How can developers build their careers as technical writers?
In our previous article, we’ve covered why every software developer should write technical content — but now that you’ve decided to start writing, how do you go about building your presence as a technical writer and promoting yourself to potential clients?
Marketing a service like Spotify or Netflix, you need to reach millions of customers. On the other hand, as a solo technical writer, you need two or three clients at a time for a part-time gig or five to ten to build a reliable full-time occupation. This is quite convenient!
You don’t want to spend a lot of time marketing yourself, you want to spend time writing great articles. Still, it means you’ll need appropriate marketing tactics; unlike Spotify I don’t advertise my technical writing services on billboards or jerseys.
The best marketing happens as a side effect of doing the work. You can grow your technical content career in three stages:
- Building an effective portfolio,
- Retaining happy clients, and
- Moving up-market
This framework will help you establish yourself as a sought-after professional with access to numerous opportunities. Let’s break down each step.
Building your Portfolio
A great technical writer brings two skills to the task: real technical aptitude and the ability to explain things clearly. Your portfolio should showcase both. The most direct way to do this is with a list of articles you have published, but that’s not the only way, especially if you are just getting started.
Your writing portfolio should feature three key components:
- A personal website or blog with information about you and links to your work,
- A polished profile on a social media platform like Twitter or LinkedIn, and
- A way to reach you, either through a professional email that you monitor regularly or DMs on your active social media profile.
Your portfolio doesn’t have to be massive. Three or four articles on different topics, even self-published, prove that you can write about a range of concepts. Your personal website can be on GitHub Pages or a blogging platform like Dev.to, and you don’t need an army of followers on your social media. A small digital footprint is still enough to stand on when pitching editors.
Image depicting the basics of getting your technical writing portfolio started: An active Twitter account, a personal website, and a steady cadence of articles.
And while this isn’t an article about pitching stories, your pitch, whether a cold email or a form submission, is also your marketing. Even if you have no experience, a well-crafted outline may convince an editor to work with you to develop your first piece of published writing.
Get your first piece published and everything gets ten times easier. Fortunately, there are a hundred great places to publish your first pieces, thanks to the popularity of community writer programs. Most programming-focused publications are extremely beginner-friendly. They have to be; not many developers write, but everyone knows something worth teaching. However, generally you want at least a baseline writing portfolio established before trying to join an agency or write for high-profile clients.
Agencies can help you build an impressive portfolio faster by giving you access to clients who would be difficult and time-consuming to land a contract with on your own. Additionally, the top agencies have a multiple-step editorial process—this means the revision process may be rigorous, but the feedback received from editors will help you polish your writing skills.
However, sometimes agencies’ clients do not want to give writers by-lines on their pieces, preferring a more uniform look and feel in their publication. If your primary focus is building your portfolio, let your editor know that you are most interested in writing opportunities that give a by-line.
Retaining your Clients
Finding new clients is a lot of work, and every hour spent finding a new client is time not spent writing articles to grow your portfolio, audience, and bank account. Rather than finding a new client every time you want to write, market yourself internally to editors and clients who you have enjoyed working with.
Remember, you don’t need a lot of customers. Two or three sources of gigs will give you plenty to do as a side hustle, and depending on how much volume each client needs, you could build full-time work from five or ten.
Just like you don’t want to spend all of your time looking for clients, companies don’t want to spend all of their time looking for writers. So, if you’re a good fit, you’ll get repeat work from your customers. If you follow the guidelines below, your clients will keep coming back to you like perfectly carved boomerangs.
- Turn in articles in scope and on time. This reliability ensures you’ll always be at top of mind.
- Keep your nose clean on copyright. Turning in original work, properly citing sources, and correctly using open-source software is vital for creating articles that your clients can legally publish.
- Write things you would want to read. Clients pay a premium for high-quality writing that resonates with its intended audience.
- Communicate proactively. Get to know your editors and give them what they need to form a positive working relationship.
Not only will they give you repeat work, but satisfied clients will do your marketing for you in the form of referrals. A referral is the best way to land a new gig because there is a higher chance of mutual fit as the referrer knows your skills and the new client’s needs. Plus, the referrer’s reputation bolsters your credibility.
When working with an agency long-term, your reputation is your marketing. Consistently delivering high-quality, on-time writing earns your editors’ trust. In turn, they will offer you the best projects. And if you want to try writing about new topics or in new formats, they’ll work with you to find opportunities that match your interests.
Expanding your Horizons
Once you have a stable of repeat clients, a growing portfolio, and an established presence, your technical writing career can take you anywhere. I chose to find a full-time job as a technical writer for the stability and opportunity to deeply engage with a single product and audience, but others prefer the range of topics and styles that full-time freelancing offers. And while the 1500-word tutorial as a blog post is an enduring staple of technical content, there are many other things to explore writing: documentation, full-length books, whitepapers, case studies, video scripts, even academic papers.
If you decide a full-time job is the right fit, find an organization that values technical writers as much as software developers. Industry-wide, technical writers make slightly less than developers, but your individual compensation will likely depend on whether your employer organizes technical writers under engineering or marketing salary bands. So, marketing yourself to potential employers as technical is essential, and many of the best writing-heavy jobs have titles like “developer relations” or “developer advocate.”
Image depicting a 2020 median salary comparison. On average, software developers earn ~7-17K more per year than technical writers.
Whether you freelance as a side hustle or as your main source of income, it’s natural to want to make the best rates possible for your limited time. Most clients compensate per article, so improving your skills and gaining experience naturally helps increase your effective hourly rate. But, finding and retaining clients that pay at the top of the market is essential if you want to make writing a viable occupation. Thus, even once established in the field, continuously marketing yourself is a worthwhile investment to land larger, more interesting, higher-paying projects.
How much is writing a technical article worth?— Philip Kiely (@philip_kiely) December 31, 2021
I analyzed data from 64 publications on https://t.co/hnU8ybHpxG to find the answer.
The mean, median, & mode of the data set are all ~$300, but the real answer is deeper.
Read to the end for a tip on making 4x that per article! pic.twitter.com/cz02mFQAPf
Writing for programmers is a fantastic field, but you have to market yourself to take full advantage of the opportunities it presents. Whether you work with individual clients or agencies, building a strong portfolio and retaining your best customers will give you opportunities to get the most interesting and lucrative gigs and roles. You’ll naturally develop a larger digital footprint to attract more opportunity, and your reputation will become your marketing.
You can get started with a baseline portfolio and land your first gigs with well-crafted pitch emails alone—there’s no better time to take that first or next step than today.