Technical Writing FAQ
Why do I need a technical writer?
Image. Well written, professionally designed manuals and other documentation reflect well on your company and can make or break a product. Readers will translate the competency revealed by the documentation onto your brand. A positive experience means customer loyalty, repeat business, and referrals while providing incomplete, inaccurate, confusing documentation encourages them to take their business elsewhere. Bottom line: users equate poor documentation with a poor product.
Clear communication. Most SMEs (subject matter experts), such as scientists, engineers, and programmers, write reasonably well but are most comfortable writing for their peers. Writing technical materials for end users, such as instruction manuals, requires specialized skills. Skilled technical writers research the target audience, determine the information required, and deliver it in a format that fits the need. Technical writers help clarify complicated subjects by translating high level concepts and industry jargon into simpler language.
Awareness. Technical writers thoroughly test the products they are documenting, often discovering bugs or usability problems that can be fixed before the product is released.
User’s perspective. Technical writers are user advocates. Their holistic view of a product and understanding of the overall user experience can help configure the user interface to aid usability and reduce the need for complex instructions.
Cost savings. Good documentation helps readers find the information they need, reducing calls to your help desk or technical support department and, when customers do call, making your employees more efficient. Technical writers can write quickly and concisely without sacrificing quality, resulting in shorter documents with reduced review time and distribution costs.
Time savings. You can't do everything yourself. Even if you are an expert on your product or service and an excellent writer, you have better things to do with your time. The right technical writer can add a great deal of value to your business.
Would you hire a sales associate to do your taxes or a programmer to answer phones? Do your own heart surgery? You wouldn't. So, give your business and your products the professional attention they deserve and hire a technical writer for your documentation requirements.
Why use a freelance technical writer?
Skills and experience. Freelance and contract technical writers gain a wealth of industry experience by writing for various products, services, and business needs. They can draw upon this extensive experience to create solutions to your problems, effectively and efficiently.
Unbiased. Hiring a freelance writer eliminates the chance of documentation being influenced by personal interest. Having content written by someone too close to the subject can result in inaccurate descriptions or overstated benefits. Professional technical writing is concise and impartial, and states the facts clearly.
Cost savings. It can be tough to keep a technical writer engaged during all phases of a project or between projects. When you hire a freelancer, you only pay for the time spent on your documentation, so there’s no “downtime” to cover. Freelance writers tend to work remotely and use their own resources, such as required software and hardware, so overhead is much lower. And they look after their own training on their own time.
Flexibility. A freelance technical writer can provide more flexibility than a regular employee, which can be a huge benefit when you are faced with tight deadlines and planned release dates. Projects are often delayed, resulting in a rush to produce documentation and help material in a short time frame constrained by normal working hours. Freelancers have no such constraints – temporary increase in workload? No problem.
Scalability. A big advantage of hiring freelance technical writers is that they are... freelancers! You can adjust the number of writers you utilize according to specific projects, current workload and urgency.
Why is technical writing difficult?
Good technical writers are rare. To be successful, they have to be detail oriented, good communicators, and, most importantly, understand complex technical concepts and have the ability to explain them to others with any level of technical background. Effective technical writing must be concise and accessible, yet eliminate uncertainty and ambiguity.
Good documentation must be:
- Factually correct
- Well written with consistency and clarity
- Well organized and easy to navigate
- Pleasing to the eye
Technical writers must also know the technical writing tools available and have a level of competency with the correct tool for the job. For example, Microsoft Word is fine for shorter documents but not for large documents with many graphics. Adobe InDesign is great for design-intensive products like newsletters and brochures. Adobe FrameMaker excels at long, complex technical manuals. Then there are programs for photo editing, screen capture, drawing and illustration, web design, document management, and more.
Why are graphics important?
Words aren't always the best medium to communicate a concept. A graphic, a carefully chosen mixture of words and graphics, or even a multimedia component often communicates more effectively. Graphic elements have impact and capture the reader's attention.
But once your have captured their attention, it is your written content that must continue to engage and educate the user.
When is the best time to hire a technical writer?
As early as possible in the development process.
While you’re gathering business requirements a technical writer can help develop use cases and user scenarios that can benefit the entire product. This will improve your product and the writer will have a complete understanding of the product and how your users intend to use it. At that point, the writing can be done well and done quickly.
If that's too early for you, seriously consider hiring a technical writer during the development phase. Choices made during development often clarify how the product should be used.
Unfortunately, many companies produce documentation as an afterthought or to fulfill a customer requirement. If you only hire a writer when the product is complete, they can end up doing a rush job without fully understanding the product.
Do you work on site or remotely?
Both. I can be on site when necessary for meetings, to collect information, to take photos, or as required for security reasons. But when it comes time to write or layout a document, efficiency is much higher working in my office, alone (no meetings or other interruptions!), using a familiar multi-monitor workstation that is configured specifically for the task.
Many assignments that require only writing and editing or involve products that are easily shipped can be handled completely remotely. I have clients across Canada and the US that I have never met or even spoken to except by email, and have had products sent to me for urgent work while travelling in other countries.
So I guess the answer really is "it depends!"
What are typical rates for a contract technical writer?
Reasonable. You are dealing with a freelancer rather than a large company with expensive overhead costs. Hourly rates start at $75 for small projects, negotiable for larger, long term assignments.
I am also happy to quote on projects where all requirements are well defined, however in my experience that is seldom the case!