Profile of a Freelance Technical Writer
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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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!