Copyright 2020 Melanie Spiller. All rights reserved.
Getting Started as a Technical Writer
MelanieSpiller and Coloratura Consulting
A reader tells me that she writes at work and would like to translate that into freelance cash. Even if you don’t write at work, you can get into this line of work with a little research.First, have a look at your resume and make a list of all the skills and knowledge you have that you think you could teach, talk about enthusiastically, or sell. This should include technology, academic subjects, and odd little quirks, like being able to tell what’s wrong with a car by listening to the engine. (I can talk endlessly about Gregorian chant and modes, for instance.)Now, make note of what level of experience you think you have for each of those topics and what level of audience you think you could teach, talk to enthusiastically, or sell.Once you’ve identified your level of expertise and suitable audiences, have a look for online or in-print magazines and books on the topics at your skill level. Read through as many as you can without your head actually exploding. (You will find a lot of repeated coverage here and there, and you may find this research tedious.) Be sure to read a few articles that are both more and less advanced than your target audience, so you have a sense of what is out there.You should have a good sense of which magazines and online articles are publishing what after all that reading. Now you just need to know that youcan do it. Perhaps you haven’t written anything but emails since school, or maybe your at-work writing is formulaic and stilted. You need to know whether you can write something for a less specific audience than your teacher or your boss. So give yourself a writing assignment. (Oh, come on. You didn’t think I was going to suggest that you try your fledgling effort for cash money on a deadline, did you?) Write 2500 words, illustrated, on the subject of your choice. Reread it, editing brutally, at least four times.Go ahead; before you start, reread my blogs on Outlining, Audience, Organizing Principles, and maybe Analyzing Good Writing, parts 1 and 2. You might also want to have a look at Copyright, Term Papers versus Writing for Publication, A Plan to Write, Seven Simple Things, and Tidying Up. Now you need to walk away from your work for a couple of days, a week if you can stand it. Give it time to process; you need to get distance from it so you can pass judgement on it, and you need to see what additional thoughts you have about the topic and your piece’s focus during the intervening days. If you could do some other writing, to really distance yourself from this piece, that would be great.When you read your paper again, try to react as if you hadn’t seen it before. Does it:Answer the promise made by the title and headings?Read in a straight path from introduction to conclusion?Match the word count (within 50 words) with clear and concise language—is there jargon or repetition to create more words?Seem comfortable and inviting, or is it stiff or overly playful? Are you pleased by any turns of phrase enough that if an editor changed it, you would complain?Pay attention to how much time it took to write the piece, how much research you had to do and how you did it, how many times you had to reread it before you felt you could stop changing things, and how long each of those efforts took. Know that this was a first effort and you will get faster, but you can use this worst-case scenario to get a sense of what kind of time you need to produce a short paper.If you’re really serious, at this point, I recommend that you hire a developmental or substantive editor (like me <ahem>) to give you some feedback. It may be that your work is publishable and you are evolved enough to try your hand at the real thing. Or it might be that you need to hunker down and do some serious studying. A professional editor is the best person to tell you what is what and how to get published from where you are now.But if you can’t afford it or are reluctant for some reason (editors can be scary people, I’ve heard, being paragons of virtue, tireless, and nit-pickers of the first order), it’s time to start pitching your skills. Some magazines and online sources publish editorial schedules, so you can find out what the theme of a magazine will be in time to pitch an appropriate story, get a contract, write, and respond to edits. This means you can learn that December’s issue will be about .NET or TabletPCs or something, that the deadline for submissions is October 1, and you can focus your pitch accordingly. Some magazines solicit on a single topic but have very specific themes from issue to issue (like magazines on CorelDraw or VB programming and the like), and you just need to make sure that your idea falls in with the general theme. In most cases, there will be an email or phone number listed for Acquisitions or some similar title. DON’T send unsolicited work. DO contact the Acquisitions Editor or Managing Editor and propose your article. Be as professional—and as brief—as possible. You’ll need to explain your expertise and experience and describe the coverage of your article. Practice a few times before you write or call, so you know you can do it in five minutes. Be prepared for rejection. Many publishers hire only known entities. They might be looking only for people who are part of beta programs, or people with established credentials. They might have already covered your topic, so you need to be ready to suggest alternatives, or be receptive to the publisher’s suggestions. If they ask for a writing sample, get the parameters, give my blog on Writing Samples a quick read, and edit your homework assignment. Good luck!