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Working as a freelance technical writer - part one

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Craig Wright

Are you a technical writer who is considering going freelance? That's a move I made several years ago and lots of writers contact me asking what it's like. Here, I'll share the info I have provided. It's based on my experience as a technical author working in England.

In part 1, I'm going to look at the basic things you need to consider, including setting up a business and finding work. In part 2, I'll look more at the day-to-day life of a freelance tech writer, so be sure to check that post out too.

Making the decision to go freelance

Freelancing's not for everyone. It's important to be aware of that. There are ups and downs, periods with no work coming in, and you're likely to come across clients who need you to commit to a certain number of hours. So it's not the "write a few hours when you feel like it" culture that it's sometimes made out to be.

If you can cope mentally and financially with the highs and lows of freelancing, it can be more rewarding. It's hard work getting your own clients and taking care of the admin and everything else. But it feels good to be doing it on your own. And you can mostly work more flexibly that you can in employment.

As a first step, you might want to try contracting. It's easier to find contract technical author jobs and they will give you some idea of what it's like.

Setting up as a business

In England (and maybe this applies across the UK), you need to register with companies house and set up business as either a sole trader or limited company. Depending on your income, there are pros and cons to both. I'm not going to go into that as it is a personal decision you need to make, and there's loads of articles on the web about that subject.

A few things to bear in mind:

  1. Some companies will only work with freelancers who are registered as a limited company. It's just their policy, and this is more common with larger companies.

  2. Tax returns are more complicated as a limited company. So you may need to hire an accountant in this scenario. My accountant saves me more than he costs, so it's not all bad news!

  3. If you do not want to set up as a limited company, you may be able to work under an "umbrella company". Some agencies provide this arrangement.

  4. You will need to set up a business bank account. If you shop around, there are some free options available. The big names on the high street tend to charge. You will also need insurance (liability and possibly indemnity too).

Finding work

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Getting freelance technical writing work is easy, right? You just put up a website, include a portfolio and the offers come flooding in. Well, that's not been the case for me or any of the other self-employed technical writers I know.

Here are the key things you need to know:

  1. Get a decent-looking website and make sure your LinkedIn profile is up-to-date. LinkedIn is a good source of opportunities so try to be active on there.

  2. Working through an agency on a contract basis is a good way to start out. You may be able to work for the client directly further down the line. But there will probably be something in the agency contract that puts a time limit on this. But be aware, contracting is unlikely to be the freelance life you've imagined. Most contracts seem to be on-site work.

  3. Don't expect a flood of work to come in, no matter how great your web site is. Technical writing is something of a niche. But you're not limited to the UK - there's work to be had for companies in other countries, and having a native English speaker can be a big bonus for them.

  4. Spend some time on job sites looking for technical writing opportunities (permanent and contract) in your area. This will give you an idea of the local demand and from that, you can judge whether you're going to need to focus on remote working. In England,  most of the work is in the South East, as you might expect.

  5. The "content mill" sites like People Per Hour and can be a source of work when you're starting out or having a quiet spell. But I wouldn't recommend them unless you are struggling as it is often a scramble for the lowest bidder.

Equipment and tools

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Just a decent laptop and you're good to go, right? Not so fast. When you are your own boss, you need to think about your health, so consider getting an ergonomic chair and a proper desk, one that you can adjust to stand up ideally (Ikea do them).

There's also the cost of software to consider. Now you're going to have to pay for your own subscriptions to the tools you need, and if you get lots of different clients that can mount up.

I suggest holding back on the more expensive products until you get a feel for the clients you are going to get. You may find that you don't need to use your own software so much because they are using systems you can log in to, such as Zendesk or Confluence.

Training and keeping up-to-date

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Another thing you're going to have to pay for is training. The amount of training you decide to take will likely depend on the cost, your interests and opportunities, and the availability of courses.

Finding suitable training courses can be tough. Over the years, I've found Armada's training to be useful, especially on areas that are not my main focus, such as using Adobe Illustrator and Captivate. Cherryleaf also provide a variety of training courses that are relevant to technical authors.

I've also started to explore other skill sets such as content design and later this year, hope to take some UX writing training.

How much time should you allow for training? It depends on how much you need! I try to allow for a couple of weeks per year to go on courses to learn new skills or brush up on existing ones. That seems to be enough to complement the usual learning on the job that comes with technical writing roles.

Coming in part two ...

In the next part, I'm going to look at the day-to-day workflow of a freelance technical writer. I'll look at some of the problems you may face, and offer some advice on how to deal with them. See you there.

Craig Wright is an experienced technical writer based in Chesterfield, UK.  He hates writing about himself in the third person, so I shall stop now.

Always interested in new content writing opportunities. Remote working preferred.

Posted under Tech Comm, Freelancing

Last modified: 18 May 2024

Headshot of Craig.

Craig Wright is an experienced technical writer based in Chesterfield, UK.  He hates writing about himself in the third person, so I shall stop now.

Always interested in new content writing opportunities. Remote working preferred.

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