If you look at the title freelance tech writer, there are two primary skill sets required. First, you must have some type of technical knowledge, or the ability and willingness to learn technical information very quickly. Secondly, you must be able to write.
If you have absolutely no experience in either writing or technical subjects, the best ways to jump into the field are by formal education and on-the-job training. If you are still attending college, opt for a technical major with a minor or emphasis in tech writing, if possible. Bear in mind that most freelance tech writers are not writing journalistic pieces as much as they are writing manuals, procedures, and technical specifications. Your writing courses should be tailored to these formats. In addition, do not make the mistake of opting for a writing-related degree. In general, those with technical degrees make more than those with writing degrees. The technical degree is more valuable, even to those who would hire you as a freelance tech writer. An engineer who writes is more highly valued than an English major who tinkers with their computer on weekends and is a pretty quick study of technical matters. That may seem a bit harsh, but the feedback from the market (based on incomes) is rather straightforward.
But not everyone has the money or time to attend college. If you are bright and learn well, you can still get started as a freelance tech writer. Your education will just be of the on-the-job training variety.
Your first step is to find an entry-level job. This will most likely be with a major corporation, or with a company that is growing rapidly. The job should either be with a company in the tech sector or with a company’s technical department. Most likely, this will consist of doing simple computer installations, or answering the phones of a technical support help desk, where you are largely guided by detailed scripts. It might even be a clerical job for a technical department. That’s OK. What is important here is that you get your foot in the door and soak up as much technical know-how as you can. Ask questions. Study everything. Be a sponge. Your goal is to get promoted, leaving the company within five years to begin your freelance tech writing career.
While you are learning everything you can, think about specialization, too. You can’t be the world’s guru on all technical matters. There is simply too much information to analyze. Pick one to three areas you’d like to focus on and stick with them. And be nice to everyone – you’re building contacts as well as skills.
But the entry-level tech job is merely your day job. You still have evenings and weekends, and those need to be put to good use. (Remember, there is the writing part of this equation.) Start writing for anyone who will give you the experience – newsletters, local newspapers, web sites. You’ll want a byline (that’s the “By Jane Author” after the title), because you are now building your writing portfolio. Once you have a nice presentation book full of clips, start refusing any writing done free of charge. Get paid something for everything you write. As you advance in your technical studies at your day job, continue to progress in your freelance writing career as well.
In five years or less, you’ll put the two skills together and strike out on your own as a freelance writer. Keep this plan in mind. Look for opportunities on your day job to write the kinds of things people will hire a freelance tech writer for: How-to guides, technical specifications, “cheat” sheets (to help users new to a piece of software), and user manuals.
As you prepare to strike out on your own, be sure to announce your resignation to as many people as possible – everyone you know within your day job’s company, as well as all of your freelance clients. (You can tell your freelance clients much earlier. The folks at your day job probably shouldn’t be told until you have given official notice. Do be sure and review how the company is likely to react. You may only have the ability to send one resignation email, as many companies escort you out of the building once notice is given.) This is the kind of word-of-mouth marketing you will need to establish yourself as a freelance tech writer.
But this isn’t the time to rest on your laurels. As a freelance tech writer, you’ll not only need enough clients to make ends meet, but you’ll also need to keep up with technology. The company where you had your day job will not be sending you to training any more, and some technical professionals spend as much as $10,000 per year on their own continuing education. (Look to my web site, www.carolannecarroll.com, for a good start-up business guide, Start Your Own Home Business in No Time.)
Your chances for success are best if:
1. You learn quickly, and can also apply what you have learned without someone telling you to do so.
2. You are organized. Much of technical writing is about presenting complicated information in an organized fashion, so the reader is not overwhelmed.
3. You can balance the straightforward, technical aspects of freelance tech writing with a people-oriented approach to the material.
4. You can relate well to a wide variety of people, from highly introverted coders and programmers to highly extroverted marketing people (and vice versa, and everyone in between).