How to kickstart your tech-edged freelance writing career

How to make tracks to a technology or technical writing career

Where do you start if you want to forge a career as a technical or technology writer?

A technical writer churns out how-to-guides, instruction or user manuals, journal articles, FAQs, product specifications, white papers, etc. They generally have a technical expertise to be able to understand, interpret and transform complex and technically difficult information into more accessible documentation.

A technology writer (I’m one, by the way) will write about technology perhaps as a copywriter, journalist, content marketing writer. They could write content for websites, whitepapers (as well), publications and more.

To do a deeper dive in the difference between a technical writer and content writer, check out Kesi Parker’s Medium article.

Where do you start?

Don’t sign up for a journalism course at university or college, why not aim to learn writing on the job and get paid for it?

Your future editors and clients may effectively become your mentors, giving you up-to-the-minute feedback as you hone your craft.

You won’t need to do a cadetship, traineeship, or apprenticeship to be a paid writer.

Just advertise, get writing, create your samples (pieces you’ve written for publication for free or payment) and keep learning and putting yourself out there.

However, you will need some writing talent to start and a growth mindset.

It’s about finding your niche, your writer’s voice, and adding a dash of audacity.

How do I know this?

I have a journalism degree and completed a one-year graduate cadetship. I loved both, but in retrospect, I truly believe I needed neither.

After all, as a school leaver, I was freelance writing collecting solid media clips while backpacking throughout Europe for a year. I’ve kicked myself more than once for not getting a science instead of journalism degree so that that science could be my writing niche.

But, after 35 years in the writing trade, I’m here where I want to be. Writing about science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and I’ve built a technology overlay to business, education and occasionally health writing.

I admit I would have to upskill to be a technical writer, but I’m OK with (just) being a technology writer — there is a difference. More about that later.

By the way, you won’t need 35 years to finesse your writing specialism. Hopefully, the list below will set you in the right direction.

Here’s my advice on fast-tracking your niched writing career:

There’s a smorgasbord of options for writers!

What are you interested in?

Use your ‘subject matter expertise’.

What are your passions — the areas you gravitate towards in your free time to read about?

You might need to begin writing for free to exercise your writing muscle.

If you haven’t set up a free WordPress (or similar) website yet, try writing portals such as Medium.com to build your profile.

Writers who post engaging content daily are more likely to build a following, but you’ll need a decent tribe to earn any income through Medium.

I’ve earned a tiny amount with the occasional pieces on my profile. For alternatives to Medium, check out this article.

Talk to freelance writers who are paid for their work. Ask them for their tips on how they started or if there are any shortcuts they could suggest.

Is there a local/regional writers’ group near you? Check them out.

Explore different writing styles

Copywriting is any text that helps sell a product or service — it’s all about convincing the reader to do something.

Known as the ‘call to action’, this could be as varied as buying a product or putting their name down for a newsletter.

It could take the form of an advertisement, blog, voice script or more.

My top pick to steer you in the right direction here is Danny Margulies, who runs Freelance to Win.

In his free e-zine, he chronicles his journey from a writer with no experience to a top-paid one on Upwork.

He offers paid courses, too. Conversational copywriting helps make an emotional connection, building intimacy with the reader.

This is a text that should be easy to digest and scan.

Belinda Weaver, a US-based Aussie copywriter who runs copywritematters.com explains it in detail here.

Meanwhile, Joanna Wiebe runs Copyhackers which is all about conversion copywriting, a term she coined. Some great free courses/webinars there.

Journalism: If we’re talking news writing, use the inverted pyramid format. The most important news leads the story, with a ‘hook’ to grab the readers’ interest.

It won’t necessarily be chronological.

Other formats include;

  • human interest/news feature
  • explainer
  • backgrounder
  • review
  • column
  • investigation/expose
  • online,
  • broadcast (for TV or radio usually)
  • opinion
  • sports
  • trade, and
  • entertainment.

Now, put a technology overlay to another of those and you’ve got some amazing array of niche writing possibilities.

Learning portals, such as EdX, Alison, Courseity, offer free short courses in journalistic writing.

There’s also a Journalism Skills for Engaged Citizens course for free on Coursera/MOOCs.

When you’ve got a few paid bylines out there, you can find out if the rates are on par with the journalists’ union, the MEAA (if you’re based in Australia), with this list of freelance charge-out rates.

If you join the MEAA, you can tap into free (or low cost) online and face-to-face training and there’s a great email group, ‘freeline’, to swap tips, gripes, info about pay rates, job leads, etc.

They also have weekly ‘pitch’ sessions for freelance writers to workshop their story pitches with their peers.

The MEAA is connected to the Walkley Foundation, which offers grants/scholarships for different things such as investigations, mentorships, rural/regional journalists etc.

A great freebie treasure trove of resources is Google’s Journalist Studio — tools to “empower journalists to do their work more efficiently, creatively and securely”.

And if you want to ‘nail’ the simplicity of journalistic news writing, use Grammarly (the free version is fine), or the free Hemingway Editor.

Your computer and a ‘cuppa’ — two crucial tools to kick start your writing career.

Business writing: Business writing could be;

  • business-to-business (B2B)
  • business-to-consumer (B2C), and
  • business-to-government (B2G), etc.

There’s usually a marketing edge — educating your readers about a product/service and encouraging them to take action (buy, opt-in, learn etc).

Ed Gandia’s High Income Business Writing is a regular podcast (and website) for freelancers and consistently offers gems to help you hit the ground running with your career (you can do so with paid courses, but it will take you a while to get through all of the fab free very valuable resources he puts out).

As well, explore the HubSpot Academy, Coursera, or this list for a range of business writing courses.

Daphne Gray-Grant is also recommended. She calls herself the ‘publication coach’ and puts out a weekly ‘power writing’ newsletter.

White paper writing (considered a form of technical writing).

These are well-researched technical, business or political documents that educate and help people make well-informed decisions.

It aims to show how a technology or product solves a specific problem.

The label comes from government papers being colour-coded, says Stanford University, with white denoting public access.

Check out the White Paper Guy, Gordon Graham, who offers more than 100 free articles to help you pick his brain.

Also, this wikiHow page on ‘how to master technical writing’ is a good starting point.

User Experience (UX) writing: Think of the writing that goes into a website or an app, down to the microcopy you’ll see on the tab to ‘submit’ your info request.

The navigation process, your emotional reaction to the flow, that’s all part of the user experience that takes in not just the words but the whole content design.

If you like data and science, A/B testing your text and reiterating, there’s plenty of it in UX writing.

The UX Writing Hub is great to get up to speed with this new(ish) field — opt into their free course to get a taste of this writing style.

You can also hook into the Writers in Tech podcast. I’ve been binge-listening to these episodes and feel like I’ve been a fly on the wall in so many UX workplaces.

You’ll get a fantastic insight into UX writers’ approaches, processes, achievements.

Content marketing writing: Sometimes called ‘brand journalism’, content marketing writing is like copywriting, but a notch or two down in the hard sell.

For instance, I do content marketing writing for the Australian Educator magazine — it looks and feels like journalism.

I still pitch story ideas, and the editorial team says yes or knocks them back.

The stories have to fit in with the current campaign of the magazine’s backers — the Australian Education Union.

So, it’s about presenting the union’s spin on different issues usually.

The content marketing writer guru is Jennifer Goforth Gregory — check out her blog here.

And you can find out about my content marketing writing process here.

Technical/trade/specialist magazine writing: This is where your subject matter expertise jargon will be appreciated — you’re writing to audiences ‘in the know’.

While I wasn’t a health specialist, I did land a ‘medipolitics’ writing gig at The Australian Doctor magazine.

They might be a good place to pitch story ideas or chat with the editor about joining their list of freelancers.

Editors really want to be pitched!

It makes their job easier. (More about that below).

If health is your bag, check out isubscribe’s list of about 40 Australian health-related magazines for possible titles you might like to write for — make sure you;

  • read the magazine (some freelancers don’t do this before they pitch, alas),
  • get a feel for the type of stories they publish,
  • think what stories/angles they’re missing, then
  • get in touch with the editor to discuss freelance possibilities.

Magazines with a paid subscription are more likely to pay their writers, just in case you were thinking of only approaching the freebies.

Check your local library as they may offer members free online access to a swathe of magazines.

And be sure to sniff out the ‘opposition’, specialist health writers like this solopreneur agency, Barrett Comms.

Here’s a nifty article about becoming a high-income medical writer with no experience — it’s by an Aussie freelancer, Lindy Alexander, who also writes in other niches.

Email marketing: This is about writing the text for emails for would-be or current customers who’ve signed up through newsletters.

There’s a fair bit of back-end work involved.

You’ll be expected to use email marketing programs such as MailChimp, etc, to assess how well elements in your email such as ‘pre-header text’, ‘subject line’ etc perform.

The idea is for recipients to ‘click through’ a link in the email and ‘convert’ — as a buyer or opt-in for another service, for example.

Software service HubSpot runs a range of free courses in this.

Don’t miss the bus on a whole swag of writing opportunities — PITCH for assignments

Learn how to pitch (for work and story assignments: Natasha Khullar-Relph covers pitching for journalistic, content marketing and book writing, as well as developing the skills to do so.

Her site, The International Freelancer, and her semi-regular ezine offer loads of insights, but you’ll get more from her ebooks and (paid) learning portal.

I attribute a good chunk of my writing success to one of her rules — as a freelance writer, you need to keep marketing yourself and send out pitches — aim for five every working day.

I don’t do quite that much consistently, but her rule impresses upon me that you need to work ON as well as IN your freelance writing business.

You can also pick up great marketing, aka pitching insights from Rebecca L Weber’s The Writing Coach Podcast, plus she has a downloadable resource offering five proven steps she’s used to sell her articles to top publications.

She also runs paid online boot camps for writers that focus on finessing your pitches.

If you don’t have any ideas you can pitch, you can still reach out to an editor.

This is where your ‘Letter of Introduction’ or ‘LOI’ for short comes in.

It’s usually a one-page letter you’ve customised to the publication’s needs, you give them your potted history, offer links to your published clips, and add a call to action — I’ll ring you/get in touch in (say) 10 days to see if you might I could join your list of freelance writers/help your team with overflow writing work, etc.

Where to pitch your story ideas. Many editors use Twitter to call for writers to pitch stories.

For a reasonable fee you can save yourself time scouting for these by subscribing to Sonia Weiser’s Opportunities of the Week (no, I don’t get a cut if you subscribe).

Get a sense of what opportunities are out there for freelance journalists with the Worldwide Freelance newsletter.

Understand the context for your writing: Browse the free courses on Google Digital Garage to upskill you in digital marketing and writing.

I’ve completed the Fundamentals of Digital Marketing course, which updated me on this fast-moving sector.

It explains the role of content — text, images, etc — in the customer journey, from building awareness about a product/service, to converting them to paid customers and ‘delighting’ them with your service and the experience over time.

Google Digital Garage also offers more in-depth paid courses and some with certification.

Another writer, Melanie Padget Powers, runs The Deliberate Freelancer podcast, which offers deep dives into wide-ranging areas of interest to freelance writers.

So, once you’ve built your skills and confidence, check out the ‘best freelance job sites’.

I’ve used Ozlance, Freelancer and Upwork — my favourite.

Here’s a sample of almost 7,000 writer jobs posted on Upwork.

You’ll hear writers from juniors to those long in the tooth dismiss Upwork as a ‘race to the bottom’ regarding rates or a place you’ll ‘lose your soul’.

But, I don’t put all my eggs in one basket — it’s just one of my income streams.

If a narky client complains about you to Upwork, they may freeze your account and any funds owed to you until it’s resolved.

That’s not a position anyone wants to be in!

Note that I haven’t mentioned content mills?

They’re companies that might pay a meagre $50 or even $25 for a blog post you’ve spent a few hours researching, writing and finessing.

They will greedily fill up all your available working hours with this bottom-feeder work, plus you’ll have to do rounds of revision.

Screech to a halt!

That’s my experience of them.

I’ve done my ‘time’ there.

But that’s not everyone’s experience and there are content mills such as Contently and Skyword, which do pay substantially higher.

The makealivingwriting.com website offers insights into this new breed of content mills, so it might be work checking out.

So, are you feeling overwhelmed?

Didn’t I start this piece saying you don’t need a university/college degree, you can hop to it and start writing today?

Remember, the list above isn’t linear — take your own journey. If you come across any other useful resources, courses, ezines, writing luminaries, etc please share that link with me.

I’ve suggested various writing styles, but it’s not 100% comprehensive.

Writing is a muscle you need to exercise.

Find your niche as a writer, the narrower the better and consistently build your profile through published writing.

Reach out to your network about your writing goals and projects. Keep learning, don’t be shy to ask for advice and help and nurture your writing spirit with your very own writer tribe.

Freelance writing is a fantastic gig — it keeps you striving as a life-long learner, but you probably picked that up from this piece.

Even tho’ I’m long of tooth and been in this ‘game for more than three decades, I’m still checking out ezines, webinars and courses to help sharpen my skills.

Keep writing and good luck!

There is room for more writers.

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Margaret Paton, Aussie-based education writer

PhD student at Deakin University, Australia, using netnography to explore out-of-field teaching. GradCert Ed Research MTeach|GradDip Comm Mgmt |BA Journalism.