Technical Writing from Afar: Freelancing for Long-Distance Clients

Every freelance technical writer dreams of working from anywhere in the world, at the hours that suits him or her best. But before you pack your swimsuit and laptop and head off for the shores of Maui, you’ll want to make sure all your bases are covered before you’re thousands of miles from the office.

There are two types of remote writers. The first are those who have worked with their clients face-to-face and now want to travel the world (or just to the beach), taking their projects with them. The second group lives in one geographic area and wants to work for a client in another. Both arrangements can be considered telecommuting, and the approach to the two is similar.

Prove Yourself First

The easiest way to convince a company to take a chance on a remote writer is by establishing a local relationship first. Ideally, you’d work for a company face-to-face and get a few projects under
your belt before proposing your move to New Zealand or a working vacation in Miami. By that point, they’d feel so confident in your capabilities that they wouldn’t care where you plugged in your computer.

This isn’t to say that a writer living in Boise can’t telecommute to the Silicon Valley from Day One. If you’re applying for a new contract position from a remote locale, suggest undertaking a smaller project first. Once you’ve proven your reliability and worth, you’ll be better positioned for longer-term (and more lucrative) assignments.

Set Yourself Up for Success

Local writers often take for granted the easy availability of their clients’ supplies including network hookups, copy machines, laser printers and specialized software. Realize that when you’re hundreds of miles away, you won’t be able to stop by the office to print out a color version of that table for Chapter Four, or to “borrow” a copy of Illustrator to whip up a graphic. You’ll need immediate access to all the tools to get the project done.

As a result, many freelance writers own such items as a fax machine, laser and color printers and a variety of software (I have copies of Quark, PageMaker, FrameMaker, Illustrator, Freehand, Word, PageMill and MiniCAD). You may not use all these programs and equipment; just make sure you do have what you need–before you get on the plane.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Your supervisor’s biggest concern is loss of control; she fears that by losing day-to-day interaction with you, control will be lost, too. It’s your job to reassure her that all will be–and is–well. The best way to put her mind at ease is through constant communication.

Set up a schedule to provide regular reports of projects and issues. I’ve found that a weekly accounting of project status, accompanied by a monthly list of accomplishments, works well for longer-term projects. Read the needs
of your individual project and supervisor; some projects or managers require more frequent interaction; others, less.

Likewise, each manager has a preferred communication method. Ask up front whether telephone, e-mail or fax is best. If your manager doesn’t have a preference, pick what’s convenient for you. The main thing is to be consistent. If you say you’ll have your report in your supervisor’s e-mailbox each Tuesday, make sure it’s there–no excuses.

Take the Initiative

The best employee–freelance or permanent–is one who requires little in terms of management time. Assume your manager isn’t going to have resources to keep track of what you’re up to, even if you do provide regular reports.

It’s up to you to anticipate any problems or issues with your assignments, consider what you need to get the job done, and pass that information on. Think beyond your immediate projects. What is the next step? How does your piece fit into the big picture?

In your weekly status reports outline problems or issues, especially those that may cause a delay or require additional resources. Never raise a problem, though, without suggesting a solution. By foreseeing possible roadblocks and presenting a resolution, you’ll double your usefulness.

Know your Limitations

The quickest route to unemployment is by committing to more than you can possibly accomplish. Know how much you can handle in terms of work and personal life. If you’re planning to complete a
350-page manual while on a family vacation in Italy, think carefully. Will you want to take time from the Coliseum and the Spanish Steps to write about database software? Will you be able to access the necessary equipment to get
your job done, like laser printers, e-mail connections and software?

As a freelancer, you’ll also need to schedule and balance multiple projects if you work for more than one client simultaneously. Client A is not going to be too understanding if you’re late delivering their brochure because the datasheet for Client B took longer than planned.

The key is to underpromise and overdeliver. When in doubt, give conservative time and dollar estimates. It’s better to have your clients be pleasantly surprised with an early completion, than disappointed because you’ve missed the deadline for the third time.

Working effectively as a remote writer isn’t difficult. In fact, it’s not much different from being a great on-site or local employee. The biggest thing to remember is to be responsive and responsible. By keeping the lines of communication open and using them often, you’ll be set for telecommuting success, whether you’re a block–or a continent–away.

 

Lain is a freelance journalist who has written on topics as diverse as hybrid fiber/coax telecommunications systems and massage therapy. A former technical writer, she now authors The Parent Trap, a nationally distributed parenting column and can be reached at Lainie9@aol.com.

Read more articles from Lain Chroust Ehmann