5 Ways to Write Your Way into Technical Writing
by Sean Hower (26 August 2001)
Even with the technology market slowing down, there is still a need for quality technical writers. Technical writers produce documentation that describe products or services and explain how to use them. While this field may seem out of reach, becoming a technical writer is pretty easy.
There are five methods you can use to break into technical writing:
- Get Educated
- Get Technical
- Show Off
- Pound the Pavement
This article explains each of these methods. While they are presented as separate methods, you should try all of them in order to maximize your hiring potential.
1. Get Educated
Employers want people with degrees. If you're in college now, it's the best time to get the education you need.
Types of degrees
Employers look for people with degrees in English, engineering or communications. They also take people with degrees in "related fields." (The definition of related will probably vary from company to company.) A growing number of universities are beginning to offer degree programs in technical writing, or in the very least offer it as a minor usually as a part of an English degree. If you don't want a degree in these fields, you should at least take some classes in grammar, communications and engineering.
If you've been through college, you can always sign up for a certificate program in technical writing. These are offered through universities or colleges. These programs teach you technical writing basics and introduce you to the software that technical writers use. You can also take extension courses that will teach you a variety of practical skills you'll need in the workplace.
Books on writing
If you don't have the time or money to take a certificate program, you can always buy books. Technical writing books are usually in the "writing skills" or "learning to write" sections of your local bookstore. They cover a variety of topics from very general overviews about technical writing, to designing specific forms of documentation with a specific type of software. The Idiots Guide to Technical Writing and Technical Writing For Dummies are great introductory texts to the field and tell readers what to expect from a career in technical writing. Developing Quality Technical Information is a great book that details some of the theory and practice behind producing technical documentation.
If all else fails, you can go online. There are a host of web sites out there that will teach you the skills you'll need more or less for free! Use your favorite search engine, do a search for "technical writing" or "technical communications" and start browsing. The best place to start is TECHWR-L (pronounced tech-whirl). This site provides a newsletter, list server, articles, tutorials and links. You can take a look at my web site as well. I am constantly adding new information for writers.
2. Get Technical
Technical writers use a variety of software to produce documentation. The most common programs are Adobe FrameMaker, Adobe PageMaker, Adobe PhotoShop, eHelp's RoboHelp and Microsoft Word. Other common programs include Visio, Doc-to-Help, ForeHelp and Illustrator.
If you haven't checked around, let me tell you now that this stuff is pricey, reaching as high as a few thousand dollars. Purchasing any of these programs is clearly out of the question for most people. The problem is, employers look for experience in these programs. What can you do?
Well, don't worry. First, if you're a student you can usually buy software at a discounted student rate. It's usually a pretty sizable deduction, which makes the software generally affordable unless you are a starving student. Second, you can always pick up how-to books that come with demo or shareware versions of the software they deal with. Make sure demo or shareware versions are included before you buy anything though. Some companies put try-out versions of their software online. You can download these try-outs for free, but the try-out period usually runs out in 30 days. Finally, if you know someone who owns the software you want to learn, ask if you can use his or her computer some time.
Let's face it, the most common way people get a job is by knowing someone. Luckily, there are organizations and web pages that can point you in the right direction to meet the people who can help you land a technical writing job.
The Society for Technical Communications (STC) is an international technical writing organization. Many large cities in the US have local chapters. You can visit their web site. Membership dues runs $125 for non-students, and $45 for students.
Your dues allow you to receive the STC's monthly magazine as well as its quarterly journal Technical Communication, both excellent publications with news and research in technical writing. You'll also be able to attend local STC meetings at a discounted rate, where you'll meet other technical writers and be able to start networking.
A good way to socialize, and get educated, is by finding a mentor. You can do this through the STC, or through any of a number of technical writing web sites.
4. Show Off
Okay, so you've learned some software and picked up some technical writing basics. You're ready to start sending out resumes, right? Wrong. You'll want to put together a portfolio of some sort first. Your portfolio is your chance to show what you know, what you have done, and what you can do.
You can make a few small samples that demonstrate your ability using try-out copies of software or freeware downloads. These samples might include an online help project, a multi-chapter document, some graphics or animation you've created or even your own web site. If you have none of these, you can always include some of your best work from school. Whatever you use in your portfolio, make sure it is your best effort, it functions properly, and above all that it's professional. A mentor can be of great help in helping you put together a portfolio.
5. Pound the Pavement
Once you've put together a portfolio, it's time to start sending out resumes. There are several things you can do at this point, each of which has its drawbacks.
First, you can go to the hiring page of local companies and see if they are in need of technical writers. The problem with this is that some companies do not list all available jobs. A position might also be filled before you even notice it's been posted.
A second option is to send out your resume to every company that would need a technical writer, whether they have an opening posted or not. This gets your resume on file and you might luck out when the company starts looking for new writers. This is a time consuming process, though, and it may not yield any results at all.
Online job boards
Another avenue to take is to use online job boards. These web sites not only allow you to post your resume on the web, they also maintain databases of thousands of jobs you can browse through based on any criteria from location to salary range. There are tons of these sites to choose from. The best are Dice and Monster.
While these job boards are great tools, they have a few drawbacks. First, most of the jobs are for contract positions that last anywhere from a few weeks to a year. Second, a small number of jobs posted are not real. Contracting firms post these jobs in order to gather resumes for their own portfolios. This means you might be wasting some of your time responding to fictitious leads.
While there is no guaranteed way to land a job, the methods I've discussed will definitely help you out. Remember that while doing any one of these methods will increase your chances of breaking into technical writing, doing them all will be a great boost to your career.
Try to be the best you can in your chosen profession
Resources and references
The following resources provide information on this subject:
Sean Hower lives and works in Sacramento, California as a technical writer. He also maintains a web site dedicated to technical writing at
TECHWR-L - Technical writer community
Dice - Online employment ads
Monster - Online employment ads
Questions and comments
Do you have any questions, comments, or opinions on this subject? If so, send an email with your feedback. I will try to get back to you as soon as possible.
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5 Ways to Write Your Way into Technical Writing