Making Money In Technical Writing
by Peter KentI'm a technical writer. Which, as far as I can see, makes me a mercenary. Why do people become technical writers, after all? As a way to make money, of course. So it amuses me when I hear other writers criticize me for being too concerned with the money, and not concerned enough about, for instance, representing technical writing as a profession rather than just a lucrative job.
Let me explain a little more. I've written two books about the business of technical writing. In 1992 I wrote The Technical Writer's Freelancing Guide. Later, when that book went out of print, I revised it completely, almost doubling the size of the book; Macmillan has just published this book under the title Making Money in Technical Writing. Down to earth title, eh? How about this subtitle -- Turn Your Writing Skills into $100,000 a Year?
Some technical writers complained about the first book, saying that it was too critical of technical writers. I have a low opinion of technical writers, I'm told (and it's true, I guess, I do), and seem too concerned about the money. As for the second book, I know the subtitle has raised a few eyebrows. But I never became a technical writer for the pleasure, nor the art. It was simply a way to make money by using a skill I wanted to develop anyway -- by writing. A way to make money while I was moving to where I really wanted to be -- a best-selling author. In fact, a way to make money to help fund my foray into book writing. Crass the subtitle may be, but, as I pointed out to a sympathetic reviewer recently, I have the perfect defense .... at least the subtitle is true.
You see, you really can make $100,000 a year as a freelance technical writer. Some writers make a lot more, $120,000, even $150,000. So, struggling writer, consider what that sort of money could do for you. You really want to write poetry? Then do a few freelance technical-writing contracts for half the year, and spend the rest of the time on your poetry. Want to work on that screenplay idea you've been thinking of for years? Use technical writing to fund it; let three days of technical writing each week pay the bills, and take off two days for the screenplay. The Great American Novel you're working on? Wouldn't it be easier if you had some cash to buy you the time you need to write it? All this may sound too good to be true, but plenty of writers are making great money in technical writing. Sure, not necessarily $100,000; that takes some effort. But let me say this; making $75,000 a year from technical writing is actually quite easy in much of North America.
There are really three main ways to sell your services as a freelance technical writer. I generally advise newcomers to begin selling their services through the technical-service agencies. Not because this is the way to make the most money, but because the agencies provide a good way to break into the market. There are thousands of these agencies throughout the United States, companies large and small that sell "bodies" to companies. For instance, Data General or Nortel might need writers to produce a manual for a new project. They go to an agency, or perhaps several agencies, and let them know the sort of skills they're looking for. The agencies then check through their resume database, and get on the phone looking for the right people. If they're lucky, they find writers the client is willing to hire. These writers then go to work at the client's offices, writing user manuals, or Web pages, or installation documentation, or whatever. They get paid by the hour; the client pays the agency, and the agency pays the writers. I know writers making $75,000 or $80,000 a year working like this, often several years for the same client. They work alongside full-time employees, they come in in the morning, do a normal day's work -- perhaps a little overtime -- and go home. And get paid by the hour, at a rate much higher than an employee doing the same work would earn. Hourly rates in many cities in North America are between $30 and $40 an hour, lower in some areas, quite a bit higher in others. Do the math yourself ... $35 or $36 an hour, multiplied by, say, 1920 hours a year, with two or three hours overtime a week thrown in for good measure (often paid at time and a half), and you can see that reaching $75,000 or more is no great feat. Work in New York or Silicon Valley, or one of many cities where rates are higher, and you can make quite a bit more. Even in low-rate areas there are pockets of high rates; one writer who worked in a nuclear-research facility told me he'd made $150,000 in his best year, though if he'd been working for a company in the city nearby he would have made only $25 an hour.
The second way to work is to cut out the agency. Once you've built up a good network of fellow writers, you can often get to the clients before the agencies do. Not all companies will employ freelancers directly -- some prefer to work with the agencies -- but enough will, especially smaller companies. Instead of making $30 or $35 an hour, for instance, you may be able to make $40 or $45. The work conditions are the same; come in in the morning, do a day's work, and go home ... and bill the client every couple of weeks. The third form of work is a step up from here, more of a "consulting" arrangement. In such an arrangement you agree to complete a particular project for a client. For instance, you may agree to write a user manual for a new software program, or instructions for a toy or electronic device. It's up to you when and how you get the work done; you may be able to do most of the work at home, for instance. Now, most writers still bill clients by the hour when working in this kind of relationship. Some -- myself included -- prefer to bill by the project. It's possible to make more money if you bill by the project, as long as you can make a fairly close estimate of the time it will take to do the work, and if you work quickly. Rates can reach $100, $130, or $150 an hour or higher. This is when your income breaks the $100,000 barrier, of course.
Many writers are scared of billing by the project, though. "What if you screw up, and grossly underestimate the project" one writer once asked me, "you'll end up losing money." I have made mistakes in my estimates, and ended up making only $75/hour. But technical writers in my area usually charge between $35 and $45 an hour, so the loss didn't hurt too much. You can't bill by the project in some cases, but I believe it is possible in many, perhaps most cases. It's just a matter of keeping track of your hours for a while. I used to keep a log of every hour I worked on a project. When I sat down at my computer, I started my stopwatch; when I got up -- to go for lunch, to see who was at the door, or to go to the bathroom -- I would stop it. That way I got a good idea of two things: what I was capable of, and what certain types of projects required.
Why does billing by the project pay more? It pays more for writers who are above average. If you can write quickly, and do a better job than most writers, why charge the same as other writers? When selling my services to a client I try to estimate how many hours the job will take a technical-service agency writer, then multiply by what a high-price agency is likely to charge per hour; $60 or $70. Then I may add a little for good measure. But I know that if an average technical-service agency writer will take, say, 300 hours to do the job, then I can do it in 150 or less. I've also found that many clients really like to be given a per-project bid. Rather than being told, "I'll charge you $40 an hour," they like to know what the project will actually cost. After all, what does $40 an hour mean? What's an hour? "I don't know," I tell clients, "and I bet you don't." One person's hour is, after all, different from another's. Some writers bill more hours than they work, other writers simply don't get much done in an hour. Will the $40-an-hour project cost the client $10,000? $20,000? $30,000? Who knows? A few years ago I was at a writer's conference, chatting with a journalist who had asked me how much money technical writers earn. I'd just finished explaining that making $70,000 was relatively easy, when I heard a sudden laugh. Someone, another technical writer, was listening to our conversation. "I don't know anyone making that sort of money!" he said. And he probably didn't. Freelance tech-writing rates are hidden from employee writers, and even many freelancers don't know what they could really earn. One writer emailed me after reading my comments in a tech-writer's Internet mailing list; "Clients get miffed when they realize you are probably earning 2X what they do," she said, "so I just keep quiet & drive a small car." That's why I tell people they must gossip. Freelance writers have to talk to other freelance writers, about the rates they're earning, about the rates being offered by various companies and agencies, about the rates being made by other writers. It's a game, and the prize is a higher hourly rate.
Can you run out and make $100,000 a year in technical writing right away? Probably not. But it is possible for many people to increase their incomes significantly immediately -- perhaps by 50% or more --and even double their incomes quite rapidly (I doubled mine in about a year). To get to the higher rates takes more effort, but the potential is there if you want to reach for it. There's one danger. As one freelance writer, who had scriptwriting aspirations, told me: "The money is seductive. Technical writing pays so well that you get used to the money, and it's difficult to break away."
**Peter Kent is the author of Making Money in Technical Writing, a book that, despite its subtitle, is garnering enthusiastic reviews and testimonials. Kent also wrote the best-selling Complete Idiot's Guide to the Internet, along with another 30 books. His most recent book is Poor Richard's Web Site: Geek-Free, Commonsense Advice on Building a Low-Cost Web Site