How to succeed as a freelance technical writer
So you want to be a freelance technical writer? Maybe not, but maybe you’re at least wondering:
- What does a technical writer do?
- What’s it like working as a freelancer for a startup?
- How does it feel working remotely for a product launch?
Hopefully, I can answer those questions and shed some small insight into working remotely, as a freelance writer, for an exciting startup.
Quix is a small startup with a very strong team, headed by four McLaren engineers. Their work is, quite frankly, mind-bogglingly complex. They’re fighting the good fight: taking a pile of complicated concepts and technologies, wrapping them up into a manageable package, and selling access to a much-improved way of working. Classic SaaS stuff.
The mission revolves around data streaming. Even for a technical-minded writer such as myself, it’s a world of confusing terminology, acronyms, and opaque concepts.
The company is just over a year old now, and I started working for them a couple of months before launch. This is probably the most exciting and daunting period in any team’s lifecycle, and this was no exception.
Taking a product to launch in a world hit by global pandemic requires a whole new way of working. We’ve heard how long-established companies have struggled to adapt, but what about trying to build a company culture and product under such conditions?
This example of one of the company’s principles sums up their attitude best:
We operate at the edge of our comfort zone, which means we are ok with knowledge gaps and mistakes, as long as we’re learning and growing together as a team.
It’s a perfect message and one that, as a freelancer, is music to my ears. One of the most valuables skills a freelancer can possess is the ability to hit the ground running. But if there’s room for patience, if your client recognises that you won’t know everything from day one, that’s all the better.
Outside of full-time fixed employment, I hadn’t really done much technical writing before. At the time, I was more interested in general content writing than documenting the hardcore technical details of the system.
But with twenty-odd years of programming experience behind me, I’d certainly experienced the trials of documentation. Programmers hate it. Obviously everyone’s different and programmers are no exception, but those who code tend to want to stick to what they’re good at: coding.
As someone who has always straddled the obscure line between programming and writing, I don’t quite share this reluctance, but I understand it. Writing code and writing prose might seem like the same kind of task, but they could hardly be more different.
For technical writers, broad knowledge is a valuable qualification. Nobody understands every technology to the nth-degree. However, a fundamental grounding in computer science puts you in a position that a deep understanding of one narrow field cannot. Your client will be using any conceivable technology, and you’ll be expected to write about them all.
I won’t lie: the domain I threw myself into at Quix is not one I’m at all familiar with. My hands-on experience with tech such as Kafka, Kubernetes, or even Docker is next to null. I felt the struggle. In fact, after the first couple of weeks, I wondered if I had made an almighty mistake. Out of my depth, a sense of imposter syndrome kicked in, surely not helped by the freelancer relationship.
It’s important to find your niche, working together with your client to achieve this, if necessary. Unless you’re working with a highly specific, formally defined brief, there is potential to explore options. Most small teams approaching a launch phase will have too much work, not too little. This is to your advantage: it means you can focus on the areas where you bring most value.
Practicalities of remote freelancing
Video calling is now integral to much of our work — as a remote freelancer, this goes triple! The team at Quix had clearly honed their calls so they worked like the proverbial well-oiled machine. Daily standups and impromptu video meetings were the order of the day, and they came as second nature.
That doesn’t mean things will always go smoothly, and the reasons for that can affect many practical aspects of your day-to-day work as a freelancer. You may face some, or all, of the following challenges:
- Being a guest member of a video call might limit your options — using Microsoft Teams, this appears to include setting your background!
- You could be invited to a couple of slack channels, but not being a full member of the organisation means you won’t have access to much discussion.
- If you’re not part of the organisation’s productivity suite, you might not have any meaningful calendar access. Make sure you can communicate your availability somehow.
A shift in attitude
Just as you’ll need to be flexible with your knowledge, you’ll need to be the same with your ways of working. Every team has its culture, its way of working that can look utterly alien from the outside. I consider myself very fortunate that the Quix culture was instantly appealing: clearly talented people, with a can-do attitude, a complete absence of any blame culture, and a willingness to get stuck in. But a sense of fun and togetherness went alongside that, from regular remote yoga sessions to video socials.
I kept the extra-curricular activities at arm’s length — an appropriate strategy for a freelancer, I believe. But experiences vary, and you may want to immerse yourself in the company culture more than day-to-day work allows for; finding a company that provides for that social interaction, even for its freelancers, is a treat!
Startups are often figuring out the best way of working. They’re nimble enough to be able to try different tools. Just a few weeks before launch, the team switched from Jira to Clubhouse. This seemed like a very strange move at the time — if anything’s going to cause delays, surely switching out the tool at the centre of working is going to do it. My fears were unfounded: Quix was a team just small enough, and just agile enough to be able to pivot like this and barely even stop to breathe. In no time, the new project management tool was second nature.
As a freelancer you’re not a fully fledged member of the team. This is fine if you got into freelancing because you didn’t want to be a full-time, long-term member of a single team. But be prepared to deal with the flaws that relationship can introduce: be a well-behaved guest and increase your chances of being invited to the next party!
The issue of payment
There’s no skirting around the fact that, as freelancers, details surrounding pay are of prime importance. How much, when, how, etc. — these are details we need to concern ourselves with more than most. But this goes for both parties involved.
If there’s room for negotiation, you might have to weigh up an hourly rate versus a daily one. Personally, I prefer an hourly rate unless there’s clear evidence of a long, steady backlog of work available. It puts less pressure on the client to ensure your workload is sufficient, and it offers flexibility if you’re working for several clients.
Technical writing isn’t for everyone, nor is freelancing, nor is remote working. Combine the three and you have a highly-specific set of circumstances. However, if you’re considering this type of role, here are my seven tips:
- Have broad rather than deep knowledge.
- Be prepared to research and ask questions.
- Be good at working independently.
- Organise yourself, particularly when it comes to time-keeping.
- Be prepared to use unfamiliar tools.
- Recognise imposter syndrome and understand that your value is likely to differ from that of permanent employees.
- Accept that you won’t always feel at the centre of work culture.