How can I get started doing freelance technical documentation?
June 9, 2005 6:46 AM   Subscribe

I've been working in the tech industry for 7 years, and been using computers and the Internet since I was a kid. I've just graduated college with a degree in English, and at every company I've worked at I've done some documentation work. I'd like to start doing this on the side to bring in some extra income.

I've always been complimented on my clear and concise writing style, and on my ability to explain technical things in simple terms, with examples or analogies as necessary. At one company I actually coordinated the production of a software end-user manual, including writing some chapters, taking screenshots, and editing other authors' work.

I've also always been told that there are very few people in the world who have both a good grasp of technical concepts and a good grasp of the English language; I've also been told that there's good money to be made doing technical documentation. Where do I get started doing this? How do I get jobs? Bill clients? Ensure that I have all the information I need from them to do a good job?
posted by autojack to Work & Money (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
I worked as a tech writer in the super computer industry for about 5 years. I've never done freelance work, but I've looked into it. My basic understanding of the market is that unless you live in a major metro, nobody is going to have any work for you. There are no true "work from home" freelance tech writing gigs. You can probably do some of the work at home, but you're going to have to go face-to-face with the engineers for some of it. My advice is to watch Craigslist.org and writersweekly.com for job postings. Dice.com also has some decent tech writing gigs occasionally. You'll probably have to take some shit jobs for experience, but you'll learn fast.
posted by cosmicbandito at 6:54 AM on June 9, 2005


First, replace "good money" with "adequate money." According to the STC salary surveys I was (once) at or near the top of the field in terms of pay and I still wouldn't consider it "good money". Of course, YMMV, and I'm not a TW any more.

Next, make goddamn sure you've got at least one copy of that manual you worked on. You'll want to have it available for potential employers to look at, assuming you can clearly mark the parts you were responsible for ("I did this cover illo, but not that one, the index was auto-generated but I edited it..." etc. etc.)

Also, you're going to need a reasonable portfolio of samples. These MUST be "sterilized" so that they don't contain ANY proprietary information of any kind. If you don't have samples, write some. Pick an existing, actual, product and write something for it.

Lastly, some hiring people get nutty over specific software, so you may want to check ads and learn something about the stuff that comes up most frequently. Generally speaking, the more obscure the software, the more of an expert they'll want you to be (eg: if they're still using Interleaf, you'd better know damn near everything about it)
posted by aramaic at 7:28 AM on June 9, 2005


I agree with cosmicbandito -- your best bet it to establish connections with local companies. Join STC and start attending your local chapter meetings. Get to know people working for the companies you want to work for. When these companies have job openings or need contract work, you'll be in a position to find out about them.
posted by lewistate at 8:03 AM on June 9, 2005


unless you live in a major metro, nobody is going to have any work for you.

I assume that cosmicbandido means "major metro area," not just inside the city. Lots of high-tech companies locate outside the city, even out to semi-remote suburbs.

Get that portfolio together. You need not 'sanitize' any of it if it won't remain with the interviewer.

Get references from all those people who gave you the writing assignments, especially the ones who liked the results. Also, stay in touch with those people, and let them know what you are trying to do; if they move to other companies, it can get you contracts.

What's 'good money'? Where I am, W-2 contract tech writers can get $40/hr and up. 1099 independents can make $50+/hr. My experience is that the STC salary surveys are extremely low.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:49 AM on June 9, 2005


I've just completed work on a gigantic, committee based project here at my company that involves about two or three hundred pages of documentation. Based on that, I can say this to you: There are two different needs we had, one, the need for someone to be able to take all the committee writing and give it one voice, polish it, make it english, make it hang together and make it convey the point in simple terms; two, the need for someone to know MS Word inside and out and more so that templates, forms, checklists, formatting, images and icons, charts, etc. looked good, fit in the document, were easily editable and expandable, etc.

Our experience was that it's easy to find someone to do the first (I ended up doing a lot of it but we could have hired any number of people in the NYC area) but finding someone to do the second is more of a problem. If this is something that interests you, I would say that cominbining hard core Word skills with very good English and tech writing skills will give you a good edge in the market. Hard core Word skills are a major selling point.

Good luck.
posted by spicynuts at 9:03 AM on June 9, 2005


There are a couple of awesome open-source projects I've been working with that are really starting to gain popular support -- but boy, oh boy, do they need decent documentation. If you're up for a challenging mission, you could learn one and then publish a book OR make a small-fee-registration documentation web site (or Google ads, or don't try for revenue, just use it as a first project).

First up, we have Zope and Plone. It's difficult to tell what they are from a quick glance at their respective web sites, so I'll tell you: Zope is a web content management framework built on top of an object database. Plone is a CMS built on top of that which makes it pretty quick to set up a working shared CMS-type web site, with workflow features built in. Both are open source, free, and have lots of fiddly bits.

These both have wonderful communities, easy to get questions answered, but complex and difficult to really get a handle on the thing overall. There have been some Zope books and some Plone books published, but the definitive work is yet to be written, I think -- this may be partly because the products themselves are still evolving a little. At least for someone who wants to customize the heck out of things. Your audience here would be somewhat technical.

Next up, we have OSCommerce, a free open-source web-based store software built in PHP. It seems to be really taking off, and I've been wading through it myself. There are some manuals made by one person, and she's taken the step of selling them from her own OSCommerce site (natch), including a separate set of manuals for a derivative software called CRELoaded. Both products are fascinating and could really be empowering -- but as with Zope/Plone, the documentation I've found is either disorganized, spread out all over the place, or aimed at people who will just use the software as it's presented to them, not really helping them customize it well.

Open source software is made by people who love to program, not people who love to write. There's a huge need for really good documentation.

If you decide to self-publish, strongly consider working with a designer of some type. The words are very important, but good design (illustrations as well as page layout) will help keep things from getting in the way, and assure that your words will be read in the first place.

Please feel free to contact me if any of this sounds interesting.
posted by amtho at 9:05 AM on June 9, 2005


You need not 'sanitize' any of it if it won't remain with the interviewer

This is extremely not true; proprietary info is almost always covered by the contract you signed when you went to work for the company whose document you created (the part where it says they own everything you write, and get to decide who sees it). That's even apart from NDAs, which are a separate matter.

Proprietary info in a sample = person who won't be hired by our company, ever. You actually get put on an informal blacklist in the HR office. It's even a question on our hiring form ("have you ever violated any company security policies? If so, explain below")

Mind you, we're in technology. If you're looking to work for, say, heavy industry it might not be quite the same problem. However, we take these sorts of things very very seriously, and so did both of my previous employers.

...also, I strongly suggest considering the suggestions amtho makes regarding OSS projects.
posted by aramaic at 9:59 AM on June 9, 2005


proprietary info is almost always covered by the contract you signed when you went to work for the company whose document you created (the part where it says they own everything you write, and get to decide who sees it
This is not a clause in any contract I have ever signed. I always clarify with the client that I have a right to show my work to other prospective clients, and have never had one balk. Guess I won't be working for aramaic's company. Again, showing work is vastly different from leaving work with an interviewer.

"Hard-core Word skills"? Word is so far from being the industry standard that it isn't funny. FrameMaker has been the standard, but InDesign appears to be the coming thing. I have had jobs that used Word, but it was always a headache. There is no level of skill that will get Word to perform at a level comparable to Frame, or Interleaf, or for that matter, Quark or PageMaker.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:19 PM on June 9, 2005


These are some good responses so far, thanks guys! It's starting to sound like I would be biting off a lot more than I expected. My skills with Word's intricacies are not stellar, and I have no experience with higher-end products like FrameMaker. I guess I was envisioning that there was this wealth of companies out there that needed someone who could take a software app, device, or some kind of concept and turn it into a coherent, formal document. Not so much that they were looking for people to write books, illustrate manuals, or otherwise develop high-end professional output from an aesthetic point of view.

It sounds like I might want to re-think this idea :-)
posted by autojack at 1:36 PM on June 9, 2005


Don't give up yet, jack!
It sounds as though you could be a talented budding tech writer - if that really appeals to you (other than simply as a way to make money), go for it. I was very happy as a tech writer for almost 7 years (then I got the Project Management bug).
Also, in spite of what Kirth Gerson says, Word is still the unfortunate standard at many places. I have worked at a bank and Word was the ONLY tool they used; I currently work at a technology firm, and they also only use Word. I don't know about now, but back in the day RoboHelp (a tool used to create online help) used Word as its "kernel" - so knowing about Word can never hurt.
Do check out the STC - they often have good classes, and their meetings can be quite informative.
Best of luck.
posted by dbmcd at 2:27 PM on June 9, 2005


No, don't give up! There is a wealth of those companies; many of them just don't yet realize they need someone like you. And you are correct that the combination of technical savvy and writing ability is uncommon. I came at it from the other side - I was a technician and engineer who can write.

Look into certificate programs at your state college. With your English degree, that ought to get you in the door. If you can land a job using InDesign or Frame, you're in business. They're not rocket science, after all. Nor is Word, for that matter.

If you truly are good, word of mouth should keep you working; good tech writers are scarce.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:00 PM on June 9, 2005


Thanks again for the suggestions everyone, this has given me some things to chew on. dbmcd: Oh god, Robohelp. If I never have to use that again it will still be too soon. I had forgotten that I also banged on that to develop a Windows help system to go along with the manual. We ended up outsourcing that component...

I will check out the STC - just finding out that there is a trade group of sorts for people in that profession is a big big help! Heck, they even have a section on their site about how to break into the profession! I'll see what they can do for me.
posted by autojack at 7:32 PM on June 9, 2005


I've been doing tech writing for *mumble*...a long time. For freelance work, I've written a fair number of "advertorials" which are those things in the Wall Street Computer Review that look like editorials/stories, but are labeled with the little "advertisement" block on top. But I only got gigs like that after writing manuals, man pages, project bones and whatnot for a long time and had plenty of time to build up not only my portfolio, but my contact rolodex...if I may be permitted to remind folks of the pre-pda years.

As a couple of people have mentioned, it's almost impossible to do "freelance work" that will not involved time at the client site. I've never had a contract, other than advertising work, where I didn't have to go in somewhere to talk to engineers, pound on code, field test how the users would approach the product, etc.

That said, it's a pretty fun field. If you just want to test out your chops on technical writing, there are tons of publications, on and off line that would love to get free content...you can always charge them after the first hit. heh. Pick a subject/object that interests you and write about it in such a way that it interests and informs someone else.

As to being a full-time tech writer, you will have to know Frame. Interleaf and InDesign are both likely to come up as desired skills. Pagemaker and Quark, not so much anymore...but gods preserve us from people that want big documents done in Word...it's just not robust enough for the things a tech writer usually tackles. (It's fine for small stuff...but not so much the big manuals or anything that's going to a professional print job.)

Good luck!
posted by dejah420 at 2:24 PM on June 10, 2005


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