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Yet More Tips For Documentation Writers (Writing For Money!)

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I never tell anyone that I'm a writer, because then I get bombarded with requests to edit their manuscripts and find them paying gigs and all kinds of things I would rather not do. Or they bore me with how they have all these ideas that they are really going to write someday, but for now they prefer to bore me with them. For those of you who are serious and not afraid to work hard, it is possible to get paid to write computer howtos. So as long as you promise to not come to my house and pester me, I will share some tips with you.

Job 1 is writing material that is worth getting paid for. There is a structure for Linux howtos that I like, and it works for both articles and book chapters. Start with a good descriptive lead. This should be a short paragraph, no more than two or three sentences, that describes what the article is going to cover. "Today we are going to use the find command to uncover the secret location of world peace, and then combine it with the exec option to activate world peace."

Then dive right into the hands-on; give readers something to do right away with minimal exposition. Wrap up with more detailed explanations of theory and concepts, and references to additional material.

Keep articles narrowly focused--don't try to cram too much into a single piece. It's better to address a small task in detail than to cover a lot of ground too shallowly. You can always turn a long, complex topic into a series of nice bite-sized chunks.

Your readers will adore you if you don't shy away from the hard parts. If you find yourself wanting to write "see the man page for details" instead of outlining the steps yourself, take another look and see if you're trying to take the easy way out. The only place "see foo for more information" belongs is at the end in an additional references section.

Headlines are very important because in this era of RSS feeds, Web phones, and information overload you have to grab your readers quickly. Headlines for howtos should be descriptive and catchy, and not overpowered by cutesy or overly-clever. I'm not very good at writing headlines, so maybe someone who is will chime in with some tips.

Finding Paying Gigs

There is a lot of work in this part. Don't just spam publishers and editors, you want to target who you approach. Dive into the Web and see who publishes the kind of material you want to write, and then target those publications with specific article proposals. Most of them have contact information, how to write proposals, and what kind of topics they want. It is perfectly acceptable to ask if they are accepting freelance articles, and what do they pay. Practice not being shy about discussing money.

I can't speak for all editors, but I know that I adore freelancers who:

  • Can spell, punctuate, and use correct grammar
  • Turn in good clean copy that I don't have to fix
  • Format their articles correctly for the medium, such as HTML-tagged
  • Meet deadlines
  • Come up with their own brainstorms for topics
  • Are pleasant and fun

Some people think that we have armies of copyeditors on hand who love to fix bad articles. Sorry, but it isn't so, it's up to the author to make sure it is correct and good. Writing well is a lot of work, and it always takes longer than you think it should.

So there is your crash course on becoming a rich and famous tech author. Well OK, probably not rich, but it is fun and rewarding.

See Also:

More Tips For Documentation Writers (You Too, Ace Coders)

Tips For Documentation Writers (This Means You Too, Ace Coders)

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