Technical Writing–Seven Challenges

Freelance technical writing is a great opportunity, but from time to time most technical writers face challenges.

Last week I wrote an introductory post about technical writing. When I wrote it I didn’t actually intend for it to sound like a recruiting piece for technical writers, or a plug for the STC.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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:

Also, here are some terrific writing blogs with a technical writing focus:

Feedback Time

What other questions do you have about technical writing? Are you a technical writer? Why not share your experiences?


8 responses
  1. Ron C. Avatar

    Do you think technical writing is better than just content writing? What is the job opportunities for a non-native writer (Indian), who has prior 2 years experience in content writing?

  2. Laura Spencer Avatar

    Hi Ron!

    I do think that the pay will be somewhat higher for a technical writer than a content writer. In some cases (although not all) content writing has become a commodity. Also, there’s no reason why a writer can’t offer both to their clients.

    In terms of country of origin, it shouldn’t matter as long as you have good grammar and spelling. Just be sure to get the additional technical writing training that you need.

    Remember also, many technical writers are asked to work on-site at least part-time. So, if you do not live near a large company that can use a technical writer you may have a more difficult time.

    Best wishes to you!
    .-= Laura Spencer´s last blog ..My Very First Professional Writing Gig Ever (Looking Back) =-.

  3. Lucie Lewis Avatar
    Lucie Lewis

    Are there recommended per hour salaries or project salaries for technical writers anywhere?

  4. Richard Cummings Avatar

    As you mention, many people require you to be onsite when working which, most of the time, makes no sense. In fact, there have been a few occasions where I renegotiated the terms so that I did not have to be at the client. I took slightly less pay but worked from home everyday on the project–well worth it!
    .-= Richard Cummings´s last blog ..Web Authentication Using PHP and MySql =-.

    1. Laura Spencer Avatar

      Hi Richard!

      I fully agree. I prefer to work offsite as well. When you factor in commuting costs (and time) it is sometimes in your favor to accept a slightly lower pay rate.
      .-= Laura Spencer´s last blog ..Should You Write Your Own Copy? =-.

  5. Craig Avatar

    Great post, Laura! The telecommuting issue is a sensitive one in the technical writing industry, especially if you are working on software documentation. Last minute bug fixes and feature changes make it necessary to communicate quickly with developers, so you can make the same changes in the documents. However, the excellent pay makes it worthwhile. I’ve been writing technical docs for a decade and still enjoy it.

    Freelancers might want to consider what technical experience they already have and market themselves accordingly. If you took an engineering or computer networking course in college, mention it on your resume along with your writing skills. A company that builds technologies related to your experience will be more likely to hire you if you have a grasp of the technology as well as writing skills.

    Thanks for sharing these tips!

  6. Ahmed Avatar

    interesting and very useful article so to speak. The challenges faced by freelance writers are many but the important thing is determining how to overcome them.

  7. FAHIM KHAN Avatar

    nice and useful article ful my necasities but i have a querry , well what you think that a person doing progarmming or enginerring do not respect the writter ..part 3 , i think writter specialy tech writing is so difficult.

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