Monetise your skills: finding work as a technical writer

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Phil Thane talks to Blackheath Dawn about his journey from a design & technology teacher into a freelance technical writer and methods he uses to secure contracts.

I used to be a Design & Technology teacher. Early in my career I wrote some simple Project Books which were published in ‘photocopiable’ format, later as PDF so teachers could print them for their classes. Around the same time I wrote a few pieces for the Times Ed., for Electronics Education and my union magazine . All of which was useful when I applied for a Tech Support manager job with an educational IT company. They needed someone who understood the product, teachers and schools, and could write training manuals, user guides, catalogue blurb and ‘advertorials’ for the trade press. Once in IT I started freelancing for computer magazines, and carried on with the TES and others I’d worked for before.

Eventually I fell out with the company and went freelance in 2006. Initially I did some part-time teaching too to make ends meet, and managed to write educational IT pieces for both IT trade magazines and a teachers’ magazine. Same story, different viewpoint depending on whether you are buying or selling.

Out of the blue I was contacted by the editor of a new trade magazine for the Biofuels industry to write about production. At the time I knew very little, but neither did anyone else, and as a new freelancer desperate for work I had the time to do the research, six years later I still write occasional pieces for Biofuels International as well as sister mags, Tank Storage, Bioenergy Insight and The Fuelhandler. One thing leads to another and having that background has enabled me to find more energy and Oil & Gas related work. Equally out of the blue was an invitation to write a couple of DIY books on Plumbing and Wiring. I’d done some DIY jobs at home and written a couple up for a DIY mag, and someone from the book packagers was looking for a writer. You never know with freelancing who reads your stuff, and where it might lead.

My latest ventures are a series about alternative fuels for Diesel Car magazine – the next one is about how fracking for gas could change the diesel market – and ‘ghost blogging’ for a Linux IT company too busy to keep their website up to date. Writing today I’ve been a freelancer for seven years, which isn’t really all that long but even in that short time the work has changed. When I started a lot of my work was for computer magazines but now anyone who’s interested in computers gets their information online. Micro Mart soldiers on and I write the occasional piece for it, but the trade mags have merged and consolidated and almost disappeared. The greater part of my income over the last seven years has come from various Energy related trade magazines, websites and online ‘whitepapers’. But they have changed too, more of their content is provided by company marketing departments and PR agencies, with ‘news’ content consisting of lightly edited media releases.

There aren’t many editors still prepared to pay me for a 3000 word in-depth comparison of, for example, alternative feedstocks for biodiesel production around the world. It’s not all bad news though, stuff is still being written, and not all those pieces apparently written by companies promoting their own product are quite what they seem. Large corporations can afford to employ their own writers in their PR departments, but small companies cannot, and just because the geeks and entrepreneurs who set up a company know everything there is to know about their industry, their company and their product it doesn’t mean they can write interesting stories about it. Many employ PR agencies, and very few people in PR know anything at all about the things they are promoting. Which is an opening for technical writers like me. And I imagine for many others.

Whatever your particular specialism, find out who does the PR for the companies operating in your chosen field and approach them. Check out the companies’ websites, look for out of date ‘news’, ancient blog posts, announcements of long-gone exhibitions. The PR company can’t update the site without content, and we can provide that. Final thought, take SEO with a huge pinch of salt. Google and the other search engines are constantly refining the way they work so they can serve up relevant results (and relevant adverts, it’s how they make their money). The days when stuffing your text with key words and putting magic incantations in the header were essential are long gone. The focus now is on well written original work.

©  Phil Thane 2014.

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