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The following material is provided by WRITERLIST a Free service providing marketing and other information to writers. This material is copyrighted by Allen Rolf, but permission is hereby given for reproduction and distribution for non-commercial purposes. For more information, email WRITERLIST


Making Money Writing Info-Manuals

by Allen Rolf

Most writers never think of this lucrative local market!

You probably think this piece is about writing those two-page reports that people sell over the Internet! Well, it's not. This is about a back yard market that may bring in sizable dollars if you have the knack and talent to pursue it.

Stop and think of what happened the last time you bought a VCR or micowave. What really saved you time in getting your new toy working? Sure, it was the instruction (info) manual! Ever realize that somebody had to sit down and write that manual? Even more amazing is that the writer, with no by-line, may ultimately have an audience of several million readers worldwide! To get an idea of the market, make a list of items you own that came with an info-manual .... microwave, TV, VCR, automobile, lawn mower, electric shaver, video game ... well, you get the idea. And remember! Somebody had to write every one of those manuals! Why not you?

What Does It Pay?

People who write instruction manuals are known as "tech writers" and tech writing is a specialized field to itself. Imagine writing the owners manual for a military helicopter and you can see that a person on that project could spend several months, if not years, and would be considered a high-level employee and paid top dollar. (Actually, in today's technology one person would never write such a manual. Biggie projects like this are done by teams of highly trained people who work 9-5.)

Let's go the other way and consider something a little simpler, say one of those air ventilators that fit on people's roofs to move hot air from the attic in the summertime. Such an info-manual would be only one page, but you better tell the installer how to do it right the first time, otherwise you'll have someone calling with a leaky house the first time it rains! Can you imagine being paid $100 to write such a manual? (If you know how to use a computer and can do graphic layout, make that $400!) These prices are typical for such work!

Many free-lance technical writers work on a retainer with a per hour or per assignment rate. Pricing will vary with area, so it will take a little research to find what your area will pay. High tech areas usually pay the highest rates, but often competition is keener.

Simple pricing rule for info-manuals: The more sophisticated the product the higher the fee!

Can I Do It?

Certainly you can do it if you can write a series of simple instructions in a simple understandable style! It may take some practice, but you don't have to have an engineering degree to write most instruction manuals. In fact, not being an engineer might offer you a definite advantage. Engineers (like lawyers) are trained to complicate simple things; writers simplify complicated things so normal people can find out what's going on!

Take our roof ventilator system. The first paragraph of the instruction sheet is a brief description of the product and what it does. The next paragraph specifies the tools needed for installation followed by a series of numbered steps which include placement, cutting a hole in the roof, mounting, and finally weather-proofing. A final paragraph covers warranty and where to get help, if needed. Of course, a line drawing or photo is shown of the product with legends outlining important installation steps.

Well, anybody, you say, can do that! Not quite. You have to remember that many small manufacturing concerns can make wonderful engineering drawings and even more wondrous products, but few have or can afford to hire the talent and experience it takes for simple expository writing. Here is where you step-in and here is how you start!

Where Do I Start?

There are two simple ways to get started in finding the local tech writing market and get some quick experience:

1.) Today, many small and large companies use local advertising agencies to handle all of their editorial work, including instruction manuals. Advertising agencies are an obvious place to start. Many are not large enough to hire staff writers and depend on outside contracting to get the job done. In other words, they hire a local writer and then re-market his work to the client.

Let's say you have several large product manufacturers in your area. You may want to call the advertising manager (if there is one) at the plant and find out what agency handles the company's advertising. You can even get the name of the agency account manager. Now you can contact the agency with a certain amount of information. Here is a sample telephone approach:

"Hello, Mr. Ad Agency Guy! I understand that you represent the ABC Gold Halo Manufacturing Company and I would like to inquire as your need for contract writers to do instruction manuals and technical writing?"

Your next step is to set up an appointment and show your portfolio. Don't worry if you have never written an instruction manual, the agency will show you how. Good agencies are always looking for reliable local contract writers!

2) Sign up with local temp-employment agencies that find people for industry. Here you have to find the right agency and person in that agency to promote you. Some agencies only provide plant labor, others get into technical areas. Again, set up an appointment and show your portfolio and arrange to leave a supply of resume copies as well as clips of your work.

The advantage of the above two approaches is that they are fast and allow you to cover a lot of territory with a minimum of effort. The main secret is follow-up. You may have to give your agency contact several calls to keep your name in the front. Believe me, though, it will pay off. In either case, be sure to arrive at a price for your work before you get the first call, otherwise you may find yourself with a job and an offer of minimum wage! Be bold and ask for your worth on the front end! It will improve your professional stance with both the agency and his clients.

You, of course, can get in your car to find accounts directly, a very hard and costly thing to do for a beginner. Remember, most free-lance technical writing comes by word of mouth advertising, meaning that you may have to spend a short apprentice period to get yourself known as a free-lance tech writer in your area!

How Will I Work?

Normally, an assignment will involve setting in with marketing and engineering staff who will outline their needs and ideas. In many cases, you will have to take some time initially to learn the company and the specific product you will be writing about. This is exciting because each assignment offers new challenge.

The second phase is organization of material and writing. In some instances, you may have to develop the information needed by actually working with engineering staff and product. You may have to learn how to install and use a product in the plant, or your home, before writing the manual. This is always fun.

If you can provide graphic layout, the next step will be design of the manual and actual computer layout. The last phase, of course, is final editing and evaluation of the manual which is sometimes a simple one person sign-off, or other times lengthily evaluation by a team of marketing, service, and engineering people.

Unfortunately, not very many tech writers show up in the Writers' Who's Who! This is in spite of the fact that their work may be read by millions of people and translated into five languages! But most successful tech writers don't seem to care .... the pay can be pretty good without any boring autograph parties!

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