Would you like to use the knowledge that you already possess to dramatically increase your income?
This is not a sales pitch. If you’re a consultant or contractor and you want to improve your income, consider trying your hand at technical writing. The same skill set that provides your clients with answers can earn you some extra bucks in the publishing world. Here are my thoughts on what technical writing is and is not, what skills you’ll need, and how to get your foot in the door as a technical writer.
Technical writing: What it isn’t
First, I must dispel a myth about technical writing. You don’t need a degree in literature to work as a technical writer. Contrary to what you think you know—or have been told—the rules today have changed. I have been able to ascertain in my experience that the three types of people currently working as technical writers today are those who:
- Know how to write but have little technical background.
- Come from a technical background but have little writing experience.
- Have neither a technical nor writing background.
Very few technical writers have an English or journalism degree of any type. What this tells me is that companies have relaxed their standards for these positions in order to find people with at least some of the qualifications. It’s a tight market out there, and I have yet to work for a company that didn’t need some sort of documentation.
A look at the technical writing market
The easiest way to get an idea of what technical writers produce is to get your hands on some examples. Look around at your current workplace for forms of documentation. You probably use it every day in your current position. You’ll find that much of it is poorly written or contains redundancies.
The standard of technical documentation today is depressing. The upside to low standards is that it’s fairly easy to rise to the top of the field. I have accepted a few positions in the past from companies with little or no standardization or documentation in place. This is becoming more commonplace today with the rush-to-market mentality that most companies seem to embrace. In one position I was hired as an engineer and told that the creation of documentation was part of my job. I soon found myself creating documents of procedure, requests for quotes, requests for proposals, and so on. I didn’t realize until later that I had been doing technical writing all along. And in all likelihood the same holds true for you. So why not branch out and use what you already know to produce a second income?
Do you have the “write” skill set?
To break into technical writing, you will need these basic skills:
- Technical knowledge (which, as a consultant, you should already have)
- Self-motivation (which, again, as a consultant, you should have)
- Writing ability
- Good human-relations skills
This last one is tough, since most folks believe that IT people are not human. The reputation you earn for yourself can be good or bad. Although getting along with people won’t usually get you work, not getting along with people can, and will, cost you work.
The prevalent applications used to create company documents today are Microsoft Word, Adobe FrameMaker, and Adobe Acrobat. Another application, RoboHelp, is used to create help files for applications. Proficiency with any or all of these programs will greatly enhance your marketability as a technical writer.
Look back over your consulting career and try to remember any and all documentation you may have produced. Gather copies of as many of these types of assignments as possible and create a portfolio of your work to show prospective employers. These can be computer manuals, help files, in-house documentation, requests for quotes, or procedural documents.
Next, tweak your resume. It should already show your technical expertise. Now just add the writing that you’ve done to complement your technical projects. Highlighting your technical accomplishments with your writing skills creates an ideal combination for prospective clients with technical writing needs.
Finding leads for freelance writing work
What makes technical writing a practical second income is that it can usually be conducted by telecommuting or on a freelance basis. A good place to start looking for writing work is with your current employer. What type of documentation are they currently using, if any? Do they have an in-house person for creation of the documentation? It doesn’t hurt to ask.
Another source of work is employment agencies. As a consultant, you may already have some insight into how they operate. They’re a great source of information about the technical writing market in your area—who’s hiring freelancers, what they are paying, and how much experience they generally look for. An alternative method is to use your own network of contacts to generate leads. This is often the best approach to getting your foot in the door.
Where can I find training?
The Web is a great source of training and advice for technical writers. Here are a few useful sites:
- About.com’s technical writing site offers numerous links and helpful hints.
- Adobe's site gives information about Adobe FrameMaker, a tool for publishing long, content-rich documents across multiple channels.
- Contract Employment Weekly's site listed more than 100 technical writing jobs as of this writing.
- ForeFront offers Help authoring tools.
- The Society for Technical Communication offers numerous books and newsletters, as well as newsgroups dedicated to technical writers.
- The Tech Writing Marketplace provides free reports, books for sale, and tips on becoming a technical writer.
If at first you don’t succeed…
Technical writing isn’t like other IT vocations. You don’t need to pass an exam or become certified. There’s no horrendous out-of-pocket expense for boot camps or vendor-specific training. Most of what you need to know you have already or you can get on your own. With a few assignments, it’s possible to increase your current income by 25 to 50 percent or more. While it’s true that many IT consultants will not succeed as technical writers, ambition and tenacity are the keys to making it in a field where there is definitely money to be made.
How did you get started in the technical writing market? What’s the best way to get technical writing contracts? Post a comment below or send us a note.