5 Surprising Skills You Need in Freelance Technical Writing
Many writers are needlessly daunted by technical writing. They think they have to have taken apart their computer and put it back together to qualify as “technical”. They think they have to have degrees in high sciences over humanities. In short, they often think they’re not good enough. But the skillset for technical writing is not as unattainable to regular writers as you may think, and you’ll be delighted to see that YOU do qualify for freelance technical writing gigs.
You may think an entertainment reporter is on entirely different spectrum as a technical writer, but there’s a connection between their skillset beyond the writing. Interviewing! It’s very useful for a technical writer to be able to talk to technical experts who have the familiarity with the products. A technical writer needs to be able to draw out necessary information and ask the right questions to glean information about the technical products they’re writing about.
If you have experience interviewing people, you’ll be a comfortable writing a list of questions and conversing with experts. It’s a necessary skill because you’ll take their jargon-based specific expertise and translate it into lay-person terms. So despite the association with writing as a solitary action, interviewing skills when it comes to technical writing is a HUGE boon.
2) Outsider Perspective
In the comedy film, Confessions of a Shopaholic, a fashion writer gets a job writing for a financial magazine because she words things in an accessible, but fresh way. It’s precisely because she’s outside her comfort zone and area of expertise that she’s able to articulate truths in a fresh, clear way. The same goes with technical writing.
Sometimes, your experience with growing a garden can help you write about the mechanics of a car. Sometimes, it’s the areas with the least in common that can have the best connections when it comes to articulating technical truths. Growing plants can often be a way of describing machine parts that resonates with the general public.
Further, the more unfamiliar you are with something, the better you can explain it once you do learn. The old axiom “The best way to learn is to teach” applies here! Because you had to learn yourself, you’re familiar with the exact level a layperson is at when they’re reading your technical writing piece. Sometimes being too close to a topic can put you at disadvantage because you don’t remember what it was like to be at that novice, unfamiliar level in the learning curve. Don’t underestimate how much the outsider perspective can serve you in technical writing.
3) Big Picture Thinking
We often associate technical writing with detail oriented thinking. But there is a need for balance between details and big picture thinking. If you’re TOO caught up in the details of a product, you could spend too long explaining aspects that are not relevant.
Big picture thinking is a critical skill for writing technical copy so that you keep the point of the product’s end goal and the customer’s need for it in mind as you relay the intricacies. Big picture thinking helps you determine what to cut and what to emphasize when you revise your copy. An expert you consulted might have emphasized something that isn’t relevant to the customer, but was just geeky jargon. Being able to sift fascinating from essential details helps you stay on point as a freelance technical writer.
4) Inability to Bullshit (YES! It is a skill!)
Are you the type that ASKS when you don’t know something? Or do you bulldoze ahead with certainty? If you said the latter, forget technical writing. You’re underestimating your readers, who can sniff it out right away.
Technical writing relies on straightforward, clear communication with an aim to inform NOT manipulate readers. So if you’re incapable of lying, exaggerating, or bullshitting, you have the honesty and curiosity skills needed for technical writing. If you don’t know enough about your product, you cannot get away with making up facts because technical writing’s foundation is facts first.
So if you’re the type of person who’s comfortable with expressing doubt and prefers to research, investigate, and learn more before making a decision or expressing an opinion, then 1) you’re smart, conscientious, and RARE and 2) you’d make an ideal freelance technical writer.
5) UX Design Experience
If your technical writing appears on a website or an app, having UX (user experience) design is another key surprise skill to have. UX Design has to do with the location of content, colors used, and flow of information. Is the user experience intuitive? Or confusing? What makes them keep reading, scrolling, active? What turns them away? Your words with the design makes all the difference.
Knowing user experience design is as important as understanding your audience and customers. Often times, tech writers have to write for buttons, toggles, navigation flows, dialogue boxes, and tool tips. Understanding the design perspective and having minimal code experience helps push you to the top as a freelance technical writer.
If freelance technical writing is something you weren’t sure was a possibility, we hope learning these less emphasized, unexpected skills will inspire you to give it a shot! Your interviewing skills, big-picture thinking, UX design experience, inability to bullshit, and outsider perspective are incredibly practical and beneficial for your technical writing toolkit.
Samantha S writes direct, dynamic, digestible copy for any purpose and any medium. She has written for apps, games, websites, literary journals, trade magazines, newspapers, e-commerce brands and health//nutrition brands. Samantha’s most notable achievements are authoring a guidebook for College Prowler, interviewing Leonardo Dicaprio, Zac Efron, and Amy Sherman-Palladino for The Hollywood Reporter, reviewing books for Publishers Weekly, covering the World Series of Poker, teaching creative writing at Harvard-Westlake, and working as Editor-in-Chief of The Oval literary magazine.