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Freelance Success Story
Profile of a Freelance Technical Writer
Ed DeJesus

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I am a freelance technical writer. I definitely got into this from the "technical" end of things, since I have a degree in math and a PhD in physics. Not that I use these skills much on writing assignments. But it can come in handy when I can say to a client, "Don't be afraid to use the big words, I have a PhD in physics."

This leads to Lesson 1 I learned: Use whatever you have. Maybe you don't have a PhD in physics, but you might have been a salesperson, or planned and planted gardens, or whatever: find a way to use your strengths and skills to sell your expertise to clients.

There were three main events that got me into technical writing. My original job out of college was as a programmer for IBM. Good job, excellent pay and benefits, but it was the same thing over and over: writing code, testing, fixing bugs, writing code, testing, fixing bugs. I realized that I needed something with more variety. That's my Lesson 2: Understand your own personality and what will make you most content.

I started teaching in college, which had variety, but not much pay. I had an idea about how to add to my income: a book of computer trivia. I wrote up this book, just questions and answers, and sent it around to dozens of computer book publishers. Nobody wanted it. However, one company realized that here was a guy who knew computers and could write complete sentences.

They asked me if I would do a rewrite of one of their books for the new version of the software. Notice that I had nothing published at this point, no track record, no experience, but they offered me an assignment anyway, based on that computer trivia book manuscript I sent them. That was my Lesson 3: You don't necessarily need real credentials to qualify for a position, just something to bait the hook.

This was the first main event on the path to technical writing. I wrote that book and a bunch more besides for that publisher and several others. I didn't earn a lot of money for this $2000 - $3000 per book but I did get 7 published books out of the experience. I still wasn't thinking in terms of a career as a technical writer, but I now had some real credentials. This was Lesson 4 for me: Each completed assignment is a stepping-stone to the next assignment.

For one of these book assignments, I had to rewrite an existing book. But the publisher had lost the original book file, and I didn't feel like typing the whole thing over again. I found this guy, Jim Adams, who had a scanner with an automatic feeder that could feed in all the pages of the book, and output a file ready for me to update. It took about 3 hours, and during that time, I watched Jim in action. He was a freelance computer consultant par excellence.

For example, he got a call from someone who wanted to translate one kind of strange data format into another strange data format. "Sure," Jim said. "I can do that." He hung up the phone and said, "Now who do I know who can do that?" His attitude was: get the assignment first, and then figure out how to complete the assignment to the satisfaction of the client. He was confident that somehow he could satisfy the client. From him, I learned Lesson 5: Always say Yes. These days, only if the assignment is completely beyond the limits of my abilities and there's no way I can possibly acquire the expertise elsewhere do I ever say no.

The second main event was getting laid off from the well-paying programming job that I got after I stopped teaching. I now had a house, a wife, and two babies to support. I was desperate. I pounced on a one-month contract to test a new software product for the then Digital. I spent a month testing this obscure new piece of software. Then I got the bright idea of trying to sell an article about the software. BYTE Magazine was interested, and I got my first magazine publication.

Two months later, Digital needed someone to write the manual for this software. Guess who had in-depth experience with the product, a background in programming, and several publications under his belt? Me. That manual-writing led to training-course writing and a full year of work. That taught me Lesson 6: You never know what obscure little experience will land you an assignment.

My third main event was even more significant. Soon after, I saw a Help Wanted ad: BYTE Magazine needed an editor. On the strength of my one published article for them, my programming background, and my book publications, I landed the job. BYTE was a whole new ballgame.

Yes, I knew about computers. Yes, I could write step-by-step manuals. But this was writing and editing magazine stories. I knew nothing about how to write interesting ledes or titles. I knew nothing about editing the work of other writers. Luckily, BYTE, then the leading computer magazine, taught me all that. They turned me into a professional technical writer. This was my Lesson 7: You can always learn more, always get better.

There was plenty of variety at this job: each month was a new set of assignments, new topics, new people to work with, and new things to learn. Sadly, BYTE went belly-up in 1998. I have been a freelance technical writer ever since, using everything I learned at BYTE.

Since then, my work has split into two pieces. For one piece, I try to get a 40-hour-per-week contract position in place. This is almost always writing manuals or other documentation for some high-tech company. The contracts last 3 months or more.

I have acquired all the necessary skills FrameMaker, RoboHelp, Word, WebWorks, and so forth so that I can handle whatever is necessary. (By the way, if you sign up with any of the Robert Half agencies, like Office Temps, they will test you for Microsoft Certification for free. I am Microsoft Certified in Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and Approach. Looks good on a resume.) The contract pay is good, but not enough for me to cover benefits and so forth. (By the way, unless you're really desperate, never accept a long-term assignment for less money than you want: you'll be miserable and resentful the whole time.)

The other piece is writing magazine articles. I have now written hundreds of articles, mainly for computer magazines. I have contacted lots of editors, shown them my credentials, and asked for assignments. I have a Web page, which makes me seem more professional, although I don't often have the time to update it.

My name is unusual enough that a search of Google shows lots of my publications. Sure, it's never easy to get assignments from a newly-found editor, but the payoffs are great. I just did an assignment that took about 3 hours to complete including interviewing a very interesting person and paid $600. That's good money per hour. If I could do that all the time, I could let go of my "day" job. 

Moving from contract to contract can be difficult. I think of it as flying from trapeze to trapeze, like in the circus. Sometimes I have to let go of one trapeze before the next one appears. That's scary. But the work always shows up, eventually. That's Lesson 8: There is work out there: go find it!

Sometimes contracts just fall into my lap. Other times, I have to beat the bushes. I have sent out mailings to companies in my geographical area, and gotten a couple of little contracts as a result. I subscribe to many online job search services, including Monster, Dice, Craigslist, and NinaNet. I have no problem working with contracting agencies: I have gotten some nice placements through them.

Sometimes assignments don't work out. I've gotten stiffed by clients. There's one magazine that still owes me money for articles I wrote over a year ago. There are magazines that inexplicably suddenly decided not to work with me any more. There are others where I decided never to work with them anymore. No career is perfect, but, at least, when you freelance, you're not tied to anybody. You can leave unpleasant situations and move on. I've learned Lesson 9 the hard way: Sometimes it just doesn't work out: try to learn from it, then put it behind you and continue forward.

In conclusion, freelance technical writing works well for me. It has the variety that I enjoy. It often allows me freedom in my schedule working from home, flexible hours that lets me spend time with my family. It can be a juggling act to keep multiple magazine assignments going, or to line up new contracts when your current one is going to end. But it always works out. My final Lesson is: Stay flexible!

Good luck.

Ed DeJesus
Ed DeJesus. This article may not be reproduced in any manner whatsoever, in any form, for any reason, without the express, written consent of the author. Violators will be prosecuted.

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