ASK US WEDNESDAY: “How do you get into technical writing?”

by Leo Wiles
26 June 2019

I’m interested in technical writing. How do you get into it and are the rates higher or lower than other freelance writing? Many thanks, Nina

Hi Nina. Taking complex information and making it digestible for widespread audiences is the bread and butter of all journalists and for technical writers. It’s pretty much the same deal as what you’re probably already doing, just on steroids.

The wide spectrum of technical writing

Because the scope and scale of the work is as labyrinthine as the actual writing, there’s a wide scale of ‘technical writers’. At one end, you’ll find pseudo technical writers such as myself with a communication and media degree who worked for companies such as One Tel and Sydney Water.  I say pseudo because I was busy interviewing board members and gleaning information from internal engineers and boffins to write how to guides, articles, instructional manuals and brochures for internal and external communication channels.  Conversely, an English major I knew named Tess who was classified as a technical writer, spent her 20s as a staffer, working across various needlework titles deciphering patterns into replicable instructions for readers.

Both of us slid into technical writing by learning on the job although more importantly we had a degree, an eye for detail and an ability to distil the complex into concise comprehensible words. Just as importantly, we had an interest in technology /conservation and embroidery respectively (for which I was paid $45 an hour back in the 1990s).

Blue chips and software companies

At the other end of the spectrum are technical writers who work for blue chip mining firms or software companies. These are the biggest employers of tech writers and they pay good money (in the realm of a six-figure salary if you’re in-house). But there are also heaps of freelance technical writing opportunities out there – which might run the gamut from white papers to product descriptions to brochures, technical design specifications, operational procedures, technical literature and documentation, instruction manuals, journal articles, how-to guides and everything in between. You would price these probably as a project rate based on the complexity of the job, your experience and your hourly rate.

As you would expect, a journalism degree or one in communication and media is a bare minimum. Most employers prefer a university degree in their respective field of computer science, engineering etc. Salary-wise, you’d be remunerated in accordance to your degree, Honours, Masters and of course years of experience writing up data models, manufacturing processes, validation activities and drawing technical diagrams.

Getting started

If you want to know more the Australian Society for Technical Communication has a whole page devoted to free resources and another recommending various post graduate university and online courses, and these would probably be a good place to start. This list of books on technical writing might be helpful too.

If you’re ready to start picking up clients and have a few samples of your technical writing to show, you could tweak your LinkedIn profile so your headline reads, ‘Freelance technical writer specialising in XYZ’ – with whatever your speciality is, so you’re picked up in those keyword searches. This post by copywriter John Espiran also offers a great technique for finding clients on LinkedIn  – you could just tweak the method to find people seeking technical writers.

Are you a technical writer? What would be your advice for Nina on picking up technical writing work?

We'd love to hear your thoughts...