Technical writing requires the ability to write clearly, plainly, and accurately about extremely complicated material. If you can do that—and quickly—then becoming a successful technical writer is well within your grasp.
The most common clients for freelance technical writers are educational firms, training companies and manufacturing/electronics/software companies. All of these demand a high volume of documentation-style writing, and thus a high volume of technical writers to produce that writing. However, the nature of technical writing indicates there aren’t many opportunities outside these industries. Tech writing is only warranted when there’s something sufficiently complex to explain in a standardized way, and a mom n’ pop software company may not have the money or the need to hire even an entry-level tech writer. So if you want to freelance as a tech writer, you’ll almost certainly wind up working on contract for one of the bigger companies.
As with copy editing and journalism, a high degree of familiarity with as many style guides as possible is mandatory for any good freelance technical writer. Technical reports are frequently only a small part of a company’s wider technical literature. Writing all of a company’s documentation in the same style is a good way to ensure consistent quality and readability over a long company lifespan. The most commonly used style guides are AP (Associated Press), MLA (Modern Language Association), and Chicago. Strunck and White, although older, is still a classic, and commonly in use with certain firms. Pick up a copy of each and familiarize yourself with them. Knowing the popular style guides will improve your technical writing and you’ll become more marketable to a wide variety of clients as well.
Once you know which style guide your client works with (and once your own style is clear enough to write effectively), you’ll need to start thinking about how to approach your material. Contacting and interviewing SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) is often a huge part of effective technical writing. Without good technical information supporting your work, you won’t know what you’re writing about. Engineers, technicians and professionals who have to use the work you create won’t know what you’re writing about either. This leads to a severe loss of productivity and of money, and probably to the loss of your reputation at the company as well. So make sure you have enough data to write your report, and make sure you understand it as thoroughly as possible before you start planning your articles. No one expects you to know as much about, let’s say, a supercollider as a nuclear physicist (especially not on a deadline), but knowing the basic theory and how to use most of the technical vocabulary is beneficial.
The one principal rule of good writing in any field is “know your audience.” This statement is truer of technical writing than any other form of freelance writing. Your audience, in technical writing, is going to use the processes, machines, and equipment you write about. If your audience can’t understand what you’re saying or follow the flow of your argument, you’ve failed as a tech writer. Clients likely won’t hire you for future contracts.
Think carefully about whom you’re writing for. Do the users have a background in the theory behind the machine, or do they just need to know how to pull the levers and push the buttons in the right order? Will the users have ready access to troubleshooting facilities (i.e. assembly line workers with a machine shop on the factory premises); or will they have to go to some lengths to fix any mistakes they might make in operation (i.e. people who’ve bought a new operating system and have to drive an hour to whenever their computer needs service)?
Take some time to think about your end users, their likely qualifications, their questions, and their overall needs. Structure your articles to follow their probable concerns in the order they’ll come up. If you need to, talk to some of your prospective end users and ask them questions about what they find problematic in their jobs. It’ll help you think of their problems more when you’re structuring your work, and that’ll make your work that much better.
Once you have your basic structure and some idea of the logical flow of your report, all that’s left is the description. Be as clear as possible while still keeping a readable style, and be as accurate as possible. Don’t be afraid of footnotes and additional information—unless it’s specifically prohibited by your client’s style policy. As long as you’re thinking of your audience, and you’ve done the appropriate research and structuring work, this part should be straightforward.
If you can synthesize information from SMEs, keep your audience well in mind, and describe complicated processes clearly and simply, then you have the basic skills to be a successful freelance tech writer.
Watch the classifieds and make inquiries at engineering and training companies. You have a skill that’s in high demand. If you keep yourself in the marketplace (and are willing to accept a “trial period” with lower pay, in some cases), it’s only a matter of time before you establish yourself as a tech writer. Over time you can develop a reputation that’ll win you contract after contract and keep your technical writing career alive and thriving.