Before crossing back over to full-time work, I spent much of my career as a contract technical writer. It was a good time until the economy tanked and even let me work remotely on some contracts.
As the economic apocalypse lingers, I am noticing fewer part-time remote projects as I once did. Combined with some recent online conversations I’ve come across, I got to thinking about the times I’ve seen remote technical writing projects work and not work for both the organization and the writer.
I first worked remotely as a freelancer in the computer book publishing industry and later as a technical writer.
If you are on the hunt for a remote technical writing project, remember these things make them (im) possible:
I once had a client that issued every employee and contractor a notebook PC, secure VPN access, and an account with their conference call service. They built their infrastructure to accomodate full-time and occassional remote workers. Sure, I still had to chase down document reviews, it was easy to get in touch with people on my project team. Because everybody was online during work hours, knowing that somebody was in the office never really became an issue.
While infrastructure is obvious element for remote workers, it is actually just a small part in enabling remote workers.
The same client I had with the great infrastructure also made collaboration was also part of their culture which made a difference. It was a small price to pay to have to logoff IM after hours because it was an unwritten rule if you were online you were working. A corporate culture must embrace remote working with the employees and contractors making their own adjustments as I had to with my former client and IM.
I lost out on a user guide project late in 2011 because the client wanted to have the writer onsite. Reading between the lines in the job postings for it I read after my initial contact about the project is that their culture couldn’t support a remote worker. In this case, it was going to cost them additional time and expense to get a technical writer onsite for what was billed as a one month project. Their culture had to write a bigger check for that project than if they went with an offsite independent contractor (they ended posting the job through two contracting agencies).
Closely related to culture is management. Project management is too often a dark art in organizations. Remote technical writing projects seem to work best (but not always) in environments where the technical writer is driving the documentation not some non-writer project manager. One exception here was the time I spent in computer book publishing. Remote technical writers and their documents can easily become out of sight and out of mind for some development managers and it takes a technical writer driving to make the documentation their own.
Remote technical writing projects aren’t going to thrive under the realm of empire builders. This is a major reason why telework isn’t going to reach its potential in many United States federal government agencies.
If the right technical writer is allowed to truly own the project’s technical documentation then can a remote writing project be successful.
The Technical Writer
While it’s hard to not find working at home appealing, but it takes a particular kind of technical writer to work remotely (even if only part time). There can be a lot more responsibility than if a technical writer is working in a traditional office. Working on remote writing projects also means having to deal with software, hardware, and connectivity issues by yourself. Communications and gathering information can also take a bit more skill and followup as well.
Back when I was a computer book technical editor, I learned to build relationships with clients who couldn’t pick me out of a lineup by being organized, meet deadlines, and deliver technical reviews that could stand on their own without me being there to defend the comments. This is not stuff you can find training on and I was fortunate to get my start working remotely where it wwas part of the client’s business and culture. Computer book publishing is a rare industry in that sense. Technical writers working remotely may not be as lucky as I was on my first time out and have to face dysfunction
More experienced and self sufficient technical writers are ideal for remote technical writing projects. It’s part of having to drive the project but also being able to fix your own technical issues. Another element of technical self sufficiency is being able to communicate the technical issues a writer encounters.
Certain technical writing projects lend themselves to remote work while others do not. Projects that require a technical writer with some subject matter expertise are ideal for remote projects.
If you are hunting for a remote technical writing project — part-time or full-time — you have to remember its not just about the writer. There is a mix of infrastructure, culture, project, and management that come before the writer. Even if you can get a remote technical writing project, some of those elements cna quickly compromise the writer and the overall project if not managed well.
Why are you hunting for a remote technical writing project?