Being a Contract Technical Writer

By Lori Sanders

I’ve been a Technical Writer for 12 years, and I’ve spent about half that time overall as a contractor/consultant.  While contracting lacks the job stability, security, and benefits that permanent employment can offer, there are many reasons why being a contractor is desirable for at least part of a technical writer’s career.

The biggest advantage by far that I have experienced as a contractor is getting to work on a variety of projects. This means you learn and practice in a wider variety of tools, industries, and skills. Within one year, you might write XML-based help for a web application used by insurance underwriters, develop eLearning scripts and videos for users of 3D mapping software, and write tips and tricks for a consumer content publishing tool. Very quickly, you get to add more skills and tools to your resume than you would when staying at the same job for a given time.

Working on a variety of projects over a shorter period of time also keeps things interesting and challenging. While technical writing can be fun, and sometimes we get to work on cool and innovative projects, it can also be pretty dull. We often find ourselves doing tasks that can’t exactly be called “writing”, such as copying and pasting XML IDs, running search-and-replace for obsolete terminology, and repetitively capturing sequences of screen shots. Even when we are writing, sometimes it is painstakingly obvious instructions such as “Click ‘Next’ to go to the next page.” If you do these kinds of mundane tasks day after day for the same product, you’re not learning anything new, you’re not gaining new skills, and you’re pretty much bored out of your mind. But as a contractor, who moves from one project to the next, you might still do these same repetitive kinds of tasks but at least it’s on different products, using a variety of authoring tools, and working with new people each time. This actually makes the dull parts of our job a lot more bearable and worthwhile.

While the security of long-term employment is nice, there is something to be said for getting paid for every hour that you work. Contractors generally bill hourly for their work, so you get paid more for doing more work and putting in more hours. This can make the work much more motivating. As a contractor, you are often hungry for work. You have to continually work just to get the work, depending on how much work is out there and how big and good your network is. Once you get a job, you really don’t care so much about things that might bother you at a permanent job, such as desk location or people who are difficult to work with. Somehow, being a contractor frees you from a lot of these concerns because you know it’s temporary and you’re happy just to have the work!

I have also felt more recognized and appreciated, as a consultant, than I ever have as an employee. Often when you step into a project as a consultant, you are a kind of hero or expert (or both!). You might be doing the work that no one in-house wanted to do, had time to do, or knew how to do. Therefore, everyone loves you and is happy you’re there.  And you’re only there for a short time, so people appreciate you more and value your time. Of course this isn’t always the case; sometimes employees resent contractors and won’t give them the time of day when it comes to getting their help.  But if you present yourself as being there to make their lives easier and lighten their load, even those people can be won over.

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits to being a contractor is that you are pretty isolated from company politics. You don’t need to think much about org charts, management changes, project ownership, and such things except to the extent that it affects the people you directly work with, and the contractor budget. Beyond that, you don’t have to worry about it or deal with all the political changes that take place in a company. You are there to do specific work, regardless of drama and change going on around you. This can be very liberating, because it means you are free to just focus on the work.

The major downside of being a contractor, of course, is the instability of the work. You might be lucky enough to get a long-term contract, but then you’re dealing with some of the same issues you would deal with as an employee, and not reap all the benefits of contracting. There are also tax issues with long-term contracting, so some companies use a third entity/compliance agency to hire you as a temporary employee. This can be a good thing for you but again you’re more like an employee without company benefits, in this scenario (though it provides some security and is better than not having work, especially if you like the company). The ideal situation is a market that supports hiring contractors. Sometimes, this can be a market in which companies are laying off employees but hire more contractors because they still need the work to get done. Then again, this kind of market is not necessarily good for contractors because there is a large pool of highly qualified people competing for the same jobs.

Those who are most successful at being a contractor are those with a tenacious, aggressive personality. If you don’t have one, get one. By “aggressive” I don’t mean attacking people in the parking lot. You just need to be willing to work hard just to find the work. Often this hard work does not pay off, and you can’t let this phase you. You have to be determined to find whatever work is out there and get companies to want to hire you. It requires being open minded and willing to keep reaching, and not giving up easily.

Besides determination, your best marketing tool as a contractor is your network. Professional organizations such as STC, usability professional associations, and others related to technical writing are invaluable for building contacts and staying current with tools and developments in the field. But the best kind of “networking” you can possibly do as a contractor is to do outstanding work at every job and make sure it gets noticed by your client, AND (often more importantly) by the other contract technical writers you work with (if you are fortunate enough to work on a team of writers).  Knock the ball out of the park on each and every project you work on, and people will remember you as the one to hire. There truly is no substitute for hard work. Having other contract technical writers see my work has landed me more projects than any kind of marketing or networking I’ve done. In my experience, technical writers are nice people. They’re driven, but not viciously competitive, and are happy to help each other out. The next project they are on, or management position they hold, they will recommend or hire you if they have already seen that you do excellent work. This goes both ways! Keep your eye on other good writers, stay in touch with them, exchange ideas with them, and refer them for work in the future, too.

For those making a transition from employment to contract technical writing, it can come as a bit of a shock that you are often expected to start writing and delivering content almost immediately, for a product that you know nothing about. Normally when you start a permanent job, you might have several weeks to acclimate and learn about the product before anyone really expects you to deliver anything. As a contractor, you have to get up to speed a lot faster than that. The good news is that technical writing lends itself well to this kind of pressure. A lot of people think that you need to be a long-standing expert on a product or technology in order to write about it, and therefore you would need to be working in-house to do this kind of work. Anyone who has been technical writing for a few years knows that this is not true.

Learning new tools and technologies fast is what we DO. You don’t need to work with a product for a year or even a month in order to know enough to effectively communicate what users need to know. The more experience you have, the more this is the case. You just need to be good at learning fast how things work, being in touch with your audience and what they need to know, and being able to communicate that information to them in a way they can understand and organize the information so that they can find it. After several years of experience, you can do this in a week or less. A technical writer friend of mine who has twice as much experience as me once said, half jokingly, “I can write based on rumor.” Meaning – it takes very little for experienced technical writers to get enough information to at least get started on a project and can easily be highly productive very quickly.

The ideal contracting situation is when you start a project and there are resources – human, written, and technical – to help you learn and get started. This usually does not happen, and you roll with it. A more typical scenario is something like this:

You start a project and are expected to work remotely using the client’s laptop, yet your VPN connection is not yet working, or the laptop isn’t ready for you – or both. However, a company email account has already been set up for you. You have been able to retrieve your email and see that you already have work assigned to you, with deadlines, but no way of actually doing the work! In other words, you are expected to hit the ground running and be immediately productive, yet you do not have the tools for doing that! You smile. You don’t sweat it. Having a sense of humor can help a lot here. You can start learning by talking to people, looking over their shoulder while they use the product, and reading hardcopy manuals. If you show a genuine interest in learning, there are almost always people willing to help you.

Being a contract technical writer is more challenging in many ways than being an employee, but it is well worth doing for at least a part of a technical writer’s career.

About the Author

Lori Sanders is a contract technical writer in the San Francisco Bay Area, California. You can reach her at Lori Sanders /  lorimelanie@gmail.com.


  1. Great article Lori – you touched on some things that I hadn’t thought about before this.

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