Introduction to getting a job in technical writing (TW Job)

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.

AndreaJWenger: Students: identify your one greatest strength (writing, tools, tech, or whatever) and promote yourself as an expert. #techcomm

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.

larry_kunz: One piece of advice for #techcommstudents: Always be curious, like a reporter or a detective.

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.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

  • Milan Davidovic

    “Learn how to write well.”

    Do you think that we generally recognize good writing, and that it’s only a matter of figuring out how to produce it? Or do you think the question “what is good writing?” a relevant one?

    • Tom

      Hi Milan, thanks for responding and raising a good question. I don’t think that writing is so relative that one person’s judgment varies wildly with the next. When people have two texts to compare, they can usually agree about which is better. However, when there aren’t multiple texts to compare — for example, all you have is what the SME wrote — then it’s a bit harder for people to recognize poor writing.

      Have you had any experiences that bring more light to this question?

      • Milan Davidovic

        Let me put it another way — does “learn to write well” include “learn what it means for something to be well-written”? Or can we assume that people have this by the time they get to college?

        Andrea Lunsford’s findings not only suggest the latter, but that students (at least at Stanford) have already learned to well:

        Yet, as Thompson notes at the beginning of his article, pundits say that the kids can’t write. So perhaps there is some disagreement as to what it means for something to be well written. So perhaps it does need discussing.

  • Bill Albing

    Starting a blog is one aspect of a larger item — getting involved online and getting visibility. Each of us should have a blog, but also a LinkedIn account and be involved in some social media, such as Twitter or or contribute articles to WritersUA or KeyContent or ContentWrangler.

    Perhaps the biggest item you list misses is Step 0. Network Like Crazy, which includes going to conferences and meetups and unconferences, participate in social networking with professionals (tech writers and those who hire them and those who work with them).

    My other advice includes Apply to Jobs Like Crazy to learn about what’s out there and who is hiring and how. Search for jobs — both Tech Writer jobs and ones that may involve the same skills but go by another title.

    Finally, be willing to work for a contract agency that can place you somewhere as a way of getting your feet wet. Agencies are a good way to start and a good first job.

    • Tom

      Bill, thanks for your comment. I agree that networking and applying to as many jobs as possible are important activities for finding a job. About the contract agency, I also think that’s a good move. I found a couple of jobs through a headhunter agency that placed me. It seems like larger companies like to use headhunting agencies to staff their positions.

      About the other types of social media, yes, it’s good to have as much of an online presence as possible. As long as you’re writing quality content that shows more than just basic profile information, that’s key.

  • Pete

    If this is a guide for students, I recommend getting a job as a writing tutor at the campus writing center (if one exists at your school). Writing tutors get exposed to all the weird, contrary, and cool attitudes that non-writers have about writing (writers, too, for that matter).

    I’d also recommend getting to know students in other disciplines and looking at their assignments. What kinds of writing are they required to do? Essays? Not as much as in previous years. How about proposals, statements of qualifications, technical reports, feasibility studies, or even marketing materials? Get familiar with those documents by asking questions of both students and instructors. You’ll get the occasional brush-off, but you’ll also learn a great deal and potentially get in some quality networking. If you’re already a strong writer, there are faculty members who’d be glad to meet you.

    Always a pleasure to read, Tom.


    • Tom

      Pete, excellent advice. I agree that working in a writing center would expose you to working with non-writers quite a bit. I worked as a writing fellow during college (which is a type of writing tutor, just not a writing center tutor), and I enjoyed it. A lot of times in the workplace you have to work with content that SME’s write or try to write, and you have to be tactful in how you criticize their writing while at the same time improving it.

      Also, good advice on including the other types of writing. When I was in college, everything was very essay driven, so I didn’t have those other formats on my mind when I wrote this post.

  • Andrea Wenger

    To Milan Davidovic’s question about whether we recognize good writing: what people generally recognize is *poor* writing. Good writing is invisible. Errors make readers stumble. So good writing is error-free, but it’s more than that. It uses the simplest words possible to convey the meaning. It avoids passive voice. It favors simple sentences to complex ones. It uses strong verbs to convey action rather than hiding the action in a noun or relying on adverbs. Most importantly, it places the reader’s needs ahead of the writer’s. The writer should do all the thinking, so the reader doesn’t have to. The act of reading should be effortless, so the reader can focus on the content.

    • Tom

      Andrea, I like your description here. You’re right on target — good writing is invisible, so people hardly notice it. I’m sure you’ve heard the quote, “what’s easy to read is hard to write.” It reminds me when I I was a composition teacher grading student essays. When I had to reread an essay multiple times to try to figure out what the student was saying, it was always a torturous experience. Good student essays, on the other hand, were clear from the start. It’s the same with instructional writing as well.

  • Katie

    Great post. I graduated with a degree in technical writing a few years ago but started staying home with my kids shortly after. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what I can do while I’m not working to improve my chances of finding some kind of work once my kids are older, or (God forbid) if something should happen to my husband. This has given me a lot to think about and helped me weed out some of my ideas. Thanks!

    • Tom

      Katie, one thing you might be able to do as your kids start going back to school is contract work. Sometimes it’s easier to get a short contract than land a full-time job. And with contract work, you may only be required to be on-site a few days a week.

  • Robert Nagle

    I want to disagree slightly with the ideas about keeping a blog.

    My answer is “it depends” and “use common sense.” I have been keeping a weblog for almost a decade, and so I’ll be damned if I change it or take things offline during unemployment for the sake of finding a job.

    First, I think people recognize that personal blogs are going to drift offtopic and even that technical writers are going to be outspoken about certain topics. Sure, don’t use profanity or discuss sex or religion in a pejorative fashion. And I would never dream of mentioning anywhere the company I work for anywhere. I worry less about inappropriate content than bad spelling and grammar. For a while, I did try to limit my content to business-related and technical stuff, but I became bored.

    Second, let’s not overestimate the diligence of employers in looking over your blog. 99% of employers will glance over the front page only and maybe your About page (if they do even that). That is all. Blogs are notoriously good at hiding old content. If you wrote something weird 3 weeks ago, chances are that no one (not even employers) will find it. That’s the nature of wordpress. Although I generally curtail my “controversial” posts during unemployment, the few times I do, it is sufficient just to put the controversial stuff underneath the fold.

    A blog should simply indicate that the writer has a variety of interests and is unafraid to talk about a lot of things. I regard my blog as more of a notebook than a series of technical articles (and thus my blogging goals may differ from yours).

    For example, I once debated whether to include a post about a recent job interview. Common sense would say don’t do it, but I was discussing what I thought to be a very important topic about technical writing. I did not identify the employer’s name nor did I put them in a bad light. I just wanted to talk about an interesting topic. If anything, employers are interested in whether you can manage the public-private dance without slipping.

    My solution has been to create a personal portfolio/job site (which is strictly professional) and to give employers that URL. If they discover the personal blog, let them. It helps that all my fiction is under a pseudonym, but eventually even that will be exposed (though not easily discoverable through google).

    Let me criticize niche bloggers for a moment. Blogging conventional wisdom seems to be to pick some narrow topic and blog about it to death. (That is partially why there are so many crappy and superficial blogs about technical writing, btw). I mean, really, how much can a person really say about the field of technical writing? (Ok, your blog is a notable exception — kudos). Nothing impresses an employer less than a blog which is rarely updated –which is what generally happens when you commmit yourself to niche blogging.

    For me, a blog is a representation of current intellectual interests, not a collection of personal details or details about my family. There have been periods where I blog only about technical matters and periods where I blog about personal matters and times where I blog about cultural matters. Who can predict?

    Again, my approach to blogging may be atypical. (For example, I have never made a serious attempt to attract an audience)

    Finally, here’s another touchy matter. If you blog too frequently, employers might start to ask themselves, will this person be blogging on company time? I generally try to post 3-4 times a week; if I am posting an average of 2 posts per day, people might think I am more focused on blogging than working.

    • Haitham

      Robert, blogs are time stamped (although on some blogs you can tamper with those) but generally if you are blogging on company time about work-related stuff then that should be fine! It’s no different to keeping a diary on your desk and writing your thoughts in there on company time. The only crime is getting caught – in that a blog is available to the public.
      Technical communication is a creative profession. That creativity needs to be encouraged and nurtured by any means necessary and a good employer will recognise that. If blogging twice a day keeps those creative juices flowing and your productivity high as a consequence, I am all for it.

      • Tom

        Haitham, you point out an interesting problem. A technical writing notebook that you make entries in at work is usually acceptable. A technical writing notebook that you make entries in and which you also publish online as a blog is usually forbidden, usually because when people think of “blogging on company time,” they assume you’re writing about your kids or posting videos of your cat. It’s a stereotype that I’m afraid won’t go quickly away. I know I try not to blog during company hours, but I may jot down a few thoughts for a post if the insight comes.

    • Tom

      Robert, you bring up some excellent points. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I agree with most of what you say. The challenge of keeping a blog updated can be strenuous and burdensome. An infrequently updated blog does look bad. Also, I agree that too many posts makes people raise questions about your life, as if you’re sitting around all day blogging. And you’re right that the good posts you write are so easily buried that they become invisible to employers who may only read your latest posts superficially. All excellent additions to the conversation. Despite all the drawbacks, a good blog, done right, can be a tremendous asset in a job search, as you know. It’s a topic that has a lot of different elements to it. Thanks for commenting.

  • Tom

    I tweaked the post a little bit, based on the feedback. I changed #1 from “Get a Degree in Technical Writing” to “Learn the Basics of Technical Writing.” I made this change because most undergrad institutions don’t offer degrees in technical writing, so there was some confusion as to whether I meant get a graduate degree in technical writing. Although a degree is always useful, I am not recommending graduate degrees as a means of getting a job.

    Second, someone else pointed out that sometimes domain knowledge is more important than learning technical writing skills. This is certainly true. If you know a lot about engineering, you’re more likely to land a job that involves engineering writing than someone who doesn’t have this knowledge background. Of course this narrows the scope of your tech writing job picks considerably, but it also makes you a much stronger candidate.

    So I softened the position to simply recommend that students learn the basics of tech comm. There are a variety of ways to do this, but it’s essential that people do have some grounding in how to do technical writing, because without it, the portfolio they need to create won’t have a strong impact.

    I also added a link about where the best jobs in tech are thanks to an article that Mike Hughes pointed out to me.

    Thanks for all your feedback on this post.

  • daniel

    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.

  • Sharla

    Thank you for all of the helpful information. I’m a student who will be graduating next year, and I worry about not being able to get a job. I want to build my portfolio now to have something to show my future employers. I’ve started a blog, but I don’t update it as much as I should. That is something I need to work on.

    I appreciate the discussion of talking about politics on blogs. I am also wary of getting too political or engaging in many political topics because I wonder if that will scare away future employers who do not share my views. It would be nice to think that they would appreciate my willingness to have a discussion and share my opinion on my blog, and some may. However, as divisive as politics can be, I think it could be a deterrent.

    Thanks again,

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  • Marc Bordon – Job Placement Consultant

    I hope you’ll write more on this subject. The biggest problem I have with people looking for a suitable job placement is that many of them are not willing to relocate or at least not in a given time frame. I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this.

    • Tom Johnson

      Relocation is tough. About 3.5 years ago I relocated from Florida to Utah. Here’s how I did it. My in-laws live in Utah, so I came out here for 2 weeks on vacation. During my vacation, I interviewed with a handful of companies. Then I returned to Florida. Later one of the Utah companies offered me a job. I don’t think they would have considered me had I not been able to interview in person on-site. On the other hand, there’s no way I would have simply packed up, sold my house, and moved my family across the country without good prospects of another job in the location I was moving to.

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  • Alex

    While reading step 4, I thought of my current online portfolio. Overall, I’m not that happy with it. I wrote it for a class, & I remember feeling a little lost while putting it together. I have a tab that leads to a generic version my resume, & because I adjust each resume to each job I apply for, the resume I send directly with a coverletter & the resume on my portfolio usually do not match. Is this okay?

    • Tom Johnson

      I’m not sure how you get around that. Usually a portfolio is a sample of your work, whereas a resume lists places you have worked. Hopefully the digital nature of the portfolio allows you to present a lot of material to the hiring manager, so he or she can pick and choose.

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  • Samantha

    I recently started a BS in technical communication program and am starting to think about what to include in my portfolio. Are there any current lists of foundation books?

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  • Tom

    How do you show that you are interested in learning about everything? Did I say “everything”? I think you can demonstrate passion and interest for a topic if you write consistently about it. This demonstrates a curiosity and enthusiasm for learning itself.