While everything I wrote was true to my own experiences, I did leave out some of the major challenges that all technical writers face.
This week I’m going to fix that oversight in this post by listing seven challenges that you may face as a freelance technical writer.
Seven Challenges to Technical Writing
Technical writing is a great field, but there are some challenges that technical writers must sometimes overcome:
- Rework and repetition. Technical writers have a lot of rework and repetitive work–not necessarily because the writer has done anything wrong, but rather because the technical products that they are writing about tend to change often. It’s common for a new technical writer to be assigned the task of updating existing materials, rather than producing new information.
- No byline. It’s rare for a technical writer to get a byline on a manual, help system, or other document that he or she has produced. This is one reason why good references are so important. Although you should bring samples to interviews whenever you can, your prospective client will almost certainly be checking with your previous documentation manager.
- Respect. Technical writers usually work as part of a technical team. While I had wonderful experiences with nearly every team I was on, occasionally a technical writer encounters a team of engineers or programmers who just don’t want to cooperate, either because they are too busy or because they don’t see the value in what the writer is doing. A good technical writer must also have good people skills.
- Long hours. Staff technical writers tend to work long hours. They often have deadlines that mirror the tight deadlines faced by the development team. Sometimes freelance technical writers aren’t allowed to work those long hours because management doesn’t want to pay overtime. Other times, however, the freelancer works as many hours as the staff writers do. Clarify overtime expectations before accepting any jobs.
- Change. If you’re a technical writer, you’re probably working in a technology field. This means that things will be changing often. The tools you use, the product you write about, and even the manner in which you produce information will be different over the course of your career. It’s important for you to invest the time and effort that it takes to learn new things.
- Must work core hours on site. At nearly every company where I worked as a technical writer, we were required to work on site at least part of the time. This varies from company to company, but I think that there are still some companies who require their writers to work on site–particularly if the product is large, non-portable, or if the writer will be dealing with sensitive information.
- Meetings. Technical writers go to both formal, and informal meetings. Even freelance technical writers usually find it necessary to schedule meetings with other members of the development team. If the company has more than one technical writer, there are often writing group meetings to discuss common problems and standards.
Anyone who is seriously considering transitioning into the technical writing field should think long and hard about these challenges before making a final decision. All of these obstacles can be overcome, but it requires effort.
Learn Even More About Technical Writing
You don’t have to take my word on what technical writing is like. Fortunately, there are many good online resources available from other technical writers.
If you’re truly interested in freelance technical writing, it’s actually a good idea to get a variety of perspectives. Everyone’s experience will be a little bit different based on where they work and the type of assignments that they’ve worked on.
Spend some time looking at the resources below.
Here are some great descriptions of technical writing from other technical writers on the web:
- “Could you please tell me what the job of a technical writer is like?” from Tom Johnson
- The Technical Writing FAQ from John Hewitt
- A day in the life…of a Senior Technical Writer from Lynda Sereno
- Day in the Life of a Technical Writer + Buffet video link from Heidi Hansen
Also, here are some terrific writing blogs with a technical writing focus:
What other questions do you have about technical writing? Are you a technical writer? Why not share your experiences?