Short version: yes, you can. In fact, I’d even suggest that you do so. Why? Well, that’s the long version. Got a couple minutes? Read on.
It’s entirely possible that I’ve done my career the hard way. My “big goal” fresh out of college was to write for the space business. I got there, but along the way I had to take a few detours: 12 years at the Walt Disney World Resort doing several non-writing jobs; a master’s degree so that aerospace companies might take me a little more seriously; and a lot of volunteer work in various space advocacy organizations. From 1996 to 2013 I was someone’s employee, working for organizations ranging from small businesses to large multinational corporations. The plus side of these various “detours” was that I picked up a bunch of experience doing different types of writing and learning how the corporate world functioned. When I decided to go freelance rather than pursue another job, I had enough of the skills I needed to feed myself.
That is not the only way to become a freelance technical writer.
If you know you want to be your own boss in your 20s, you’re going to have to start hustling while you’re in school. You might or might not pursue a degree–I know of bestselling authors and professional tech writers who don’t have a whole lot of formal training in the art of writing–but you’ll need to pick up the rudiments somewhere. You can start by volunteering or pursuing one-off jobs for small businesses. These are good opportunities for freelancers because nonprofits and small businesses generally have smaller budgets and probably don’t have a writer on staff. They can also be more open-minded about giving a new writer an opportunity.
Another thing to consider as you’re building up a clientele is that small businesses probably don’t have a full-time writer on staff because they don’t need one. They also might not pay as much as larger clients. That means you need to be constantly looking for the next job. And you can expect work to come and go, so it’s important to squirrel away money and not to lose heart.
Regardless of where you start, you need to be able to walk into a potential customer’s office and show that you can write. That means developing a portfolio, even if you have to write brochures for imaginary companies or reports for mythical customers. One good way to prime the pump on your writing is to start a topic-focused blog that demonstrates your knowledge of a topic and the quality of your writing.
The Things No One Tells You
One of the biggest advantages of working in the corporate world before going off and freelancing is that you acquire a larger network of contacts–and your network is your support system, not just as a source of new clients but also as a set of friends and supporters who can boost your moral and market on your behalf. It’s also a fine balance: you need to keep in touch with your contacts without always being mercenary about it (“Do you have work for me?”). Of course it’s easier to do that if only know someone in a business context, but it helps if you’re establishing personal connections, not just business leads.
Which leads me to the biggest challenge for going out on your own as a freelance writer: it can get lonely and comes with a lot of responsibility. While you have the pleasure of being your own boss, you’re also your own marketing person, editor, accountant, supply officer, personal assistant, and cheerleader.
In the end, you need to pay the bills and feed, clothe, and shelter yourself. If you want to do that using your skills as a writer, it is entirely possible–as a freelancer or an employee–each type of employment has its advantages and disadvantages. The only point being that you can go freelance at nearly any point in your career. You just need to face the hard facts of how that life works.