Career Flexibility in Technical Writing

Lead Writer: Amanda Butler | Peer Reviewer/s: Felicity Brand, Kieran Morgan | Expert Reviewer/s: Saul Carliner | Managing Editor: Kieran Morgan

This chapter provides a comprehensive look at flexible work options for technical writers: remote, cross-time-zone, and freelance work. Each mode comes with its own set of benefits and challenges. They offer opportunities for high autonomy and flexibility but also require careful consideration of factors like job security and team collaboration. It’s a guide to making well-informed, rewarding career choices in the evolving landscape of technical writing.

Audience Icon Who Should Read This
• Aspiring Technical Writers
• Beginner Technical Writers
• Career Advancers
Table of Contents: Technical Writing Process
Previous: Chapter 5: Career Growth and Survival for Technical WritersNext: Chapter 7: Tailor the Process

1. Introduction

Technical writing is a great opportunity for those who enjoy remote or hybrid work—that is, working some days in the office and some days from home. Many technical writers do a hundred percent of their research, writing, and editing from their home office. All you need is a quiet location where you can concentrate, permission from your manager, and a stable internet connection that allows for videoconferencing and screen sharing.

It’s important to note that remote work isn’t for everyone:

  • If you’re a beginner, it might help your career to be in the office until you’ve learned the ropes. Being physically present might help you interact with others including your team and your subject matter experts (assuming they’re also physically present in the office!) In doing so, you may soak up the office culture and norms more quickly than at home.
  • If you’re a technical writer who writes about hardware and you need access to it to make sure your documentation is accurate, then remote work might not be for you. You may need to spend at least a day or two a week on site physically learning how to use the hardware. Many hardware tech writers relish this aspect of their job.
  • You may be required to be on site if you work for the government or any organization that requires you to work on confidential documents from a secure location.
  • Finally, some organizations have very strict rules regarding remote and hybrid work. Some don’t allow it at all, while others swing completely the opposite way, building remote work into their employee value proposition to help them recruit staff. Check what their expectations are before you start working for them and find out that their working arrangements aren’t going to suit you.
Voice of Practitioner Icon Voice of Practitioner
Role: Technical Writer
Location: Manchester, United Kingdom

“If you’re working remotely, take care of your persona online. For example, if you’re going to have a beard, trim it. If you wear a t-shirt, make sure it’s not one the cat slept on. If you’re on camera, pay attention when people are talking, especially your boss. Don’t be typing when people are speaking, or looking like you’re falling asleep, or not looking into the camera. This is a big thing in the workforce. It doesn’t matter how passionate you are about the company, they’ll always pick the people who seem to have more of a positive persona for the opportunities.”

2. Working across Multiple Time Zones

Working across different time zones is quite common, particularly for writers who work for large, global organizations. It can be challenging if your subject matter experts or fellow writers are spread across multiple time zones. You might find that you’ll be expected to attend very early or very late meetings (or at worst, a combination of both) well outside your nine a.m. to five p.m. work window to accommodate colleagues in different regions. For this reason, it’s best to check the locations and time zones of the people you’d be working with before you start your new job, plus the timing of any regular meetings you’ll be expected to attend.

Insight Icon Insight
Working Remotely Can Be Isolating for Those in Different Time Zones
If you’re the only member of the team working remotely and everyone else is co-located, it can feel lonely, and it’s easy for the team to forget to include you. If you find yourself in this situation, be assertive in reminding the team about the need to include you in all conversations and update you about any ad hoc conversations that may have happened in the break room or outside scheduled meetings.
Voice of Practitioner Icon Voice of Practitioner
Role: Documentation Manager
Location: Texas, USA

“I work with people across the globe. My boss is in England. Normally I wake up to a ton of Slack messages. A lot happens while I sleep! The first thirty minutes of my day are spent catching up on what’s happened overnight.”
Voice of Practitioner Icon Voice of Practitioner
Role: Technical Documentation Manager
Location: Massachusetts, USA 

“My team is mostly split between North America and Europe, so my day is usually split in two chunks: a morning chunk where I talk to Europe, then in the afternoon I start to work with the interstate US folks. That’s been working pretty well.”

3. Freelance Work

Technical writing offers great opportunities for freelance work. Freelancing (also known as contracting) can provide lucrative hourly or daily rates well beyond what a salaried role can offer, plus the flexibility to work your own hours in the time and place of your choice.

For technical writers with good experience under their belt and a great professional network, it can be extremely rewarding. However, it’s not for everyone. Beginners without much experience may struggle to negotiate good freelance terms or get enough work. Many folks simply prefer the job security and career advancement opportunities that come with a salaried role.

Before going down the freelance path, you should be fully aware of the pros and cons. Here are some of them from our experience.

Enjoy premium rates well in excess of salaried roles—within limits. Many companies have freelance rates (or a range) defined for certain professions, and they won’t go very far beyond this even if you’re the Leonardo da Vinci of tech writers. Savvy freelancers should develop good relationships with recruiters and use that relationship to find out what the industry norm is for rates, as well as specific ranges at organizations that may be willing to pay a premium.Job security can be lacking for freelancers. There may be plenty of work in economic boom times and excellent freelance rates available. This can dry up very quickly in challenging economic times as organizations prepare to endure recessions. In such times, shedding freelance workers can be an expedient way for organizations to save money.
Set your own schedule. Freelancers who do piecework (short contracts that are often costed and quoted in advance) can complete work in their own time and juggle multiple clients simultaneously. This gives them the flexibility to focus on other things in life, like taking care of children and dependents, or focusing on passion projects.Lack of career advancement and training opportunities. Usually, freelancers will be expected to invest in their own education and won’t have access to training courses that full-time staff do. Organizations are often reluctant to invest in career development opportunities for freelance staff, particularly at a management level. They may even be prohibited by law from providing these opportunities in some countries.
Set your own conditions, such as choosing the clients you’d like to work with, turning down projects that don’t suit you, and potentially working from anywhere in the world (this is known as a “digital nomad”).

Although the digital nomad life may sound very appealing (and cost-effective), make sure you fully research the pros and cons before doing so. You may struggle to get paid if you don’t have a bank account in your employer’s country. Some countries impose stringent visa and tax restrictions on digital nomads, and your employer may frown on you working from overseas.
Freelancing adds additional (often hidden) costs and complexity to your finances. You should take these into account when you’re comparing them to a salaried role.

For example, you may need to consider:
• Paying your own tax to the government, which may need to be done regularly, maybe quarterly.
• Obtaining your own health, life, and income protection insurance.
• Contributing toward your own retirement fund.
• Inconsistent cash flow throughout the year, including if you take a significant chunk of time off for a vacation.
• Challenges when you try to rent or buy a home or car. Landlords and banks often require evidence of consistent income and may prefer not to lend to freelancers.

If all of this sounds daunting, talk to a freelancer in your industry to see how they manage it. Complexity can be minimized by investing a small percentage (maybe 3 percent) of your income with an intermediary such as a payroll service or accountant who will manage compulsory taxes, insurance, and retirement fund contributions on your behalf.
Focus on producing work rather than administrative tasks such as attending team or departmental meetings, going through lengthy onboarding processes or mandatory training, participating in performance development cycles, and so on. However, you will need to invest time in your own administrative tasks, such as invoicing your clients, pitching for work, and bookkeeping.You might feel like an outsider in the team due to your freelance status. Permanent members of staff may consider you a temporary member of the team, not worth investing the time establishing a relationship with. Some companies even issue different-colored ID badges or lanyards to freelancers so they can be easily distinguished from full-time staff. You’ll definitely need to have the knack of establishing rapport with your SMEs very quickly and the skill of finding information by whatever means necessary in the shortest possible time.
Gain valuable industry experience when full-time roles are scarce, which might eventually lead to full-time roles, if that’s your aim.Most new writers benefit from working with and learning from experienced technical writers. When you freelance, you may find yourself working solo. You might find you have less opportunity to work with other writers, which can put you at a disadvantage when it comes to growing your skills. If you’re already highly experienced, this might not matter so much to you. Having a strong network is essential for successful freelancers who are always on the lookout for the next contract.
Pros and Cons of Freelance Work for Technical Writers
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