Technical Writing – Flexibility is Your Friend
These days, technical writing and editing work tends to land in the contract niche for a large number of corporations. While some companies do employ full-time, permanent technical writers and editors, there is a growing trend towards contracting for this need, and the service desk industry is following this trend.
Having worked as a freelance technical writer and editor for over 20 years, what I can share for those who are new to this niche market is that your greatest skill is flexibility.
- Be flexible on hourly and project rates – many technical writers wind up losing work because they aggressively price themselves out of the market. I am not suggesting that you undercut your talents and all the years of effort you’ve put into learning your craft, but I am advocating being practical with your price quotes. Is it better to insist on an inflated rate quote and lose the contract, or is it better to be flexible with your rate quote and land the contract? You’re the only one who can make these judgment calls; my goal is to have paying work in my calendar pipeline. I am open to negotiating my hourly and project rates to fit the budget of my clients. Because of this flexibility, I find that many clients invite me to come back for multiple projects.
- Be flexible about learning new concepts, new products, new software, etc. – there are some technical writers and editors who do choose a narrow industry focus such as medical or science content, and there is nothing wrong with this mindset as both industries pay very well. However, unless you have the education and/or years of experience specific to that niche market, it will be challenging to get a foot in the door for these branches of technical writing work. My advice here is to be open to working in a wide range of industries. This will broaden your skill base and give you valuable professional contacts.
- Be flexible with continuing education – this one is tricky! Many job postings will request very specific certifications, licensing and years of experience in specific applications. While these certs and trainings are wonderful to have under your belt, they are expensive, sometimes prohibitively so for an independent contractor, and you run the risk of pouring large amounts of money into certs that do not benefit your career. Educate yourself on the certifications that are most widely requested for your niche market and put time into researching the best training options. Many cert programs are vague and there isn’t a specific governing body here in the United States to regulate what is offered. Choose wisely with certification training and make sure what you are investing in will complement your chosen technical writing market.
- Be flexible about sourcing work – networking on LinkedIn, establishing solid professional relationships with recruiters and hiring managers in your local area, and being your own marketing agent will serve you well. No one specific approach is going to keep work coming in the door; you have to investigate every option and opportunity that comes across your desk. Freelancing is not for the faint of heart, and it requires daily effort and a strong daily time commitment to keep work in your pipeline. I dedicate approximately three hours each day of the business week to networking and job sourcing when I am between contracts. This obviously scales back during active contracts, but even then, I put active daily effort into communicating with recruiters, hiring managers and scanning multiple job boards for upcoming job opportunities.
- Be flexible with often working alone – learn, if you don’t already possess this skill, to be a self-starter. Project managers don’t want to constantly babysit you as they begin implementation of a project. Quite often, I work on a solitary setup after being given access to SMEs and building teams to accomplish the project at hand. There are also many projects that require a remote work scenario with occasional onsite visits, with the onus being on me to accomplish daily progress from my home office. Being responsible and dependable regarding production goals for each stage of the projected timeline is essential to success as a technical writer.
- Be flexible with your finances – plan for the proverbial rainy day! Freelancing/contract work is rarely a stable endeavor. It is prudent to always keep your finances in the forefront of your mind. Find a good accountant. Be a good steward of your money, and always have a fall back fund to tide you over during slow months, because those slow months will occur. You will have years where your work calendar is full and you have people on a wait list, and you will have years where you’re fortunate to land one or two contracts. Knowing how to roll with those financial vagaries is one of the best skills you can learn as a freelancer in any niche field.
- Be flexible in dealing with disparate personalities – this one is extremely important. As a technical writer, you will be asked to interact almost daily with a wide range of Subject Matter Experts in order to cull sufficient information for your documentation processes. It is paramount that you are able to quickly establish a good rapport with these people, have good interview skills, and it is equally important that you project a strong level of interest in learning about your current writing project.
Be flexible, period! Being open to learning new skills will add value to your contract options. Hiring managers want to know that you are confident in your abilities to quickly learn new skills, new products, new software, new concepts, etc. Human resources managers also want to see a comprehensive knowledge base across a wide range of experience in your CV, as this establishes that you dedicate time and attention to being a well rounded technical writer. Over the course of 3-5 years as a technical writer, you will begin to identify where you want to narrow your personal focus for your fields of specialization.
Technical writing and editing are vitally important to the public face of any organization. All written content, from websites, to emails, to manuals and training modules, to promotional content must be well written, cleanly edited and professionally presented to the public. Gaining working knowledge of a wide range of industries will identify you as that Go To person in your business network, and you will grow a solid reputation for your writing skills. Your work performance becomes a calling card – a valuable marketing tool to employ.
My Vice President of Communications role with Smoky Mountain HDI chapter is another avenue of personal marketing. Every city and small town has a strong networking community. Join your local Chamber of Commerce. Attend networking group functions – you’ll find hundreds of them locally, regionally and nationally on LinkedIn and MeetUp. Join organizations such as HDI. Always keep business cards in your pocket and extras in your car. One of my areas of specialization is software documentation, with a focus on ITIL and ITSM processes for the Service Desk Industry. Had I not been flexible about accepting a contract for the service desk industry several years ago, I wouldn’t have been exposed to this flourishing niche market. I knew next to nothing about ITIL and ITSM processes at the time, but I chose to be flexible to a new opportunity, and said yes to the contract, and was rewarded with another skill to add to my resume.
S. Dawn Sievers is the Vice President of Communications for the Smoky Mountain HDI chapter. Find Dawn’s professional profile on our Board of Directors page, and on her LinkedIn page: www.linkedin.com/in/sdawnsievers/.
Smoky Mountain HDI Chapter is a group of IT Service and Support Professionals living in the Great Smoky Mountains connecting to share ideas, grow technical skills, boost careers, and create a wide array of technical resources and connections while helping one another succeed.
**Interested in joining Smoky Mountain HDI Chapter, or attending one of our free chapter events? Visit our website for more details!**