Breaking into the field of technical writing
Everyone tells you how good your writing is, and you have an English degree or a journalism background. But how do you land that first job?
It seems like more and more often, people are turning to technical writing after they have worked in another career. Which means getting a technical writing job is not as straightforward as it is when you come out of school with a degree in technical writing, land an internship, and progress from there. Or is it?
In my case, I had a degree in Psychology, and had worked in educational research, community mental health, and as a case manager working with people with injuries. Not a likely background for a technical writer, you’d think. And I was living in a foreign country, which meant I’d have to apply for a work visa to be able to work as a technical writer.
But I was not going to let that deter me. Everything I’d read about technical writing made me think it would be a good fit for me.
My first step was to sign up for a certificate in Technical Writing. Since I wasn’t coming from a technical background, I thought a qualification would give me some credibility. One of the requirements of the certificate program was that we join the Society for Technical Communication (STC). I did that, and went along to the local chapter meetings. I’d never networked before, so I didn’t say much, just listened. And lo and behold, I overheard someone mention that they were looking for an intern. I jumped into the conversation, and the rest is history.
But what lessons did I learn from this experience, that will help you break in, without having to go back to school full time?
1. Commit yourself to technical writing and be willing to learn.
If you can’t go to school full time, find a course or two online. This shows that you’re determined. If you’re willing to pay for classes and learn technical writing on your own time, you obviously have initiative, and that is a highly desirable trait in a technical writer.
2. Network, network, network.
Join the STC and attend local chapter meetings, or meet technical writers online. A couple of vibrant new communities that have sprung up recently are Technical Writing World and the Association of Technical Communicators. This is a great way to find out what other technical writers are talking about, and to join the conversation. Or join LinkedIn and link to everyone you’ve worked with before.
3. Look for volunteer opportunities.
Some people might scoff at working for free, but I can tell you from experience that you can learn a lot in a short period of time and it can be fun – you know you’re there to learn, so you’re more prepared to take risks and try things you wouldn’t usually do in a paid position. There are volunteer opportunities all over the place, but recently I’ve seen a couple I would jump on if I was just starting out. Tom Johnson (one of the most well-known technical writer bloggers) is looking for volunteers for some writing projects. Another volunteer opportunity, is to work on the documentation team for Libre Office, a free suite of office tools.
4. Work on your resume.
I’ve said it before. Your resume is your primary technical writing sample. The writing should be clear and simple, easy to scan, and formatted in Word using styles, as if it were a technical document. If you don’t have any technical writing experience, go back through your previous jobs and highlight any tasks that could be considered technical writing. For example, when I worked as a case manager, I wrote reports that pulled together information from several specialist reports. Other things you might have done in previous jobs that could be applicable include writing blog posts, writing content for websites, creating flowcharts, writing procedures, teaching, or preparing curriculum.
Often breaking in is simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time, so it’s up to you to make sure you’re out there and available when an opportunity arises. Sometimes companies will take on a new technical writer if they’re looking for a person who is a good fit with the team, rather than someone with all the skills. Tell everyone you know that you want to be a technical writer and keep your ear to the ground.
Photo via Flickr user mdid