A Career in Technical Writing
– what can you expect? –

What can you expect from a career in technical writing? The answer depends on a couple of factors. Specifically,

  • will you be a lone technical writer or part of a technical writing team?
  • will you be a freelance technical writer or an employee?

Working as a Lone Technical Writer
In this situation, you will be responsible for the entire documentation project, from the planning stage through to delivery. You must be able to evaluate the product and analyze customer requirements in order to determine the information required by the end user. You will design the templates for the books in the documentation suite and ensure that documents are tested before they are delivered. You will write all the books in the suite and you are therefore as at ease writing installation guides as you are at writing APIs and online help. You will also advise the design team on the usability of the product or application.

You will work with a team that includes engineers (usually mechanical and electrical) and software developers. You will most likely report to someone who has no experience in or knowledge of technical writing, although you might report to someone who has worked with a technical writer in the past. If the previous technical writer did a mediocre job—as is, unfortunately, often the case—you may find that you are disliked or regarded with suspicion until you prove your worth.

Working on a Writing Team
Writing teams can comprise as few as two writers or as many as two hundred writers. As an inexperienced writer, you will have more chance of getting hired to work in a large team than a small team. The larger the writing team, the more mature its policies and procedures for developing documentation and managing the documentation project.

You will report to someone who is an experienced writer. At first, you will be given easy projects to work on and you will be responsible for only one or two documents in the documentation suite. Your work will be closely monitored and you might be asked to rewrite parts of your documents more than once. You will learn to manage your time, use the desktop publishing software, interview subject-matter experts (SMEs), research glossary terms, and organize information. As you become more experienced, you will be given increasingly difficult documents to write (a product description, for example, is more difficult to write than an installation guide).

Most large writing teams will have templates that you will use as the basis of your documentation. Some templates can be quite complex, others quite simple. Regardless, pay attention to how the template is designed and put together. You might one day be required to design a template. Template design is a skill that few know how to do well.

Working as a Freelance Technical Writer
If you decide to work as a freelancer, you will be hired to complete a specific task within a finite period of time. You are paid according to an hourly rate or, inadvisably, a flat rate, which you negotiate with your client when you are hired. You will not receive any employee benefits and when the contract ends you will not receive unemployment insurance. You are not eligible for maternity leave benefits.

A contract can be renewed, but you might not be told that it is renewed until only a couple of days or weeks before your current contract is to end. Whether you begin looking for a contract with another company during the time of not knowing will depend on how certain you are that your current contract will be renewed.

The rates you charge depend more on what the market will bear than on your level of experience. You will keep track of the hours you work and you will submit an invoice to the company on a monthly or bi-weekly basis. Your check is not processed by the payroll department, but, rather, by the accounts payable department. It can take up to six weeks to receive a check.

Since taxes are not withheld from the check, you must set aside a portion of the amount earned so that you can pay your taxes when the time comes. You should also set aside a portion of your check so that you can support yourself during downtimes between contracts. Until recently, a six-month reserve of funds was considered sufficient; nowadays, it is safer to set aside an eight- to twelve-month reserve.

Even though you are paid at a higher rate than a full-time technical writer, the company you work for saves money because you are not an employee. Companies do not have to pay taxes on consultants at the same rate that they do for employees. Since governments make more money from companies that hire employees than they do from companies that hire consultants, they tend to take a dim view of companies that hire large numbers of consultants. Furthermore, since you as a consultant can claim many more tax write-offs than an employee, governments might take a dim view of you too, unless you have your own employees. If the government, at least in the United States and Canada, believes that, for all intents and purposes, you are an employee and not a consultant, they can deny any claims you make on your income tax return and they can force your client to pay taxes as though you were an employee.

What do I mean by "for all intents and purposes?" If you behave like an employee, or if the company treats you like an employee, then the government might decide that you are an employee. In order to avoid this, the company must prepare a purchase order for a specific amount of money (rate x hours) and have you sign a contract that specifies the duties you will perform. During the course of the contract, the company does not have to provide you with any of the tools you will use to complete the contract and they are not permitted to define how or when you perform your duties. You are required to provide your own equipment and you must also be able to prove that you have more than one client.

Do these rules make sense? They do if you consider that they were probably defined when most self-employed people were not consultants but manual laborers. Imagine that you own a bulldozer and have won a contract with your municipality to clear snow in the winter. The municipality expects you to provide your own equipment and they expect you to know how to do the job. They can specify that you must clean 42nd Street to 103rd Street when the snow reaches a depth of 1 inch, but they cannot specify that you work during a particular time slot. If the municipality were to provide the equipment, supervise your work, and insist that you work specific hours, they would be treating you as an employee. Likewise, you must be able to provide your bulldozing services to other clients—perhaps clearing your neighbors' driveways and working on a construction site in the summer—in order to prove that you do not depend on a single employer for your subsistence.

As a documentation consultant, you might find these rules a bit difficult to apply. If the company's hours are nine to five, you will probably feel that you are required to be at work during those hours. Similarly, if you are working for a company that uses proprietary equipment, you cannot possibly provide it yourself. Furthermore, most technical-writing contracts are full-time contracts lasting from six months to a year or more. It is not often possible to work on more than one at the same time.

How then to solve the problem? First of all, you don't have to work from nine to five every day. Your goal is to accomplish the terms of the contract, not to be at work for eight hours. You might find that some days you can accomplish your daily goals in five hours rather than eight. If so, go home early or come in late. You can use the other three hours for networking. Of course, you can bill only for the hours you work, so you can't work for five hours and bill for eight. You must be scrupulously honest about billing.

As for providing your own equipment, as long as you have the equipment required to allow you to write off site, you have nothing to worry about, even if you never actually work off site. Specifically, you should own a computer and any desktop publishing software, such as Microsoft Word or Adobe FrameMaker. It also helps to have an office address that is different from your home address.

Finally, while many contracts are full time, it is still possible to take on other types of contracts. For example, I am an editor as well as a technical writer. While I can't accomplish too much in ten minutes as a writer, I can edit 250 words in ten minutes. So, one or two editing or proofreading jobs are perfect for providing you with extra clients. Of course, if your grammar is less than stellar or if you are not sure of the difference between a comma and a semicolon, then editing and proofreading are not for you. I suggest that you take on smaller writing projects that you can do in your free time. For example:

  • children's stories — some publishers commission stories
  • copy-writing — talk to graphic designers who work on gift catalogues
  • web-page updates — companies frequently update their web pages with new information

Working as an Employee
If you are working as an employee, the rules are pretty much the same for you as for employees everywhere. Your taxes are deducted from your paycheck and you receive employee benefits. You are expected to work a specified number of hours a week and you are expected to participate in the social events provided by the company.

You report to a boss who tells you what to do. The boss evaluates your performance as an employee. You might be required to write a weekly report. It is a good idea to write one even if you are not required to do so. Send it to yourself as an email so that it is time-stamped.

Notes For Managers
The role of the lone technical writer is not for the inexperienced. Although you might be tempted to hire such a writer in order to save money (on the assumption that you would pay this person a lower salary), this course of action is not recommended because the responsibility and experience associated with the position are significant. The errors and omissions caused by an inexperienced writer in such a position will most likely be more costly than if you had hired a more experienced writer at a higher salary. Furthermore, if you are hiring a lone technical writer, it is likely that you are not a technical writer yourself. The result could be that you will not be able to properly mentor your writer or, worse, that your advice will lead to error. It is better to hire writers who know what they are doing and who can work with little or no supervision.

If you hire a freelance writer, you must expect to have less control over this person than you would an employee. You cannot define the hours they work and you certainly cannot sit them down for a performance appraisal. You can, however, terminate a contract at any time, though the intelligent consultant will ensure that the contract specifies a two- to four-week notice period.

You do not have to invite consultants to employee meetings and you do not have to provide them with formal training of any kind. You do not have to include them in employee-recognition days or invite them to the company Christmas party. Naturally, this austerity can cause some awkwardness. You have to use your judgement. I have worked at companies where the consultants were not included in anything and at others where consultants were expected to attend every social event. If there is a possibility of your being audited by the government, my advice is that you maintain a strictly business relationship with the consultant. Having worked at many companies where I was not sure whether I was expected to join in or remain aloof, I have often wished that the companies' expectations were specified in the contract.

Contracts are usually for a period of three to six months—any longer than six months and you risk having the government regard your consultant as an employee, with all the associated tax requirements. Of course, contracts can be renewed. Just be sure that your company prepares a new purchase order for each contract.

If you have never worked with the consultant before, you might want the first contract to be quite short (three months), particularly if you are squeamish about firing people. If you are not satisfied with the writer's work, you do not have to renew the contract.

The rates for a documentation consultant are approximately $50.00 to $85.00 per hour. These rates have more to do with what the market will bear rather than with the experience of the writer. Writers who have the ability to write application programming interfaces (APIs) and software development kits (SDKs) might charge at the higher end, as will writers who are required to supervise other writers.

Salaries for full-time writers depend on the writer's experience, education level, and, surprisingly in this day and age, gender. The Society for Technical Communication (STC) annually produces a salary survey that tabulates the salary distribution among American and Canadian STC members. Unfortunately, aside from the 2003 STC salary survey, the latest survey is only available to STC members. Nevertheless, salary information is quite easy to find on the Internet. For example, Salary.com provides information about U.S. salaries.