If you can write fairly well, chances are you can make money in technical writing. The following shows you how can create your first user manual.
The following assumes you can write in clear, simple sentences. Even if you’re still learning to write well, you can use the following free tools to improve your writing:
- MS Word’s Spelling and Grammar Checker
- Hemingway app (https://hemingwayapp.com)
- Grammarly (https://grammarly.com)
- Voice dictation (use your computer’s native voice dictation application).
1 Define Your Audience
You might not know at the start, but that’s OK. The critical thing to know is: if you miss this step, Shakespeare can’t save you. If you don’t write to your specific audience, you’ve
If you don’t know, ask someone who knows them. Who’s purchasing the product or who do they think will purchase the product? For our purposes (for a software product):
- what is their familiarity with technology?
- what about this type of technology? (e.g., CRMs).
This affects your entire approach. For example, a lack of familiarity might mean a one-page glossary in the front or a link to an overview of the technology. And your vocabulary and sentence structure might be simpler and more accessible.
2 Grab A Template
We’re going to use Microsoft’s Word because of the power of formatting and range of templates available. Later on, when your work becomes more collaborative, you might switch to a Google Doc or a more powerful platform like FrameMaker or Flare.
Creating a template for a user guide takes a lot of work. I’ve done it. It’s no fun. Unless you want to spend dozens of hours learning how to do this (who does?), you can just go on the internet, click advanced search, and find one.
Here’s why that’s a bad idea. Even if you find a template that is virus-free (hope you have good virus software!), unless you do a deep dive and examine all the style settings, you’ll never know what’s broken. The broken part usually appears when you’re well underway, then it cascades into other styles (because styles are often linked). Don’t do it!
2.1.1 Best Choice Template
Your best option is to purchase one (cheap!). A template with numbered headings and a professional, polished layout.
The best I’ve found, and the one I used to compose this in Word, is here: http://www.klariti.com/technical-writing/User-Guides-Tutorial.shtml
(This is not an affiliate link. I don’t get a dime from them for the recommendation.)
It’s $10 and should quickly pay for itself in saved time and hair (from not pulling it out by using a buggy template).
You can also buy the entire pack for technical writers.
2.1.2 Second-Best Template
Microsoft’s template gallery: https://templates.office.com/en-us/professional-manual-tm06207126
This has been around since Bill Gates was merely a millionaire (poor guy), but it won’t be buggy or broken. And cool young people (who populate so much of software development) will think it’s cool because it’s too old for them to recognize it. 😉
When you create a heading, apply the heading style. Same with body text. Do not apply fonts or font sizes outside of the style pane. It’s important to maintain this discipline as it affects other automated aspects of Word (most importantly, the Table of Contents).
3 Learn The Elements Of A User Guide
Our mission is to create a brief, helpful user guide, so we won’t worry about the front and back material (e.g., appendices or indexes). We’re going to focus on the “guts” of the guide, the content.
3.1 Content Elements
There are two content elements: text and visuals (here: screen captures).
- A good user guide uses numbered headings. This is important for end users and for anyone trying to help end users (e.g., someone at a help desk who hears “section 2.1” instead of merely a heading among many headings).
- Headings should be organized in a simple fashion. Subheadings should make sense under headings and be of similar significance or value. For example: Title: How to Bake Cookies
- Heading 1: Make Sure You Have a Good Cookie Sheet
- Heading 2: Glass or Metal?
- Heading 2: Which Size is Best?
- Heading 1: Make Sure You Have the Recipe Ingredients
- Heading 2: The Must Haves
- Heading 2: Optional Ingredients
- Heading 1: Preparation
18.104.22.168 Summaries (Follow Headings)
Summaries introduce the section and provide orientation. It eases the reader into more specific how-to’s. For example, under Heading 1 above (“Make Sure You Have a Good Cookie Sheet”) you could write:
It’s important to have a quality cookie sheet. It will distribute heat better and make your cookies more scrumptious! It will also last longer. So even if you pay a bit more for a quality sheet, it’ll be worth it.
22.214.171.124 How-To’s (Follow Summaries)
You’ll recognize these because they’re numbered. These instructions are written to be executed in sequence by the reader. They should be simple sentences. Here’s an example:
How to Enter Your Contact Information
- Click on the green Start button.
- When the window displays, enter the required fields:
- Phone #
3. Click the red Done button.
Yes, a simplistic sample. But it’s important to make your sentences as SIMPLE as possible. People don’t want to read instructions. They want to quickly scan them and learn how to solve a problem.
3.1.2 Graphics (Screen Captures)
As a new technical writer, it’s important to learn about graphics. What’s the difference between the formats (gif, png, etc.) and which is best for each medium (e.g., web, print, etc.)? And how do you format them on the page?
For your first user guide, you must learn how to take and display screen captures effectively. I’d be tempted to include a “how-to” here, but the tool I recommend below has done that work already.
There are oodles of tools out there and many free tools. If you’re really broke, use a free tool with annotation. But if you can forego a few coffees, get Snagit. https://www.techsmith.com/store/snagit
(This is not an affiliate link. I don’t get a dime from them for the recommendation.)
Like the template recommendation above, this pays for itself. They’ve been the industry leader for a reason. Use the online help and BY ALL MEANS follow their tutorials (see Help menu below). You can become very good at screen captures in a very short time.
4 Sample User Guide
Apple is known for providing outstanding user guides. They’re almost a joy to read.
Note that many of their how-to instructions do not use numbered sequences. Instead, they’ll often use bullets and rely on simple, clear, brief language. But for your first user guide, it’s best to write how-to’s with numbered sequences.
5 Find Your Customer
We’re getting closer! The next step is to find that all-important first customer.
5.1 The “Life-Time Deal” Companies
When young and rapidly growing software companies want exposure in the marketplace, they often become “life-time deals.” This lets them rapidly ramp up their offering by gaining hundreds or thousands of paying users. The fee is often inexpensive (e.g., $49/USD) but the license lasts a “lifetime” (or as long as the company is in business). They win a receptive audience they couldn’t have otherwise won in a matter of months.
The international boom in software development over the last few years means that regions like Eastern Europe and India are producing marketable software. And typically their local talent are not native-speakers, so writing in English is really in demand.
There are HUNDREDS of small software companies that need help. That are DYING for help. They don’t have any user documentation because it’s never a priority and they spend nearly all their money on pizzas and t-shirt laundering (to remove pizza stains). 😉
And those that have documentation? It’s typically poorly written. It’s often done by one of the developers (they’re not usually happy about it).
- AppSumo (Appsumo.com) (my favorite)
1. Read their Website
Scan a few pages of their website. Look for awkward language and typos. They SO need your help.
2. Download their Software
And look for help documentation. If they have any, it’s often a mess. In badly need of your help!
5.2 Angel List
This is a list of start-up and early-stage companies. They need documentation. Repeat: They need documentation.
- Sign up for a free account.
- They’ll ask for your resume and LinkedIn profile. Neither is required.
- Choose “Marketing” when they ask for a role (they don’t list technical writing).
- You can search using “Writing” but most of these listed jobs are not technical writing.
- Instead, click the word Filters at the bottom of the search menu.
- Configure these four filters (shaded in blue below) and add “Technical Writing” as a keyword.
- You will see listings like Content Writer/Content Developer. Some of this will be technical writing.
Also, you can just search broadly for software companies and follow the Lift-Time Deal approach (above).
5.3 Local Software Companies
Perform a search for small software companies in your area. If you’re near a technology hub, you’re going to find quite a few.
Follow the Lift-Time Deal approach (above) to reach out to them.
6 Spend Time Learning Their Software
Is it easy to use? Not so easy? If it’s not easy or intuitive, you might need to include a section on navigating the software (maybe at the front of every section).
Software usually includes some initial configuration or setup. This is a good area for you to focus on, as you’ll have to navigate on your own without help and you can discover where potential pitfalls lie for the new user.
7 Create An Impressive Sample
When you create a sample page of a user guide, you’re not just proving to a business manager you can do it. You’re proving to yourself you can do it. And you’re doing it entirely on your own. It should feel great to get that first page done!
This is important. Also important:
You’re not asking for work. You’re showing them what you’ve done. This tells a business manager:
- That you’ve taken an interest in their product and company.
- That you’ve taken initiative.
- That you’ve got the required skills.
One more thing: Nobody does this, so you really stand out.
When you’ve shown a business manager a sample, you’ve made their decision-making process incredibly simple. Instead of having to go out into the world to look for something she’s likely never looked for before (freelance technical writer), she’s got you. You’ve immediately saved her both time and stress.
7.1 Write An Email With The Sample Attached
Send a sample to a software company that needs it. Send a single page. Write an email like this:
I very much liked your software, but after I downloaded a trial, I discovered there was no user guide. So I thought I’d help you out by creating a user guide (sample attached).
Is this something you’ve been planning or had in the works for a a while?
If not, maybe I can help.
Wow, this is great. We NEED a user guide badly because English is not our first language and we’ve been overwhelmed with other things. How much would you charge for this?
7.2 Write A Reply Email
I’m very glad you liked it. I’m sure as a start up you can’t pay $10,000 for this. Considering this restraint, I’d be happy to do this for $1,000 along with a video reference commenting positively on my work when it’s completed (assuming of course, you’re as happy with the end product as I will be).
Awaiting your response,
REALITY BOX:SO, you’re probably not going to get $1,000.00. But you could get $250 or $200. More importantly, you WRITE YOUR FIRST USER MANUAL (yeah!). And you’ll get your first sample to use in your portfolio (make sure that if you sign an NDA, you add the ability to use it in your portfolio). AND you’ll most likely get a reference.Which makes you SO much more qualified for client #2! (Wash/Rinse/Repeat!)
8 You Now Make Money Technical Writing
Celebrate! You are now officially a technical writer!