12 things to look for when hiring a freelance technical writer

12 things to look for when hiring a freelance technical writer

Picture this. You’re a business owner. You’ve got a good product or service and you need to explain how it works so that you can attract new customers. Or perhaps you need some support documentation to help your existing customers. Your in-house team is busy and their time is precious. You decide to call upon external help.

A quick Google search later, you discover that you should hire a freelance technical writer to create the content for you. Great. No need to employ a member of staff. No employer’s National Insurance costs. No HR induction. No desk-space battles. It all makes sense.

But there’s a problem. You’ve never hired a writer before.

Which skills should you look for?

Do you have to use a recruitment agency?

Is there a formula for finding the right person?

Lots of things to think about. It’s a good job you found this post, really.

Hiring the right person

The good news is that you can find the right person yourself. You don’t need a recruitment agency or any other person in the middle.

All you need to do is to know what to look for. Use the following criteria to build a picture of your ideal technical writer, and then use that information to find them.

Searching for writers

Google and LinkedIn should be all you need. Would you hire someone who isn’t discoverable via those channels? Yes, there are loads of other platforms out there, but most competent writing professionals should be easy enough to find via Google and LinkedIn. If you disagree, let me know in the comments below.

12-point list for hiring a freelance technical writer

Find someone who ticks most of these boxes and you’ll be fine.

  1. Training
  2. Editorial skills
  3. Website and social profiles
  4. Modern software
  5. Client history
  6. Awards
  7. Testimonials
  8. Positions of responsibility
  9. Responsiveness
  10. Style
  11. Pricing
  12. Insurance

1. Training

Your ideal technical writer should be well trained and able to demonstrate a commitment to continuing professional development (CPD). The last thing you want is someone who ‘learned everything they need to know’ years ago and who hasn’t bothered to keep up with new developments.

Keeping up to date is especially important when it comes to IT and other technical subjects, because of the sheer rates of progress in these fields. Think back to the end of the last decade: how aware were you of cybersecurity, cloud computing, social media, responsive web design, and so on? You need someone who’s on the ball.

2. Editorial skills

If you’re in the market for a technical writer, look for someone who is accurate and concise with their words. Some excellent writers aren’t great at self-editing. Take a look at any writing they’ve made public, e.g. on their blog. Is the content tight? Are there typos and other errors? If you can spot problems with their text, what would your customers think if the writer were to produce content for you?

I don’t think it’s possible to edit your own writing well unless you leave a long time between writing the draft and editing it. That way, the text being edited feels like fresh content. This isn’t practical in many workflows: there just isn’t the time or money available for the writer to act as a competent editor. And yet that’s what most clients expect from their writers. They want perfect text with no errors. So, what’s the solution?

In my opinion, the best course of action is to use the services of a professional editor and proofreader.

I use professional editors and proofreaders to ensure the quality of the content I produce for my clients. As a director of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), I’m fortunate to be in regular contact with a lot of editorial professionals – so finding someone to assist me with a project is never a challenge. I usually call upon one of my colleagues from the South Wales Editors collective.

And yes, the fact that there’s an editorial step in my workflow means that my rates are higher than those of some other technical writers. But that’s OK – I work with clients who want the best and who are willing to pay for it. (For more information about pricing, take a look at my Technical writing prices series.)

Bonus tips on proofreading your own work

Although there’s no substitute for a professional pair of eyes, I’ve written a post that might help. Check out my top 10 proofreading tips to help you polish your content.

3. Website and social profiles

These days, it’s natural that we look online to find out as much as we can about others before doing business with them. An obvious place to start is on their website. What impression does it give? Has your prospective writer cobbled something together in a few minutes or have they taken the time to publish a professional design? Do they have a blog? What sort of information do they share?

Most tech-savvy people have some form of social media presence. Take a look at the big three social networks: Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Does your writer have accounts there? Are they active? How professional do they seem?

I’ve had some elements of my website professionally designed, but have built the rest myself. I’m most active on Twitter, but also have regularly updated content streams on Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+.

4. Modern software

Many clients don’t know that technical writers usually don’t spend much time in Microsoft Word. Looking for someone with Word skills therefore isn’t going to be a fruitful avenue of research. If you want a good technical writer, look for someone who has skills in modern help authoring tools (HATs) such as MadCap Flare and Adobe RoboHelp. These are heavyweight computer programs that enable technical writers to produce effective online and print output, including content that’s optimised for consumption on mobile devices. This software isn’t cheap – it’s one of several reasons why technical writing services can be so expensive.

I used Adobe RoboHelp for years but made a wholesale switch to MadCap Flare in 2014. I like working with code so I also use professional text editors such as BBEdit to write and edit HTML, CSS, XML, Markdown and other types of content.

MadCap Flare

Adobe RoboHelp

5. Client history

Do you want to work with someone fresh to the market? Sometimes the answer will be yes: you want to give someone a chance, save money, or take an unusual approach. But, more often than not, you’ll want to put your project into the hands of someone with experience. So take a look at the other clients your chosen technical writer has worked for. Have they tackled big projects for established companies, or is their work limited to smaller organisations and individuals?

6. Awards

Is your prospective technical writer someone who has been recognised by other leaders of the industry? As we’d say in football parlance, ‘show me your medals’.

I’ve picked up a couple of gongs along the way. I was awarded Microsoft Most Valuable Professional from 2003 to 2007, and was named Unsung Hero of Publishing 2016.

Unsung Hero of Publishing 2016

7. Testimonials

Industry awards aren’t easy to come by. It’s far more likely that a writer will be able to confirm their skills by demonstrating ‘social proof’ – that’s a buzzword term for testimonials, recommendations and reviews. Take a look at what past clients have said about them. What impression do you get?

8. Positions of responsibility

Look for a writer who’s really invested in what they do. A good way to do that is to see which organisations they’re part of and whether they have a prominent role within them.

People who are leading the industry should be able to offer insights you won’t find elsewhere. Hiring someone like that could be the difference between creating good content and creating great content. Think about how high you wish to aim.

I’m a director and local group leader of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP). I’m also involved with the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators (ISTC) and the Professional Copywriters’ Network (PCN).

9. Responsiveness

Be wary of people who take a long time to respond to your queries. Are they too busy to get back to you? If they are, how much attention are they going to give to your job? Are you going to be at the end of their queue as they focus on bigger clients? (Someone actually said that to me once – guess how much business I do with him now.)

It isn’t reasonable to expect a service provider to be plugged in to the grid all the time, so if you send a long email on a Sunday evening, don’t expect a reply within a few minutes. But in general you should expect a reasonably swift response.

Responsiveness

Warning: I’m about to have a moan

Lack of responsiveness is one of my biggest turn-offs when it comes to dealing with other people online. I’m probably more sensitive to this than most, but I can’t stand it when someone keeps me hanging on for days for a response. The icing on the cake is that the reply, when it eventually arrives, is usually a one-line email that doesn’t answer all of my questions. It’s so frustrating.

I always try to be Mr Responsive when I communicate with clients. Email is my weapon of choice, though I’m doing a lot more via Skype these days.

10. Style

One of the most important things to look for is someone whose writing style matches what you want for your own documentation. A talented writer will be able to adapt to any style you request, but keep in mind that their natural approach to producing content will usually shine through.

Look for a portfolio or blog that shows off the writer’s style. Is it the right fit for you?

I aim to write in a style that is simple, clear and elegant. My blog acts as my writing portfolio.

In my experience, keeping things simple is the best way to achieve effective results. That’s why I steer clear of big words and complex expressions. As I said in my interview with the PCN, nobody ever complained that some piece of copy was too easy to read.

11. Pricing

I hate having to hunt around for prices, so I’d always favour someone who’s transparent with their charges. It’s hard to make comparisons when some freelancers quote their prices and others don’t.

If you find a freelancer you think might be a good fit, ask them for a ballpark figure of costs. If they can’t or won’t answer that question, think twice. Are they going to be ludicrously expensive? Have they not done this sort of work before? Find out.

Your ideal technical writer should be able to give you an idea of their approximate day rate. Some writers prefer to quote an hourly rate and a very small number prefer a per-word rate. Whichever method they prefer, a technical writer should be able to give you some idea of how much their service will cost.

Given that the number one question I’m asked by prospective clients is ‘how much do you charge?’, I don’t see the point of trying to hide my prices. Take a look at my Pricing page for more information. For all the detail, read through my Technical writing prices series of blog posts.

Credit card

12. Insurance

It’s important to find someone who takes their craft seriously. No client wants to feel as though they’re dealing with someone in it for a fast buck. One way that freelance technical writers can reassure their clients is to take up professional indemnity insurance (PII). This is a common feature of other service providers. Think about plumbers, electricians, lawyers, dentists. Would you hire someone who isn’t insured?

PII isn’t so common in the field of writing, but wouldn’t you feel more comfortable if your chosen technical writer were insured?

I have a PII policy that covers my technical writing services up to the value of £500,000. My clients know that I’m committed to my profession and that I won’t vanish should anything go wrong. I’m glad to report that I’ve never come close to having to make an insurance claim.

PolicyBee insurance

Let’s wrap up

Find a technical writer who can deliver in most or all of these 12 areas and there’s a good chance that you’ll have found someone who can add real value to your documentation projects.

Remember that good technical writing isn’t cheap, and, like many things in life, you’ll usually get what you pay for. If you haven’t read my series on pricing, take a look at this post: How much does technical writing cost?

OK, that’s all for now. If you have a moment, leave a comment below and let me know what you look for in a technical writer, or what you’d like to know before hiring someone to work on a communications project. Alternatively, you can always catch up with me on Twitter.

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Thanks for reading, John Espirian

  • Some interesting points here, John. I was especially intrigued about viewing technical writing as a distinct discipline, covering, say, blog writing as well as help files. (We tend to keep ourselves more on the marketing communications side of B2B tech writing, because things like help and instructions always feel like pretty specialist turf.)

    Do you feel the format where the writing will be used makes a big difference to the kind of writer you want… and if so, do you suggest your clients keep a few options on call?

    (My colleague Fiona’s take on the whole thing is here: https://radix-communications.com/seven-types-b2b-copywriter-one-best/ …I think it stands up pretty well.)

    • Hi, David, and thanks for your comment.

      I believe us technical writers are more capable of venturing into more creative areas than we might think. We spend a lot of time researching and unlocking the problems of complexity. I’d suggest that we could use our skills to research the audience for creative projects, and to solve the challenges of communicating a brand’s message in a simple, clear and elegant fashion.

      In terms of the organisation doing the hiring, relying on a single person for all forms of writing is risky. There’s a speeding bus around each corner, after all. The best approach is to work with editorial/brand professionals to develop a consistent tone of voice for all communications. That’s what the best brands do (I’m thinking of people like Buffer and MailChimp, but there are so many others) and this makes it easier to bring in writers and show them what’s right and what’s wrong. Many clients I’ve worked for haven’t taken this approach, and so I’ve been the one to work with them in developing their pen portraits and a general house style. That way, the client gains more control of their communications and perhaps has more options when it comes to future writing projects. (That sounds as though I’m talking myself out of future work, and perhaps I am, but for me it’s about improving the overall quality of communications, and clients who get that message invariably come back to me anyway.)

      Thanks for sharing Fiona’s post. Good content there – popping it into my Buffer now!

  • I agree with John. Many technical writers, myself included, have written content for other types of communication, including journalism and marketing. A lot of the key principles are the same because they apply to all communication.

    Something you don’t mention, John, but is important in some industries, is prior knowledge of that area. As a generalist, I’ll always argue that a good technical writer can produce content for anything because we know what questions to ask and how to express the answers. But if deadlines are tight, it really can pay off to hire someone with some level of related knowledge, especially in regulated industries and civil engineering where certain types of document have to be provided.

    A similar thing applies with software – if deadlines are tight, a technical author with experience of working in a software development environment is likely to be quicker than one who has worked exclusively on hardware. Nothing to do with how they do their job or their writing style, more about getting to grips with agile and the working processes.

    • Hi, Craig. It can definitely help to have some prior knowledge about the subject matter. It could also be a hindrance in some cases, because then the writer might be prone to assuming the reader knows more than they do (though good writers tend not to fall into this trap). I certainly feel a lot more comfortable when asked to write about something I already know about, but the vast range of possible subjects out there means that it’s often the case that I won’t have had any prior experience. Part of the challenge is to show the client that you can still do a good job even if you’re not a subject matter expert.

      • Yep, that is called the curse of knowledge. It is probably why our profession even exists – the more experts know, the harder it is to connect with novice users.

        From personal experience, I don’t like to work on things I already know a lot about. I like to have a fresh perspective. That is the big benefit of working in software development teams – you get to understand how software is built and the dev cycle. That makes it so much easier to understand completely different software when you move on.