Is It OK To Work For Free?

The question of writing for little or no money comes up quite frequently in discussions on websites that cater to freelance writers.

True story–My brother-in-law  is an ER doctor. The first time he put a cast on a broken arm by himself it came out a little sub-optimum. The boy  being casted apparently noticed something because he asked my brother-in-law “Is this the first time that you’ve done this?” Take home lesson-Nobody wants to be like the boy with the broken arm and feel that you are learning your profession on their problem.

Why do I tell you this little story? Clients come to you with a problem and want to believe that they can trust you to solve their problem.  The best way to prove to a prospective client that they can sleep soundly knowing that you are doing a good job on their project is to show them your portfolio. When I go to visit a client they often ask to see samples of my work, and I have a samples page on my website. As a project manager I never work with a writer unless they have a writing sample to show me.

The question becomes then, how can I build up a portfolio if no one will hire me because I don’t have a portfolio? There are several ways to do this without feeling exploited:

1) Take a technical writing course. Any self-respecting course requires you to complete at least one manual as part of the course requirements.

2)  Volunteer to write for a non-profit organization. It will make you feel good and beef up your porfolio.

3) Do a project for a new struggling magazine or on-line publication. You won’t feel exploited because they’re probably not making any money at this stage either and you may get good exposure.

4) Approach an outsourcing company and offer to work on a project for free, on condition that you can use the resulting document in your portfolio, and they will provide you with a recommendation (if they are happy with your work). This is a good way to build up experience and a portfolio. As a project manager I had someone approach me with such an offer. He had completed a course in technical writing and was not working. I worked with him on a project that I was doing and after a period of close supervision he was soon working mostly independently. Instead of sitting at home doing nothing he gained experience and we ended working with him on several paying projects.

When you are starting your freelance career your emphasis should not be on money but rather on building your portfolio. You are making an investment that can pay off many times over.  Just remember you have a lot to offer and building up your portfolio is the best way to show a prospective client that you are the one to go with.

Poorly Designed Product=Difficult to Document Product

Some assignments are very difficult. I am confronted with a complicated GUI or device and have a really hard time explaining to the user how to operate it. I meet with the client again to get additional information and explanations but in the end I’m not happy with the result and the client usually isn’t either. I used to always blame myself for not knowing how to do my job properly, but lately I’ve realized it’s not me it’s the device.

I have written hundreds of manuals and don’t take on projects that I can’t grasp from a technical point of view. So we can assume that I am a competent technical writer This may sound kind of conceited, but I’ve come to the conclusion that if I have trouble writing user documentation for a product it is because it is poorly designed.

In copywritng this can also be a problem. Clients may be unsure about  why a customer should buy their product and not the competition’s. If they can’t provide a clear answer you might end up with something like this:

Is Freelance Technical Writing A Low Stress Job?

According to Money Magazine Technical Writing is one of the least stressful jobs, coming in at #5:

5. Technical Writer

Best Jobs rank: 28

% who say their job is low stress: 56.4%

The proliferation of technical products in all parts of our lives, from iPods and HDTVs to medical devices and high-tech manufacturing equipment, means there is huge demand for those who can translate tech talk into understandable language. Though tech writers have deadline pressures, they can work fairly independently, have flexible hours and can often work from home.

via Least stressful jobs – Technical Writer (5) – Money Magazine.

Personally I think it depends on the situation, but in general I think working freelance is less stressful than working as a salaried worker in an office.

If you are a freelancer working from home you don’t have to suffer the daily commute, you don’t have a boss riding you, you can set your own hours and you have no office politics. On the other hand you don’t have the security of knowing for sure where your next paycheck will be coming from.

What do you think?

When To Say No To A Project

As an independent contractor it’s very tempting to say “yes” to every prospective client. This is a mistake.

There are two reasons why I say no to a project:

Unrealistic Deadlines

I’ve had companies approach me who were looking for a large project to be completed in a small amount of time. I say no.

The reason I say no is because I can’t complete the project in a form that I am happy with in the time provided. The end result will be that I am not happy with what I have done and they will not be happy with what I have done. I tell these types of clients that I will be happy to work with them on projects in the future with more realistic deadlines. They usually appreciate my candor and come back to me.

Something Feels Wrong

Earlier this year I had someone call me who needed an urgent quote for a project. We arranged to meet in his home office the following morning. When I got there, he had just awoken and didn’t remember that he had made an appointment with me (strike 1). While meeting with him, a woman  called him who he was apparently suing. He started yelling at her and threatening her (Strike 2). The project involved a large number of 1-2 page documents. When I got home I Googled him and found out that he was involved in several law suits, on both ends (Strike 3). I submitted the first document and didn’t hear back from him. After a couple of  days I called him and he told me that it wasn’t at all what he was looking for me. I said “thank you very much, goodbye”. The project didn’t feel right from the beginning, and I should have told him straight away that I wasn’t interested. I learned my lesson.

As a footnote I’d like to add that this client found me through the internet. I’ve noticed that things almost always go smoothly with clients who are referred to me by word of mouth, while those who reach me via the internet have been some of my best clients and some of my worst.

It’s Official–Nobody Reads the Manual

Well, almost nobody. Early on in my tech writer career I had the eye-opening experience of walking into an engineer’s office and seeing a  multi-volume set documentation on his bookshelf still covered in shrink wrap. I thought to myself  that after all the months work on the manuals he should at least have the common human decency to take off the shrink wrap. It’s like buy a painting and hanging it with the painted side facing the wall. Since then when people ask  me what I do I tell them I write books that nobody reads.

Now we have statistical proof of this phenomena:

Gadget Helpline, a UK tech support service, found that well over half of their male customers didn’t even bother to read the manual before calling tech support. C’mon guys, is that the best we can do?

Apparently, only 24% of females don’t read the manual before picking up the phone. Good on you, ladies. Apparently you’re far less lazy than us when it comes to reading.

via 64% of Men Don’t RTFM Before Calling Tech Support – Gadget Helpline – Gizmodo.

It’s interesting note the differences between men and women. Maybe we should write a male and female version of each manual. The female manual assumes that the user will read the manual before using and the male one that he will maybe open it only if he runs into a problem.

What to Do When You Are Between Projects

There are periods in the life of every freelancer when they are underemployed.

Besides relaxing and enjoying some down time there are two things that you can do:

  • Improve your marketing effort
  • Expand your skill set

Improving your marketing effort

Do you have a website yet? Why not? This is the time to set one up or fix up your existing site.

Companies like Yahoo and Microsoft offer domain names, web hosting and design tools to get your site up quickly and easily. I did my site using Microsoft. It has all been for free up until now, but they recently announced that they will start charging for the domain name.

How about AdWords? You may want to consider signing up if you are not already using it. If you are a current user try tweaking your ad. You might be surprised at how many more clicks you get by changing one or two words.

Expanding your skill set

By skill set I’m referring to both tools and knowledge

I’ve earned quite a bit of money over the past few years by making helpfiles. I never took a course in RoboHelp. I learned by downloading the trial version and doing the tutorials and by experience.

Often when I’m working on a manual I offer to convert it to a helpfile. I always charge a flat fee for this service. When I did my first few helpfiles I didn’t make much per hour but I felt that the client shouldn’t have to pay for my learning curve. You can also do the same with software demonstration software such as Captiva. In any case I suggest that you download the trial version first and purchase the full version only after you have a client for the output.

My background is in Biology and was always lost whenever a project entered the realm of electronics.  During one of my slow periods I decided to plug this gap in my knowledge and bought  an Electronics Learning Lab from RadioShack. Can I now design a power station? No, but I can intelligently discuss material that is connected to electronics. It’s also fun learning new things.

Finally you may want to consider taking a look at additional part time employment like this guy:


Freelance Technical Writer Tip#1-Let The Document Speak For Itself

When submitting a document for review by e-mail, don’t assume that all reviewers will see additional information that  you may have provided in the body of the accompanying e-mail.

I have learned through bitter experience that a contact person will often download the attached document for review and send it to reviewers in their organization without forwarding the accompanying e-mail that I sent.

To solve this problem, on the top of the first page I write an explanation paragraph highlighted in yellow (to differentiate it from the text). I include all pertinent information that is not contained in the body of the document such as why certain sections may be incomplete, questions, and if it is a first draft I explain that the English will be further polished in additional drafts. I always finish with a list of open issues, material that I need from them, and a request to use Track Changes when making changes.

Remember that if you have done the project on an outsource telecommuting basis you may never even have met some of the people who are going over the document, and document will have to speak for itself.