GPMCC Technical Writing and Freelance

GPMCC DEDICATED TO PROMOTING GROWTH AND PROSPERITY THROUGH SELF-RELIANCE

The Freelance Technical Writer

Technical Writing is a concept everybody is familiar with, but may not be aware of. If you ever read an automobile Owner's Manual, you've read a document put together by a technical writer. Every piece of literature concerning an object (coffee maker, television, radio, just to name a few) was created by a technical writer. How good that literature is, is of course another story.

Businesses need someone to write various pieces of literature for their product. To fill this need these businesses generally hire a technical writer or desktop publisher to create the documents for them. However this is where the situation can get... "interesting". Anyone can write "something" for a product to fill the need the business is looking for. I know you have seen documents and told yourself "I can write better than that." We all have and here is where we separate the "wheat from the chaff".


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Documentation...

The world lives on documentation. I don't think that is an over simplification of the situation. Without documentation we would have trouble figuring out how to use our cellphone, computer, or even turn on the television. The reason is because of all the bells and whistles engineers design into the products of today. True we could figure the rudimentary use of a product but to use the product to full value we need a frame of reference. Enter the world of documentation.

How efficiently a business documents their product varies drastically from company to company. Some excel at documentation, others, just enough to get by and no more. Experience has proven that companies which short-shift the documentation process generally lose money in the long run. Customer dissatisfaction, support calls, and product returns eat into the profits of any company which choses minimal documentation over those companies who invest in good documentation. Be it a toaster or multi-million dollar yacht, documentation is key to customer satisfaction.


Cheap Product...Cheap Documentation

If you spend $5 on a product and expect it to behave like a $500 product you are in for a rude awakening. The reverse holds true for documentation. If you spend $500 on a product but only $5 on the documentation don't expect your customer to be happy with it. An Owner's Manual or User Guide created on the cheap is sure to reap a return of the product and/or customer dissatisfaction, which in the long run can mean lost sales and business.

Customers will only put up with only so much "dissatisfaction" before a backlash begins against the company/organization. Any CEO who believes the customer will always come back for more abuse is delusional at best. If the documentation does not satisfy the needs of the customer it is a safe bet the customer will begin to "advertise" the company in a bad light via word of mouth. It happens all the time. In fact I would like to know how much profit is lost because of bad "word of mouth" publicity.

Many businesses believe that anybody can write product documentation. Thus they assign some individual, generally the low man/woman on the totem pole the task of creating a "Users Guide" and generally as an after thought to product development. Little or no thought actually goes into what the document should say or fully describe how the product should work. Experience has shown that software development companies are generally more inclined to provide adequate documentation over those who manufacture products.

But lately I have seen even this degrade significantly, relying more on web-help than the printed word. And while web-help is nice I have discovered it to be generally inefficient in answering my questions not to mention quite annoying sometimes. This is not to say web-help is useless because it does offer some advantages over a paper manual. However it is the end-user who often left "out in the cold" I would say. Many people still prefer paper over electronic. I'm one of those people. That said production of a paper copy is often cost prohibited leading one to believe that web-help is the solution.

Not necessarily. In today's world a PDF document is often the compromise between paper and electrons. In fact a PDF document has many advantages over both a paper and web-help. A PDF is often more search friendly and only those pages that affect the situation need be printed. Good web-help is costly to create, more so than a standard PDF document and is often not printable, or if it is, not efficiently printable for the end user. Again a lot of this depends upon the product and situation hence as a technical documentation specialist I believe the best solution should be the one that is: 1) cost effective, 2) user friendly, and 3) complete. By complete I mean printable and searchable in every sense of the word.

Differences...

Are there differences in technical writing assignments? That's like asking if the moon is as efficient as the sun. Of course there is and, there are differences, sometimes vast differences, in the technical writers themselves.

To understand these differences you must first understand the basics of "technical writing" and so we first need to define a couple of terms:

  • Desktop Publisher: An individual who gathers information already written and formats it in the desired format. The Desktop Publisher generally and in most cases does not write any new content for the project.
  • Technical Writer: An individual who gathers and assembles information from various sources, generally engineering documents, and creates the content and layout from this raw data.

A Desktop Publisher generally only works with already existing data, which is provided by others. They organize this data in a pre-determined format, often a template, for brochures, data sheets, or some other type of document. Desktop Publishers work with a variety of software to create these documents, creating great looking layouts, but they do not write the information themselves.

A technical writer, on the other hand, must take raw data and create the documents themselves. This includes reading blueprints, obtaining information from other manuals/literature, talking with engineers, investigating how the product works, perhaps even field testing the product if necessary. The technical writer assembles all this raw data then must either put the information in an approved format or create the format from scratch. Thus a technical writer must have mechanical, investigative, and organizational skills generally related to the project he/she is working on.

The technical writer must be able to write clearly and in terms the end user can understand. In short the technical writer must make the complex simple. A technical writer must know and use a variety of software programs to create these documents. Some Technical Writers are proficient with various graphic programs and can create the illustrations for the document. Some but not all.

Some technical writers are proficient in AutoCAD and can create the diagrams and CAD drawings needed for a project. However most Technical Writers are not AutoCAD specialist but those that are, demand, and generally receive, a high salary for their services.

The Money Issue...

Many businesses need the expertise of a good technical writer but in todays economy find it difficult to justify hiring someone fulltime. With good reason.

A good, emphasis on good, technical writer is worth the money they demand. Salaries in the fifty thousand dollar range, plus benefits is considered the low end of the pay scale for a proficient technical writer.

But in today's economy many businesses cannot afford to hire an individual, and if they do it is at substandard wages. Be that as it may, the fact is many businesses need a technical writer, especially small businesses. To overcome this challenge many businesses turn to Temp Agencies to fill their documentation needs. And there is nothing wrong with this as I myself worked almost ten years as a "temp". What I learned during that tenure has placed me in the position I find myself today.

On the positive side a temp worker is generally already skilled in the software needed to complete the job. This saves the company both time and money as the temp is expected to "hit the ground running." The only thing the temp needs to know is how the product works, which can be easy or complicated. Thus the temp is expected to learn the product quickly and efficiently. Sometimes it's not fair to the temp but that is the way it is.

A temp generally gets more money because no benefits are paid out. The temp agency however takes a "cut" of the wage. Example the temp is paid $35 an hour but the agency charges the business $40 an hour. The agency keeps $5 as their "cut." This is the way it should be as this is how the agency makes their money making it a win-win situation. The business is happy because they are saving money in the long run, the agency is happy because they are making money, and the temp is happy because he/she has a job and is making a good wage. No benefits, but a good wage. And like I said I did this for almost ten years.

However there is a downside to temp work: Each project is short-lived, generally not more than a year in length and often less. The average temp job is generally just a couple of months long then the temp has to find another job. While the business has the option of hiring the temp they generally don't, for a variety of reasons, expenses being at the top of the list. It is cheaper for the business to replace the temp with another one then hire the current one. Fair? Not really but that's generally the way it works. Of course there are always exceptions.

Changing the Equation...

The current economic situation has changed the equation drastically. Today companies/businesses are required to find ways to cut costs without sacrificing quality and documentation is a program which can be cut or reduced to save money. However this measure is not without risk to the business because if they don't provide adequate documentation for their product nobody will buy it, support cost become astronomical, and/or the product is returned. Any of these can spell the end of a business.

In some cases lawyers have made it so difficult on the business that cutting documentation cost is not an option. The automobile industry is a prime example. Each car sold comes with a complete Owner's Manual because lawsuits have driven this to become standard practice for the industry. The auto manufacturers dare not skimp on their documentation but they still need to cut cost where possible.

So with very few exceptions businesses are cutting back on their documentation process and this is reflected by the number of temp agents not being placed, read that not finding work. However this has led to another opening which is gaining momentum. And this is where I come in.

The Freelance Option...

Freelance work is gaining in reputation for a variety of reasons. First, the business generally deals directly with one person and not an agency. Second, one wage is negotiated, not two. Third, the freelancer generally works from home which means the business does not have to provide any type of support facilities, including the necessary software. If the freelancer doesn't already own the software required, he/she must either buy it or forego the job. And like anything there are exceptions to this template.

Security issues are generally handled via confidentiality agreements as well as statements of work and other issues related to the project. Payments for work rendered are generally handled at milestones with final payment being at the completion of the project. Thus if the freelancer doesn't deliver, or delivers sub-standard work they don't get paid.

Both the employer and the freelancer understands all the conditions and penalties going into the job, before the project even begins. The freelancer knows what is expected of him/her and the employer, having done due-diligence on the freelancer, knows what kind of work the business can expect from the freelancer.

There is much to be said in praise of freelance work but like all jobs it does have its' drawbacks. Hence a third party should be involved in the freelance process. Two companies come to mind: Elance and Guru and I work with both.

Why the third party? Is this not the same concept as a temp agency?

The answer to that second question is no and the answer to the first question is: Protection.

A good third party, such as Elance and Guru, provides protection to both the employer and the freelancer. If difficulties arise, or disagreements become a problem the third party can arbitrate the situation. I have never had any reason to experience this but I know this protection exist and it gives me comfort in knowing that, not only I, but my client (the employer) is safe from any major issue (disagreement) which could arise during the course of a project.

True these companies do charge a fee (which comes out of my earnings) but the peace of mind I receive offsets this disadvantage. Hence I will not take on a job without first going through Elance or Guru first.

Logistics

The latest addition to my resume has been in the logistics department. Now when one thinks of logistics most people think about moving product from location to location. Not me. In my world logistics means accounting for every nut, washer, and bolt that goes into making a product.

Not only keeping track of each individual part but also the cost of that part, how often it is used, and where it is used. Needless to say this is a specialized, and niche talent.

In order to provide this information to the client a software program called SlicWave is utilized. Now this program is extremely expensive, and out of my reach. So I may not own the program but I do know how to use it. But more than that I understand the basis and reasons why and where such a program is used.

Now I'm not going to go into individual scenarios about the use of this software but will mention that if you are in need of this type of freelance work, then please consider contacting me to discuss details. 

About GP McClure...

I am a technical writer and I'm very good at my job. I have the mechanical background, good organizational skills and I understand the meaning of meeting a deadline. I also have some drafting experience and can read blueprints. And while I am not an expert, I can use AutoCAD to make some simple but decent drawings. I am also employed full time and not looking for a new job. I am however looking to supplement my income with freelance work.

As a freelance technical writer I offer numerous advantages to a business of any size, but I excel working with small business, those with less than 50 employees. As a freelance technical writer some of the benefits I offer a small business include, but not limited to, the following:

  • I'm not an employee. You don't pay me benefits. Most of my jobs are a flat rate project fee (my preference). However I can work on a per hour basis if you desire.
  • I work out of my home since I have all, or most of the software necessary to create great documentation. No cubical for you to worry about.
  • I can do almost any type of work from simple brochures to complex multi-volume manuals.
  • I have and maintain an active security clearance (I work with military equipment in my regular job). I keep propriety information secret and will sign a non-disclosure agreement if desired.
  • I am retired Military and have been doing technical writing since my retirement from the Navy in 1992.
  • I have numerous projects under my belt (see my resume for a listing).
  • I know how to meet deadlines.
  • I am not afraid to ask questions and if necessary pester the engineers and other individuals when and if necessary for answers.
  • I write with the goal, "If I can understand it, anybody can."

I am proficient and/or very knowledgeable in a variety of software programs including, but not limited to: FrameMaker, MS Office, Visio, AutoCAD, and Epic Editor (Arbotext). I own most of these programs (not Arbotext) which allow me to work from home in the evening and on weekends.

So what type of projects have I worked on? Just to name a few (but not limited to):

  • User Guides
  • Owner's Manuals
  • Installation Manuals
  • Training Documents/Lesson Plans
  • Datasheets
  • Environmental Manuals
  • Repair Manuals

I understand how important your needs are and how critical your deadlines can be, but more than that I am flexible to your needs and your schedule. However to protect both you and me I highly recommend a third party. Enter...

Elance and Guru...

I do freelance jobs using both of these companies. Both offer protection to both the employer and the freelancer. Hence I will not undertake any freelance job on my own but rather use one of these entities to guide the project along. My experience with these two companies put me at ease and while they do take a cut of my earnings, it's worth it.

You can find me on both of these sites and if you need a documentation project done I would be honored if you considered me for the job.

Contacting Me...

So how do you contact me to do a job for you? The best way is to (via my CONTACT page) me and let me know you are interested in hiring me for a job. Once this initial contact is made I will respond to your inquiry and direct you to either Elance or Guru, your choice. Once on their site you set up the project and invite me to bid on it. All correspondence from that that point on will be done via their system (Elance or Guru).

You can, of course, choose a different vendor other than Elance or Guru, but I do not have experience with other vendors (but that never stopped me before). All I ask is that the vendor be someone you trust to protect you and me during every phase of the project.

A lot of trouble? Yes, for sure but this protection is critical if you want peace of mind about any project you want me to do. And for me this trouble is well worth the effort because I want you to feel comfortable hiring me. It is your money, your project, and your reputation on the line. If I am willing to go through all this trouble to protect you for a job you know that I have your best interest in mind because for me technical writing is more than a job, it's a way of life. And life is precious.

In Conclusion...

As a small company, in a tough business environment, you need an advantage. As a freelancer I work off premise meaning I don't need an office or any computer equipment. Since I already own the most common software used in technical writing today this saves you more money. The point: By working freelance I save you energy, time, and money.

Freelance work is both exciting, challenging, and something I thrive on. If you need a good technical writer consider my skills by checking out my resume or email me with your questions. No matter what you decide I wish you great success in your documentation endeavors.

 

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