Little Favor for Coworker Is Not So Little
August 27, 2014 3:27 PM   Subscribe

My coworker asked me if I, with my superior computer skillz & home software, could do her a "little" favor. Well. You see where this is going, right? The "little" favor is not so little and I need to either come up with a compromise solution, or figure out how to gather the nerve to tell her I won't do it.

My coworker, who is in her early 60s, about 12 years older than me, and probably not particularly computer savvy - she has a smartphone and I think a laptop but I am not honestly sure - asked me last week if I could help her inventory her mother's house. Said mother has recently moved to assisted living and so coworker is packing up the house, moving things to storage, staging the house for sale, etc.
"If you could," she said, "Just put a few pictures into a document along with a description so I could email it to my siblings and cousins, that would be great. You're so much better than I am at those things! It shouldn't take you long." She then said, "Oh, I will help you out with some interior design."

She has a very small interior design business on the side and I had said by way of conversation a few months back that my living room was driving me crazy. We work, by the way, in a bookstore, where we are both full time and our positions, senior staff, are roughly analogous. We get along fine at work but we are not really close friends, although she has in the past made a few sort of attempts that way. I don't feel we have a whole lot in common, so I have politely sort of stymied those. I think she is lonely.

The few pictures turned out to be more than 90. The descriptions turned out to be 14 pages of handwritten notebook paper.

She came over last night with these details and I was so shocked, I couldn't quite figure out what to say. She even said blithely, "Well, I made sure this was legible, but you might have to figure out which description goes to which! I'm not sure of the order." She wants a .pdf and a printed copy.

As she was leaving, I mentioned that I want to paint the living room gray some day when I have some money and time. "I could help you with that," she said, "If you ever get around to it, give me a call."

I am actually really pretty angry about this. I feel like she is using me and it's not okay - and I'm mad with myself for a) ever agreeing to do it and b) not backing out last night when the scope of the job became apparent. But on the other hand, I don't want to be a bitch and maybe I am exaggerating how bad this is?

Before I knew the details, I was planning to make a simple table in Indesign, put the images on one side and the text on the other. My Indesign skills are somewhat rusty, but I started that off and then went, you know, forget this. I'm not doing this for free; this is going to take hours. I then thought, well, I guess I could get all the images onto 10 pages and then email her that - I am NOT going to print it out, toner is not free. But even getting all the images lined up and into a table is a giant pain in the ass. This looks to me like it's going to be about two solid days of work, making the document, getting all the images into it and then typing up every description, not to mention matching the descriptions to the images.

SO okay, I do have an actual question here! My question is threefold.

1: Is there in fact a relatively easy way to do this that won't take about 16 hours of work? I have Word, Excel, CS3 - all the usual software - and rusty but existent skills with each. Is there a way to do this in an hour or two that I'm overlooking? Or is there a way to do some kind of compromise thing, like just get the images neatly into some kind of gridwork she can work from WITHOUT adding the text? How? I don't mind taking an hour or two - just not an entire day.

2: I feel like this is too much of a favor to ask. Am I wrong about that? And I feel like offering to help paint a very small living room is not exactly fair recompense, even if I was inclined to take her up on it, which I am not. Am I wrong?

3. Failing an easier way to do this, would I be justified and an okay person if I took her handwritten document back to her at work tomorrow and said, look, sorry, I didn't realize what a big job this was going to be and this is more than I can handle. And if I do that, how do I manage not to feel like a heel? And, how can I refuse to do it without wrecking our comfortable working relationship? You wouldn't think a bookstore would be rife with drama, but it is and I do not want to add to it.

And, bonus question: What if I suggest that she take the whole thing, by which I mean her phone and her document, to Office Depot or Kinkos? Could they do this for a reasonable price? Is there somewhere else that could do it?

posted by mygothlaundry to Work & Money (52 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
That's WAY more than a "small favor," and I would take the handwritten document back to her, explain that this project is actually going to take much more work than you expected, and you don't have time to do it for her. Perhaps suggest that she post an ad to Craigslist offering to pay someone to do it. You're not a heel for being unwilling to do this giant task for her -- if anything, she's a heel for dumping it on you.
posted by sarcasticah at 3:32 PM on August 27, 2014 [21 favorites]

Best answer: One quick thing you could do is set up a account for her and show her how to create an entry with a photo. This would be easy enough, she could make one blog entry for each item with a photo and description (and could even put keywords like "art" or "table" or whatever) and then put a password on the whole thing so that only the people she wanted could see it. This way you just spend the brief time it takes to create an account for her at and show her how to make an entry, and she can do all the uploading and sorting of the descriptions. It's entirely possible to learn to use an extant wordpress account if you can use basic word processing software. It's essentially filling out forms online.
posted by tractorfeed at 3:33 PM on August 27, 2014 [7 favorites]

Do you have access to a good scanner?

One solution would be to get her to manually assemble it -- take an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, tape the picture, then physically cut the handwritten description and paste it underneath. Alternatively, since she has basic computer literacy, get her to type up the description on her computer, print it out, and then paste it on.

Have her do that for each of the photos, so that you've got 90 pages. Then all you have to do is running them through a scanner (or get her to do it herself), do some basic rotating/cropping correction that you could probably batch, and then bingo bango, PDF that she can e-mail to the family.
posted by joyceanmachine at 3:35 PM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 2: I feel like this is too much of a favor to ask. Am I wrong about that?

Nope. This (to me) is well past "favor" territory and into "pay me"-land.

3. Failing an easier way to do this, would I be justified and an okay person if I took her handwritten document back to her at work tomorrow and said, look, sorry, I didn't realize what a big job this was going to be and this is more than I can handle.

This. This is quite a few hours of work. A lot, the more I think about it. Don't feel bad for backing out; just tell her that once you had a chance to look over the whole thing and consider how long it would take you, you realized that you just don't have the time/energy in your schedule.
posted by rtha at 3:35 PM on August 27, 2014 [13 favorites]

At least have her type all the handwritten notes into a text file. That doesn't require her to be computer savy.
posted by pibeandres at 3:36 PM on August 27, 2014 [23 favorites]

This is way more than a small favor and you should not feel like a heel about telling her you can't do it. I think I would phrase it in terms of although you are flattered that she thought so highly of your computer skills, it turns out the task is beyond your skill level / computer setup and perhaps she should try to find somebody who has more up-to-date software and skills to take on the task.

On preview, I would not set up a account for her nor show her how to update entries. If you do this you will end up being the one making the entries, if not endlessly answering questions on how to use wordpress. You really need to cut off your involvement in any form with this task.

Is there a community college nearby with some kind of design or information systems program? Perhaps a student there would be willing to do it for pay.
posted by needled at 3:39 PM on August 27, 2014 [10 favorites]

Wow. That's a big favour to ask for. I think that since there is no way for you to know what goes with what photo the project is much, much bigger than she indicated you could put the photos into a table and she can type in the descriptions herself on her laptop. But not to worry, "it's easy to type up and you can show her how to do one".
posted by saradarlin at 3:39 PM on August 27, 2014

Or you could upload the photos to flickr or similar, give her the account and password information and she can add the "captions that way".
posted by saradarlin at 3:41 PM on August 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

At the very least, she needs to email you a typed version of the text (just as a text document or something, so you can copy and paste), and a key saying which text goes with which pictures. (Or is the issue that she doesn't have a computer at all?) Then, it seems like you'd just be down to maybe a couple three hours of work. But I wouldn't do it if I had to type all that crap up. And it's totally absurd for her to not have matched up text to pix. That would be a good reason to say you can't do it anyway---you're not comfortable with the responsibility if you picked wrong.

Basically, for this to be doable for you---at all, and it's still going to be a *massive* favor---she would need to provide you with some sort of mockup (even if it's just pic41203 has text blah in order) and the text needs to all be typed out for you already, so that you're just dealing with the tedium of a bunch of copy and paste.

You don't need to worry about a grid. I think word lets you put in pictures and have text around. So it would look like







And then you can email her the document back (maybe as a PDF) and she can print it---or she can purchase you a thumb drive so you can put it on the thumb drive for her to take to kinkos. Agreed you shouldn't have to pay.

Um. This assumes that the photos are already in some electronic form. They are, right?
posted by leahwrenn at 3:41 PM on August 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yeah, nope. She at least needs to type it up for you. But honestly, how much 'tech savvy' could this require, anyway? I like the 'show her how to do it' idea. You won't be updating the wordpress if you refuse to update the wordpress.
posted by geegollygosh at 3:41 PM on August 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm completely with rtha on this and I think that's a good response you can use.

This is unreasonable. I'd be miffed having to do this for family; a coworker? no way in hell.

Do not do this. Nominally apologize that you cant help her, but do not feel bad about not doing it. I personally absolve you of any guilt you might try to feel about this.
posted by phunniemee at 3:41 PM on August 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You go back to her and say "Coworker, this is a much bigger job than I anticipated and it's a bit beyond my expertise. I'm sorry for the misunderstanding but I can't manage this after all."
posted by tel3path at 3:42 PM on August 27, 2014 [15 favorites]

Tell her you'll have it for her in six months and don't ever agree to have her do anything to your house.
posted by zennie at 3:42 PM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't ask her to type up the descriptions. I would just use sarcasticah's script and unequivocally decline to do any of it. If it were me, I wouldn't even give an excuse or a reason, I would just say "I'm sorry, I can't do this."
posted by Librarypt at 3:42 PM on August 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

When someone asks me for a favor, I expect them to do as much as possible to make the favor easy for me. Forgetting about the 90 photos (which is extreme, yes), the fact that she is just dumping handwritten notes on you, where you will have to guess which photo they match to is uncool. She's asking you to do scutwork like typing she could do herself, not something that uses your unique skills.

The Flickr idea is fantastic. You might even find something that converts a Flickr gallery to a PDF (like FlickrScrapr).
posted by grouse at 3:45 PM on August 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

You go back to her and say "Coworker, this is a much bigger job than I anticipated and it's a bit beyond my expertise. I'm sorry for the misunderstanding but I can't manage this after all."

I like this. Except substitute "than you led me to believe" for "than I anticipated". She is completely out of line. And what a sense of entitlement.
posted by the webmistress at 3:48 PM on August 27, 2014 [10 favorites]

Yep, "Coworker, this is a much bigger job than you led me to believe, and I won't be able to do it", or --- if by some freak chance you're still willing to help her --- Flickr and "there's no way I can possibly do this until after you sort out which photo goes with with description".
posted by easily confused at 3:51 PM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Could you do one or two entries and then give her the document as a template and say "here you go, you just need to do the same for the 88 others"?

I would just hand her that and say that given the amount of time it took you to set it up, it will be much faster for her to do the rest herself. You simply underestimated the time it would take you and since you are sure she wants it in under a year, you are not in a position to help her. If she can't cope on her own, suggest she check Craigslist or whatever for people who are willing to do this for a fee.

And don't worry about being too nice to her--niceness runs both ways and this lady is just trying to use you.
posted by rpfields at 3:54 PM on August 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Bring your laptop to work, open up google docs, walk her through doing the first one at lunch and then be around for tech assistance.
posted by arnicae at 3:55 PM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Lots of results for a google of "online home inventory" which is probably the simplest thing she can use. She may honestly believe that the computer does all the work. Even if she had it as a text file and jpgs, at average of 1 minute each that's going to be about 2 hours.
posted by Sophont at 3:56 PM on August 27, 2014

Wow, what nerve she has. What really gets to me is that she could so easily type up the notes herself -- even more easily than you, if the handwriting is her own -- and is in a much better position than you are to match up the descriptions with the photos.

She can type, can't she?
posted by merejane at 3:58 PM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree with the folks saying "give it back" but I will emphasize what Sophont said: She may honestly not realize what she is asking.

So it might help smooth things over to frame it as "Uh, yeah, I imagine you did not realize what you were asking of me but this is not a little favor." And if you are still willing to do her a small favor, like set up a Word Press or BlogSpot account and clue her how to do it herself, you can offer that as a consolation prize. But if you are not, then, hey, just give it back and let her know the scope of this is significant and not something you can actually do.
posted by Michele in California at 4:02 PM on August 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Except substitute "than you led me to believe" for "than I anticipated". She is completely out of line. And what a sense of entitlement.

Well, this is only true if the coworker absolutely knew for sure that this was a favor that would take this long. I mean, it's obvious to all of us that this is a labor-intensive task, but it's possible that a non-computer savvy person in her 60s really wouldn't know. So I would suggest the OP frame things in a way that still gives the coworker the benefit of the doubt. This is win-win because A) if she really didn't mean to take advantage, then the OP is not attributing malice where there is none, and B) if she really did mean to take advantage, then the OP is allowing her plausible deniability, which will help keep the working relationship cordial.

The best response is one that is both clear and diplomatic, e.g. "Mary, I've estimated that this will take 15 to 20 hours, which is far more than I think we both anticipated. I'm sorry for the misunderstanding, but I won't be able to do this after all" (OR: "...but I can show you how to do it/set something up for you/etc."). There's nothing to be gained by implying to the coworker's face that she was was being deceptive/entitled/etc., even if she really was.
posted by scody at 4:03 PM on August 27, 2014 [33 favorites]

And, how can I refuse to do it without wrecking our comfortable working relationship?

There's really no way to be sure how she's going to take it. The best you can do is be apologetic but clear that unfortunately this is just not something you can do for her, and maaaybe try to point her in the right direction or be helpful otherwise.

Be kind (or at least pretend to) if you want to maintain a good work relationship; it sounds like you don't know if she actually has a computer at all and/or that she has a concept of how much work it actually is.
posted by sm1tten at 4:04 PM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

You'd be surprised how often people don't have any idea how long anything takes--I remember a time when I worked in a computer lab in college, and somebody with a broken arm came in and wanted to know if they could write a 10-page paper through dictation software in an hour or so. (At the time, 800x600 monitors were big and voice recognition programs were thousands of dollars, well out of the reach of a college computer lab.)

Even the simplest solution I can think of for adding 90 images and transcribing multiple pages of hand-written notes would still be a ton of scanning--don't type anything, just take photos of the notes. But I think scody's solution is good.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 4:11 PM on August 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

Questions 2 and 3 are covered well at this point, so I'm going to cover question 1:

It seems like they just want everyone to have a copy rather than a nice searchable database, (she wants PDF and print but not Word, which makes me think they don't expect to edit it in the future) so I think this is more of a "photocopy this into the computer" kind of deal, which is doable in a couple of hours.

If you still want to help you can just order the pictures as best you can and scan them (as many per page as you can, photocopy-style), then scan the handwritten pages as they are and slap the whole thing together. It's sort of weird and kludgey but I kind of think she'll be satisfied with just having pics and descriptions she can easily hand off to the rest of the family.

Of course if you're over it already or if she really does expect it typed then you can totally use the "Oh I'm so sorry I really thought I'd be able to do this quickly but once I looked at it I realized it's more than I can do" explanation.
posted by stefanie at 4:14 PM on August 27, 2014

I get asked to do this sort of thing a lot. I have a few problems

1. My manners don't allow me to just start laughing and be all HAHAHAHAH NO FUCKING WAY with people which is what I know I should do
2. My skills don't let me half-ass a thing I would be sending them back

It seems like what stefanie says is right, maybe she just wants the handwritten stuff scanned. I would open a conversation with her where you clarify with the outcome being either

1. you do a reasonable amount of work (i.e. just scanning and then plopping everything in to a document in no order) or
2. you indicate that this is way more work than you were expecting and you can't do it, period

So basically going back to her and saying "Hey do you just want me to scan these handwritten notes and add the pictures into the same document? Because I can do that but if you need someone to sort through 90 images and descriptions and/or retype any of this, that's way more work than I can do as a simple favor. My rates are $X or I can suggest some people who could do this for you"

Don't get mad at this lady just because you have an inability to say no (this is me talking to me as much as me talking to you) just be clear for yourself you're not going to do too much work and then explain this to her and move on with it one way or the other.
posted by jessamyn at 4:26 PM on August 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

At a minimum, she should be able to type all her notes into a word document and also number the blurbs to correspond to the photos (numbered on the back). If Word is too tough for her, she could even type the captions into the body of an email and send it to you. It's still a fair amount of work to scan the photos and insert the captions and then convert it to pdf, but it's far more reasonable.

What she's asking you to do now is ridiculous. She's not even done the minimum of organization to prepare the materials for you.
posted by quince at 4:30 PM on August 27, 2014

Computers have been taught in American high schools since 1984; the web has been a thing since 1994. So for the last 20-30 years of her adult life she has been immersed in a culture that has not had a problem with digitization. Please do not give her a pass for being non tech-savvy and in her 60's. If she had given someone the same raw materials 30 years ago it would have had to be typed up -- what is a secretarial "ask" 30 years ago is still a secretarial "ask" today. I wouldn't even put it in the administrative assistant category, frankly. I am indignant for you.
That said, the gracious solution that sarcasticah et al. provided is best. Be firm about it though. This never was a favor, it was a request for free labor.
posted by dness2 at 4:38 PM on August 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

1) I'm unclear on why she can't do this in Word. I mean really she just needs to type, then insert a photo, then type, then save it as a PDF. I don't think this thing needs to look pretty or be in a grid. I mean if she's that lacking in skills, that's not your problem.

2) Absolutely say you can't handle it, or don't have time, and you're really sorry, but "it just won't be possible." There's no shame in turning down a favor, especially when she hasn't given you any reason to complete the favor other than a small glimmer of "maybe I'll give you some design tips."
posted by Crystalinne at 4:46 PM on August 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

I wouldn't muddy the waters by offering to do it for pay. She will probably see that offer in a light that is not flattering to you, and perhaps would tell others in an unflattering way also.
posted by grouse at 4:49 PM on August 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

Just did this for my uncle (smaller scale -- about 7 photos)

I used excel, photo in one column, text in another.

If the photos are in physical (non electronic) form, I think the best plan would be literally to cut and paste together sheets of text and images, and then suggest she visit a copy shop to scan them onto a thumb drive in order to share electronic copies.

On the other hand, she probably has no idea how much work this is if she is not familiar with computers. Just like it is easy to under-estimate the work needed to create text and image documents, it is probably easy to under-estimate the amount of work it takes to do professional room design.

If she is offering a trade in kind, it might be good to discuss the terms of the trade, by discussing the number of hours you estimate this will take (in contrast to doing 10 or 15 photos), and then ask if she really wants to proceed with a trade or figure out another plan (like you teaching her how to do it herself).

(also, if she runs a design company, how does she scrapbook images and text for her business? Maybe she is overlooking resources she actually has).
posted by chapps at 4:56 PM on August 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

1) Look into Indesign's Data Merge. Basically, you make a spreadsheet with columns (ex: "photo filename", "description"), and you make an Indesign template that corresponds to those columns. Indesign automagically creates 90 pages with 90 photos and 90 descriptions, all nicely formatted. It's quick, and will save you a LOT of time.

2) "Hey COWORKER! I've figured out how to do this, but I don't have the time to type this out by hand - it will probably take me 10 hours. Why don't you send it off to an online transcription service that costs $200? Or you could type it yourself, if you want to. Let me know what you decide!"
posted by suedehead at 4:58 PM on August 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

(Also, as a diplomatic gesture, I've found that offering people a choice between two actionable options that are also favorable to you, rather than a "that won't be possible", is always easier.)
posted by suedehead at 5:01 PM on August 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

It is unclear whether the photos are in digital format or actual printed photos that need to be scanned. If the latter, just hand the whole thing back to her.

If you do decide to continue, a down 'n' dirty way:

I'd layout a master page of photo frames, leaving space for copy. Create new pages from the master page and place each photo (command + D). Go down each page placing photos. Bam bam bam. Save it as a (huge) pdf and give it to her on a flash drive. She can print it out.

She can type up the copy, or cut out her handwritten notes, and literally paste it onto the pdf pages after they have been printed out. Then she can photocopy however many copies she wants and she can mail them to whomever.

The photos will be a copy of a copy but we're not talking museum archives here.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 5:15 PM on August 27, 2014

I would offer to write and post a Craigslist ad to find someone to do this for her instead.
posted by betsybetsy at 5:17 PM on August 27, 2014

"Just put a few pictures into a document along with a description so I could email it to my siblings and cousins, that would be great. You're so much better than I am at those things! It shouldn't take you long."

Yeah. Over 90 is a not "a few". In no one's world is over 90 just "a few" of anything. And I find it hard to believe that anyone would think that 90 photos and 14 page of handwritten scribbles is "a little favor", no matter how clueless they may be. The fact that she handed you handwritten notes and tossed off the comment about figuring things out yourself leads me to believe she is used to asking people for "little favors".

But I may be wrong. Please educate the asker as to the difficulty and time of this task. You've gotten some great advice on how to help her help herself here, should you choose to do so.
posted by the webmistress at 5:21 PM on August 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

Interesting topic.

I used to have a coworker like that (always ask for favors) and I always do it but I get mad at myself for someone taking advantage of me. Sometimes I do it and sometimes I say "No".

In response to your question #2, it really depends on each person. Some people feel that "nothing is free" in this world. And some people will say "16 hours isn't long.

I believe in helping others but also want them to return the favor down the road or they bring me out to a free lunch/dinner. If I don't see anything in return then I will not help this person ever again.
posted by Mountain28 at 5:36 PM on August 27, 2014

Best answer: To answer the question about sending her to a copy shop: they can do it, but it will be expensive, especially with typing involved. The best you could hope for there is that she might find a bored, sympathetic employee who'd do it for cheap because they really don't care about their corporate overlords making a profit off of their skills. Probably even then though deciphering and matching up all those descriptions would be too much to ask for, unless she managed to trick them the same way she did you and they also felt bad about backing out.
posted by teremala at 5:48 PM on August 27, 2014

As a compromise solution, you could put all of the images into a Word doc or Excel spreadsheet and instead of adding the text captions just put a number for each.

Then scan or copy her handwritten notes and add the number for each item next to the relevant section in her handwritten notes.

It won't be a publication quality solution, but from the description I don't see why she needs anything more than something purely functional.

You can tell her you were planning to put the text in Word also but you didn't realize how much text would need to be transcribed and you're a slow typist.
posted by duoshao at 5:49 PM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

So yeah, what I would do is scan the handwritten pages and save them as images or pdf, and stick all of the photos in one file, without any particular order. Then you hand her back two files: one of the handwritten info, and one of the photos. Tell her she can email them to her family and THEY can match the text to pictures. There's no way they will find that bit harder to do than you will, and they have a reason to care about it. If she is rude enough to actually say "But I wanted you to type the handwriting up and match the captions", then you look shocked and say, "But that would have taken me days of work! I thought you just needed something you could email."
posted by lollusc at 6:22 PM on August 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

You know what? Originally I was gonna be all, aww, poor old lady with the sick mom... but then I thought of how if you give a mouse a cookie, it wants a glass of milk and then you're enmeshed in this project you got kinda tricked into.

So I'm not sure how exactly to go about this so things aren't weird at your job, but I do think that it's important to make your boundaries clear now so that you don't get into a whole thing where your coworker is a mouse who's eating all your cookies.
posted by spunweb at 7:07 PM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I do something similar as part of my job. You have my permission to tell her this is way too much for you to do. Or else show her how to scan the pics and convert to pdf. She can type the descriptions herself and number them to the pics. This is for her family, not the VA (in my case) so she needs to not make this harder than it is. And she needs to not make it your problem.

BTW are these cameraphone pics? In the past I have used a photo app to put, say, eight or sixteen or whatever pics on a page (as if I were going to print on photo paper) and then just convert to pdf. Might cut down on the pages.

But again, I join the choir in saying that it is okay for you to say no to this. I am pulling my hair out in sympathy for you.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:21 PM on August 27, 2014

Did she give you digital images or hard copy photos? If they're digital images, just create a two column table in Word, slap each image into its own cell and leave the cell next to it blank for text. Then show her "oh, it's super-easy! You just type in the text that matches the image here!" There's no way she doesn't know how to type, and almost no chance she doesn't own a computer.

If she gave you hard copy photos and expects you to scan them? Hell to the no. Give it all back.
posted by MsMolly at 7:32 PM on August 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

Just set up a template for her in whatever software and then show her how to add the photos and type in the text herself.

Teach her to fish instead of giving her a fish.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:56 PM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Say you were flattered that she thinks you have such skills but that you hadn't realized how complicated it was going to be and aren't even sure which way to go on her project (pretty much true, since you are asking what to here).

Suggest she take it to Kinko's, or whatever the local equivalent is, that they are wonderful for "big jobs like this" and that you are sure they will know what they are doing and can help her out.

Don't try to help her set anything up or show her how to do it herself unless you want to be on the hook for endless "helping" with this, and asked to help with more "little things" in the future. This won't be the end of it if you let it get started.

probably not particularly computer savvy

Evidently she knows how to email documents to people, she could just email the pictures to her relatives and type the descriptions in.
posted by yohko at 8:18 PM on August 27, 2014 [7 favorites]

Ninety scans is way too much. If I were her, I would take photos with my smartphone and then upload them to a Facebook group that my relatives were members of, with typed captions beneath each.

"Hey, Lynette, I was looking at this stuff last night and you know, when I agreed to do this I was imagining a different task. I thought you had a handful of pictures and that the captions would be attached. Unfortunately it takes like 2 minutes to scan in a photo, and then [X minutes] to lay it out in Indesign, and a while more to try and figure out which caption goes with which photo, something which kind of worried me from the get-go because I wouldn't want to mix them up. Anyway, the task is more than I bargained for, and I'm sorry but I can't do it after all. Here are your pictures back. I do have an idea about how you could do it with your smartphone, if you'd like to hear it..."
posted by feets at 12:24 AM on August 28, 2014

Or: "You know, this task is too big [etc]. I do have an idea about how you can do it without computers, though -- why not get a glue stick and glue photos to paper and then write the captions below them? Then you can xerox the whole thing and send your relatives the copies. That way you can do it without computer expertise."
posted by feets at 12:25 AM on August 28, 2014

Yohko, that's a great idea. When you tell her in whatever diplomatic terms that you can't do it, flatter her and say but she could do it herself all along! She knows how to email, just do that and type the descriptions in. After all, like she said, it won't take that long! And she won't have to wait for you! Right? Right? Hand her back everything, smile and walk away. Once you've identified her skill set that means she can do it herself, any protestations on her behalf should be met with "Oh, you're far more skillful than you know. I'm sure you'll do a great job. Bye now!"
posted by Jubey at 12:27 AM on August 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

This is a 'teach a woman to fish' situation if I've ever heard of one.

Sit her down in front of a laptop, show her how to scan a picture and type in a description, then let her do the rest.
posted by empath at 7:09 AM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, y'all. I told her I was sorry, that this was a much bigger task than I anticipated and that I wouldn't be able to do it after all. I told her I thought it was about a 16 to 24 hour job - OK slight exaggeration but not by too much! - but that I would be happy to show her some ideas I had on how she could do it herself . . . and she quickly said oh, never mind then, that's way too much. So I am off the hook and thank you to everyone for making me feel like it was all right to say no and giving me the script and guts to just calmly do it. Very much appreciated!
posted by mygothlaundry at 4:14 PM on August 28, 2014 [8 favorites]

slight exaggeration but not by too much

First rule of freelancing: always round up your estimation for the time it takes to complete a project! (I learned this the very hard way.)

posted by scody at 5:40 PM on August 28, 2014

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