). When clients deviate from these commitments, adjust as needed, but let them know that scope creep has reared his ugly head and that he’s a nasty beast who demands more time and resources unless you can make him recede back into his deep hole in the ground by sticking to the project plan.
  2. If a new writer is brought in late to the project, communicate with all project stakeholders as soon as possible when things like suggested “small” content changes or additions from the person transmogrify into ominous bloody passages oozing with questions that require additional subject matter expert involvement in order to put them to rest. Translation, verify initial estimates and hold the estimators responsible.
  3. Know your style and publication standards and live by them: they are your silver bullets. Your client will thank you for the protection and refuge that they provide after you’ve used them without mercy to put late breaking content reeking of track changes in red to bed.
  4. Close out contributors as efficiently as possible by getting their buy off in email. Although you need their collaboration on final deliverables, clean out the basement incrementally as you finalize the content.

These rules of thumb will not always keep scope creep for writers and editors completely buried. But when applied judiciously, they can make the difference between enduring a forced march with the devil to complete the project, and enjoying a sack of treats from the client.