If you’re a college student looking to become a technical writer after you graduate, you face a formidable challenge: you can’t get a job without experience, and you can’t get experience without a job. Especially in a competitive job market, getting a job as a technical writer directly after you graduate — without a foundation of previous jobs, experience with a handful of tools, and an impressive portfolio — can be especially difficult. However, if you follow these seven steps, which are not easy, not something you can do overnight, you will find a job.
Note: In a couple of weeks I’m giving a presentation to Brigham Young University Idaho students with this post’s topic (getting a job as a technical writer). My presentation is part of their annual professional writing conference. Oct 09 update: Here’s a recording of the presentation.
Last week on Twitter I asked my followers what advice they would give to students on finding a job in technical writing. Here are the responses:
plaindocs: Show that you are interested in learning about everything!
seeb: don’t know if i would advise students on a job on technical writing – would be technical communication..more encompassing!
floldun: Advice: emphasize what you can do for the company, and know what they need (read and ask around), instead of what you want.
mleeuw: Networking gives job seekers the best chance of finding jobs with the proviso that one needs to be in the right location.
kirstyt: Network. Meet tech comm managers. Got both my gigs through meeting the mgr elsewhere/knowing other tech comm staff.
FeliciaRenee: Do as many internships as you can before graduating.
heidilhansen: A tip for students is to apply at Tyler Technologies, but seriously online portfolios w/samples is best & knowledge of TC field.
altmilan: start by asking yourself “how do people get hired?”, and then asking yourself how one goes about finding this out.
jaycie622: Advice to students: Persevere! Keep putting out resumes and don’t give up hope.
Wordtree: Take an existing guide and rewrite it so you have something for your portfolio.
skry: I began tech writing via science journalism. Built a writing portfolio there. Offered to write software doc for coders.
All good advice on how to get a job. Some of the advice is reflected in my recommendations below. Here are my seven steps for college students to get a job in technical writing.
Step 1. Learn the Basics of Technical Writing
Before you can create a stunning portfolio or market yourself to companies as a technical writing intern, you need some grounding in the basics. If you’re in a college that offers a degree in technical writing (usually a degree in English with an emphasis in technical writing), by all means do it. If I were doing it over, I would actually double-major in English and graphic design, or English and computer science. Some students prefer to get domain knowledge, such as in accounting or engineering, and then supplement that knowledge with writing skills.
Whatever your situation, learn the basics of technical communication. For starters, learn how to write well. Learn grammar. Learn to analyze an audience, create personas, approach documentation from a task-oriented perspective. Learn to number your steps, keep your topic titles parallel, and be brief and concise. Learn to write useful instructions rather than obvious statements. Learn when to use screenshots and when to omit them. Learn the strengths and weaknesses of different help formats, such as wikis versus quick reference guides versus video tutorials. You can’t do anything without first grounding yourself in the fundamentals.
You may not learn all of these concepts in your program. If not, you can supplement your program with some instruction from professionals in the field. The Society for Technical Communication (STC) has an excellent certification course from well-known professionals. You can also read the Intercom and Technical Communication Journal. If you don’t have money to join the STC, connect with someone who is a member and ask to borrow back issues. Read blogs and books published by professionals in the field (here’s a list of foundation books). However you do it, get a solid education. This is critical before you can move forward.
Step 2. Get Real Experience Doing Technical Writing
The second step in getting a job in technical writing is to acquire some real world experience by actually doing technical writing. At many companies, employers want someone with experience because the employer plans to point you in the right direction and then let you work independently, rather than providing training. They want to be sure you can manage any situation, and if you don’t have experience in a corporate environment or know what you’re doing, employers may not trust your ability to get the job done.
During your summers as a student, volunteer as an intern at an IT company. Many times positions may not be advertised, but you can join your local STC chapter and ask other writers if they would accept some free labor from a volunteer for a few months.
If your professor assigns you to do documentation projects, see if you can find real projects at actual companies. Again, through your STC network or other contacts (such as through listservs or local companies), you can connect with professionals who can open opportunities for you to do real documentation.
Connecting with someone you know (or a chapter mentor) is the best route, because he or she can give you direction and feedback. However, you can also get real experience on your own. Many open source or community-based projects have need for documentation. Here are a few:
When you work on one of these projects, you may find that it’s not a typical essay assignment. It will require several weeks of time before you can understand the application, determine an approach that will work with the audience, figure out the tools you’re using, and create a finished product.
Step # 3. Learn Some Tools
Tools are a major part of a technical writer’s world. You’re in charge of designing, laying out, and publishing all your content. Most employers want to you to know certain core tools, or at least to be tool savvy enough to learn their tools. Here are the four types of tools I recommend that you learn.
Learn a help authoring tool, such as Madcap Flare, Adobe RoboHelp, or Author-it. When you document a complex software application, you usually need a powerful help authoring tool to create an online help file. Of the three, RoboHelp is probably the easiest to learn, but there is no industry standard now.
Second, learn a page layout tool, such as Adobe InDesign, Microsoft Word, or Adobe Framemaker. I use page layout tools when I’m creating quick reference guides. Depending on your technical writing role, you may be creating pamphlets, brochures, newsletters, or short guides with a lot of design elements. The page layout tools give you a lot of control over the display, position, and layout of your text and images. (Okay, maybe not Microsoft Word, but you can do some page layout with it.)
Third, learn a graphics tool, such as SnagIt, Photoshop, or Illustrator. You’ll need a graphics tool to capture and modify screenshots, add arrows, or create diagrams showing concepts. SnagIt is the easiest to learn and will probably work for most situations. Try to learn SnagIt’s quick styles.
Finally, learn a video capture tool, such as Camtasia Studio or Adobe Captivate. Although video tutorials aren’t always common help deliverables, when you add this to your mix, you significantly expand what you can offer. Video tutorials are also how a large number of people learn software.
Technical writing positions aren’t always the same. You may be in a company that uses DITA, or one that has a content management system in which you author content, or a company that has some other method for authoring (perhaps they use Visio heavily). Even if you don’t know the exact tools the employer wants, if you have technical aptitude with a variety of tools, such as the ones I listed above, that aptitude may be enough to convince the employer you’re qualified.
To learn tools, go at a slow pace. Try learning them an hour a day over the course of several months. You don’t need to master the tools; just be somewhat familiar with them and be able to produce something using them.
Some students have asked whether they should substitute open source tools for the commercial tools (for example, Gimp instead of Photoshop) because open source tools are the only ones they can afford. I do not recommend this substitution. First of all, it takes a huge investment of time to learn some tools. Second, some employers are so bent on you knowing a particular tool, it’s not worth the risk to put so much effort into a tool they probably don’t use.
Step 4. Put Together a Portfolio
The portfolio is the most important work you can put together when looking for a job. A good portfolio can make up for years of experience. You can have 20 years of experience as a technical writer, but if your portfolio is uninteresting or doesn’t sell yourself, you won’t get the job. Conversely, if you have just 1 year of experience but have an impressive portfolio, you might have a better chance of getting the job.
There’s a reason that putting together a portfolio is step four. You can’t put together a good portfolio until you know a bit about technical writing. For example, if you just jump right into the portfolio and start creating samples that show a full screenshot with each step in a generic Microsoft Word document, your portfolio will be poor and will work against you. You need some theoretical grounding before you can create worthwhile documentation. You need real projects before they are convincing. And you need some knowledge of industry tools before you can create an attractive-looking design.
When putting together your portfolio, keep the following best practices in mind:
- Include 10-15 samples, covering a variety of formats and writing situations. For example, include quick reference guide, a user guide, online help file, video tutorial, newsletter article, release note, magazine article, and any other format you can think of (including some college essays, perhaps).
- Provide a web-based version of your portfolio. Employers may want you to leave the portfolio with them, and some may require you to submit the portfolio through email, so you’ll need a link to a website with a digital portfolio. I recommend a self-hosted WordPress site for this. See “Developing a Web-Based Portfolio” by Steven Kendus for more tips.
- Provide a brief paragraph introducing each work, the situation, purpose, and tool you used to create it.
- Make sure your portfolio samples are free of typos or grammar errors. The employer won’t be able to review the accuracy of your steps (which is probably the most important component of help). What’s left is to focus on the way it looks and reads. Make the layout professional. Clean up the writing so that it’s flawless and graceful.
- Include your transcript in your portfolio. Employers will be curious to learn what courses you’ve taken that qualify you to be a technical writer. Additionally, if you’ve done well in these courses, it will show your aptitude.
Most likely you won’t have a ton of writing samples. If you completed step 2 (“Get Real Experience Doing Technical Writing”), you’ll have a few samples you can show. But you probably need more. Here’s a great tip from Barbara Block in “Finding That First Job.” Can you document how to do your job? (You have a job, right? ) Are there concepts and tasks to master? Steps to perform for each of the tasks? Your current employer might appreciate this little handbook you create, and it can be a perfect addition to your portfolio.
When you go to an interview, always bring a portfolio of your work to leave with an employer. (Don’t expect to really get these back, by the way.) The employer will want to peruse your writing both before and after the interview. Know also that a portfolio provides perfect talking points during an interview.
When I was looking to break into technical writing, I brought a portfolio with about 15 samples to the interview. I later learned that it was an article I wrote about protein that impressed one of the interviewers (who had a PhD in biology). I also had a sample online help file that I created with RoboHelp as well. I beat out 5 other candidates without having any actual technical writing experience. Trust me — the portfolio is key.
Step 5. Start a Blog
Next to a strong portfolio, an engaging blog can also win over the hearts of your employers and get you a job. I cannot restrain my enthusiasm here when I talk about blogs, because in my experience, having a good blog can be your ace card that wins the game for you.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine at another company interviewed several candidates for a position. He searched for information about the candidates online and was startled to find that almost none had an Internet presence. Zilch. It’s somewhat creepy, in this day and age, with Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and dozens of other social media sites, to find that someone is isolated from all of them, a stranger to the world wide web.
While there are various social media options, a constantly updated blog is the key one. Twitter can just be chatter, but your blog shows depth and engagement. A blog – focused on your profession – can showcase your creativity and knowledge. A blog brands you as an industry expert and reveals your awareness about the latest trends and topics in the field. Employers love to review blogs because it allows them to get to know you better. You’re no longer a piece of paper sitting in a stack of other pieces of paper. You’re a lively writer with an engaging mind and a bit of style.
A blogger puts himself out in the world as someone who is interesting and engaging — just the type of person everyone wants to meet.
In another post, she writes,
The reason that people who blog have great careers is that bloggers are always thinking about issues in their industry.
She’s right. When I meet people at conferences, bloggers are always interesting. For example, I remember meeting Darren Barefoot, a prolific Canadian blogger, at Doc Train West a couple of years ago and thinking how smart and approachable he seemed.
Your blog will portray you as one always thinking about issues in the industry, one who keeps up with the latest trends. If your style is friendly and conversational, employers may also perceive you to be a good fit. These are key qualities that you want a company to think about you, and it rarely comes across in a resume.
Robert Scoble, practically a public figure on the web, explains:
Your blog is your resume. You need one and it needs to have 100 posts on it about what you want to be known for. (“If you are laid off, here’s how to socially network“)
Scoble recommends that you only blog about what you want to be known for, or the direction you hope to go. For example, if you want to drive cabs, let cabs be the dominant focus on your blog:
If you want to drive a cab, you better go out and take pictures of cabs. Think about cabs. Put suggestions for cabbies up. Interview cabbies. You better have a blog that is nothing but cabs. Cabs. Cabs. Cabs all the time.
There are about 20 reasons why blogs can help you in your job search. Recently a student in college wrote me to ask for advice on finding a job. Motivated by my blog, he had started a blog as well. I encouraged him to keep up with his blog. About two weeks later he wrote,
I was contacted a week ago by an IT company, World Wide Technology, Inc., and offered an intern position! Before the interview process, one of the managers took the time to look at my blog. He told me that he was impressed with what I was trying to do with it, and he found it interesting. We ended up talking for at least twenty minutes after the interview about communication-related concepts. It was the best interview of my life. Just earlier today I received a call, and I was offered the position! — Brian Kennedy
To recap: When employers read your blog, they start to perceive you as knowledgeable. When you have several posts a week, they perceive you as passionate. If you have an engaging writing style, you’re perceived as likeable. When employers google your name, your blog usually appears at the top of the list. Your blog helps you almost every step of the way.
Now, one warning about blogs. In order for blogs to make a positive impact, you have to steer clear of the following pitfalls:
- Don’t post inappropriate pictures of yourself
- Don’t express views contrary to your potential company’s views (for example, avoid incendiary political posts; actually, just avoid political posts)
- Keep your blog focused on the field of technical communication
- Avoid badmouthing previous or current employers
- Don’t use abbreviations such as gr8 for great or cu for see you.
- Don’t blog with sloppy grammar
- Don’t write excessively about your job search, because it tends to look a little pathetic.
- Don’t blog with the idea that no one will find what you’re writing
Always remember that blogs aren’t anonymous. Blog responsibly by exposing your full identity. Include your blog on your resume, right next to your contact information. Remember, your blog is an asset not a liability. You want it to promote it because it brands you as an expert.
Step 6. Move to a Tech Hub
You’re young. You’re almost out of college. Where are you going to live? If you want a job in technical writing, you probably need to live in a major city. Most technical writing jobs are located in places where there are IT companies. The more IT companies, the more technical writing jobs.
Indeed.com shows you trends for IT jobs by location.
It’s no secret here. The top locations are New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, D.C., Dallas, San Francisco, Boston, Austin, and Los Angeles — all major cities.
Last year, Doug Davis wrote an article about where the most technical writing jobs are. He identifies a similar list of cities:
San Jose, California ( Silicon Valley)
Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota
New York, New York
Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas
Los Angeles/Anaheim, California
Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Research Triangle)
The most recent STC Salary survey database (from 2008) maps a geographic distribution of technical writers and finds the following:
The states with the most technical writers are California, Texas, Massachusetts, Virginia, Michigan and Maryland. Only Wyoming seems to have not reported technical writers.
According to U.S. News, the 10 best places for tech jobs are Atlanta, Boston, Houston, Huntsville Alabama, New York, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington D.C.
I recommend moving to a major city that appeals to you. If you’re really adventurous, you could even move to India. But seriously, location matters. I know that I’ll never live in a rural area such as Wyoming because there aren’t many technical writing jobs there, as beautiful as Wyoming is.
Moving to a new location, however, is harder than it looks. Rarely will a company hire you from afar. When I was living in Florida looking for a job in Utah, the remote location turned recruiters and employers off immediately. Fortunately my wife’s family is in Utah, so while I was vacationing in Utah, I interviewed for a handful of positions here. Then it wasn’t such a problem that I was currently residing in Florida, and a good company eventually offered me a job.
Note: If you think moving to a new city is difficult fresh out of college, try uprooting yourself with three kids and a mortgage payment on a house in a recessed economy. Also, forget about landing that contract position in another state and working remotely from home – it just doesn’t happen with entry-level writers.
However you manage to do it, go where the jobs are.
Step 7. Volunteer for a Position in the STC
If you really want to get serious about moving your career forward, volunteer to be president of your local STC chapter. When I did this at the Suncoast chapter, it did a few things for my career that I didn’t expect. First, it made me extremely visible. Suddenly I was the one making announcements on the listserv, greeting everyone at meetings, organizing and planning programs.
Second, being president also put me in contact with more than a dozen professionals in the area who befriended me and gave me good advice. I’m thinking especially of my friendships with Mark Hanigan, Pam Treme, Mark Lewis, Karen Bachman, Becky Siebenthaler, Kelly Schrank, and about a dozen other people who I got to know precisely because of my participation in the STC.
The STC won’t necessarily find you a job, but it will put you in contact with professionals in your area who can let you know about open positions, recommend you, and give you advice about companies and career paths. Probably the greatest value of the STC, above all else, is the networking/friendship aspect. Not just networking with other professionals, but with professionals in your area.
To get involved in the STC, don’t just show up and ask if anyone knows of any jobs, and then leave when you find out there aren’t any. This happened more than a dozen times while I was Suncoast president. If you do this, your involvement in the STC will backfire. It’s through service that you build relationships. And those relationships are what guide you toward fruitful paths in your career.
To recap the seven steps:
- Step 1. Learn the Basics of Technical Writing.
- Step 2. Get Real Experience Doing Technical Writing
- Step # 3. Learn Some Tools
- Step 4. Put Together a Portfolio
- Step 5. Start a Blog
- Step 6. Move to a Tech Hub
- Step 7. Volunteer for a Position in the STC
You can’t accomplish any of these steps overnight. But if you’re an ambitious student, with a couple of years left in your program, you can line things up so that when you graduate, you aren’t sitting at your parent’s house without a job. Instead, you’ll be working away at your first job as a technical writer, engaged in a new project, learning new tools, interacting with colleagues, and blogging about it every night.