A Creative Way to Become a Technical Writer

One of the tough paradoxes of the technical writing field is that you can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job. Or so it seems.

A reader recently wrote to me explaining how she decided to write manuals for her existing job as an account maintenance clerk, even though the task of writing documentation wasn’t in her list of required duties. Doing so transformed her role. After learning more about her experience, I asked her to write a guest post, so here it is.

Post by Sarah Pruitt

Deciding to become a technical writer was easy. But finding the experience and the time has proven unforgiving. My job is not based on writing; in fact, writing is rarely needed. Between working full-time at a bank doing account maintenance (which is equivalent to data entry and entry-level coding) and going to school part-time in the evenings, I don’t find much time to create writing samples for a portfolio.

Writing is based on critical thinking and organization, but how do you measure proficiency in brain activity? Most employers tend to measure it through experience, which they often view through writing samples that you submit to them. But by the time I get home at 9:00 pm, I’m burned out from the day, and any hope of writing is gone. I have even attempted a blog, but without a focus it jumped from creative writing to personal dilemmas to sporadic quotes.

In contrast, my place of work is where I spend the most time and where I probably have the most chance of getting experience. When I realized there was some documentation that needed to be written, I took the initiative and created it for my department. I produced a schedule for the work that needed to be processed by whom and when, and I made it the most detailed and organized as possible. Cheat sheets, logs, descriptions of duties, duty assignments, birthday announcements, and anything else that I could possibly add I produced, often without request, but always with review and approval.

Noting the need for a manual for our policies and procedures, I undertook another writing project, this one more massive.  The notes we had been using were old, outdated, and at odds with other notes — a manual would be invaluable. So during my spare time at work, I conjured up a 100-page manual in a month and gave it to my manager for review.

My supervisors and fellow supervisors were impressed enough to allow me to write the manuals for seven other departments in our area. If this works out well, I may be documenting policies and procedures for my entire building full-time. Being at the bottom proved helpful because even though I bear the brunt of the work as an account maintenance clerk, I also have the right information to produce the documents.

Granted, my supervisors wanted a few things changed in the manual, such as some terminology and the table of contents, but the meat was there.  I demonstrated that I could organize and articulate information in a way that was valuable and useful to my company. I opened my work up to criticism and other feedback for the chance of improvement and reward.

I do not have the schooling of a technical writer (yet!) nor the experience, and there were probably a 101 ways to write the documents better. But I’m willing to learn, and the documents I’ve created, while showing that I have plenty of room for improvement, are  enough to help me get my foot in the door and transform my job towards the career I want.

You can follow Sarah Pruitt at Roslanche.com.

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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.

  • Margaret

    Kudos to Sarah for figuring out how to use what she had–her account maintenance experience, where she was–her current job, to meet a need–an up-to-date procedure document because the existing notes were outdated, and to further her on the way to her goal of becoming a technical writer. No matter what you do in the future, sarah, I think you already have the guts to stick your neck out and be a great technical writer!

    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

      I agree — one of the fundamental qualities a technical writer needs is initiative. You have to be proactive enough to go out and create the help materials that people need (or argue for project money to create them), even if they don’t come and ask you for them.

  • http://www.sdicorp.com/Resources/Blog.aspx Larry Kunz

    This is a great, great story, Sarah. I’m sure this required a lot of extra work on your part, but I think you’ll look back and realize that it was all worthwhile.

    You’re doing another very smart thing: you’re reading the technical communication blogs (Tom’s is one of the best) and establishing a professional reputation. If you live where there’s an STC chapter, I encourage you to start attending meetings (they usually don’t require you to be a member) and perhaps even volunteer.

    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

      Once I landed my first job as a tech writer, my employer introduced me to the STC and paid for my membership (every tech writer was a member, for the most part). It was one of the most helpful things to me, because I made friends and connections with a lot of experienced people in the field who gave me direction and advice.

  • http://ffeathers.wordpress.com Sarah Maddox

    Hallo Sarah and Tom,

    Great post! I love hearing how technical writers got started. Haitham dropped a comment on my blog about his own first tech writing task. He was working in a shop and needed to assemble some bunk beds. They arrived without instructions, so he figured it out and wrote up the instructions himself. The result? The shop could sell the beds at a higher price. And Haitham’s a tech writer.

    Good luck with all those procedure manuals Sarah, and welcome to the tech writing club!
    Cheers, Sarah

    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

      Sarah, thanks for sharing the link to the story about how Haitham became a technical writer. I can see a whole series of posts on this thread. It is interesting how people get into this field. Almost no one goes to college thinking they want to major in technical writing and become a technical writer. People just kind of fall into it.

  • http://Roslanche.com Sarah

    Margaret – Your encouragement gives me motivation. Thank you for your kind words.

    Larry – I will look into that. Thanks for the heads up. I have heard of the STC and thinking of signing up, however, I am unaware if they have a chapter here.

    Sarah – I am adding your blog to my blog roll as I type this. 😉

    • http://www.sdicorp.com/Resources/Blog.aspx Larry Kunz

      Here’s a place on the STC website where you can look to see if there’s a chapter in your area.

  • http://cybertext.wordpress.com Rhonda

    Great story, Sarah, and pretty much matches how I got hooked on technical writing, oh so many years ago now. I was working for a software company and the training manuals and user manual were appalling (the very bright physics professor owner of the company had written them, and while he knew a lot about physics and maths he couldn’t write a readable or usable instruction!).

    Keep at it — but as you get into it more with your current company, start to look seriously at how you are recompensed. If your bosses appreciate your good work, but continue to pay you as a data entry person, then it might be time to bring up your added value to the company at your next review — or start looking for another job.

    • http://Roslanche.com Sarah

      Thanks Rhonda. I had the same thing in mind. I was planning on waiting till I have half of the project done with some feedback before I approached my boss with the subject.

    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

      I agree re the salary with Rhonda. Your current job might be a great start to gather up a portfolio, but you may want to transition to another company as a full-fledged technical writer if your salary doesn’t increase commensurately.

  • Susant Paikaray

    Sarah, it was your passion for writing that made you taking up the documentation requirement for your department. If you are still continuing with your accounting position then let me say that you are the wrong person at the wrong profession. you need to be a full time technical writer to know more about this technical writing field.

    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

      Susant brings up an interesting point. On the one hand, you need domain knowledge about your industry to write helpful documentation (documents that go beyond simply click this, select that). On the other hand, you also need to be immersed in the field as a technical writer to stay updated with the trends, tools, and methodologies that will make you successful. Either way, I think you could do well with a hybrid role.

  • Vaibhavi

    I felt good to read Sarah’s story. The iniative taken by Sarah was remarkable. I have no experience in the field of Technical Writing and wish to go into this field. Your blog is indeed an encouragement… Thanx.

  • Davide Rizzo

    My story is not that different. I joined Imperial College London in 2004 as a research associate. I was supposed to develop software for an astronomical satellite and possibly to get some science out of it. Instead I ended up being drawn to documentation like a bear is drawn to honey. I became a fully-fledged technical writer in 2008, at a software company in Cambridge. After being swept away by the economic crisis, last year I moved to Spain and joined the European Space Agency as a contractor. I’m back working for my “old” satellite, and now I chair the editorial board of the project.
    It hasn’t been smooth sailing, especially because English is not my native language. I think I manage to write decent prose most of the time, but convincing prospective employers is another matter entirely.
    It’s heart-warming to read about Sarah and other fellow tech writers with unorthodox career paths. It gives me strength to keep the rudder steady in rough seas.
    By the way, I’m an STC member since yesterday. Is there a better way to start the new year? :-)

  • Craig

    Creativity and initiative certainly play a big role in technical writing. Here’s my “dilemma.”

    I work as a tech writer, but would like to become a published novelist. However, like Sarah, by the time I drag myself through the door at home in the evening, I am creatively burned out.

    I have a Diary of Ideas, but can’t seem to get rolling on any of them. When Sunday comes round, and I am rested up enough from the previous week, it is time to get ready for work the next day. And yes, I usually wind up working through lunch hour. Deadlines make slaves of us all.

    If any of you tech writers are aspiring novelists, or have succeeded in writing that novel and getting it published, how did you do it?

    Where did/do you steal the time from?

  • http://www.creativeace.com CJ Spurr

    Sarah — congrats. I personally think that is the best way to become a technical writer — falling into it. I have a similar story I posted back in October: http://www.creativeace.com/blog/technical/technical-writing-whats-that.

    I always liked writing and found it came naturally, I was happy to realize that I taught myself something useful when I left the Air Force. Luckily in my first civilian job someone mentioned STC. It’s the best organization I have found out there. The contacts and information are worth every penny.

    Craig — I also strive to write a novel and see it not only published, but enough to take care of me and my family and allow me to focus more time on that. I have a critique group where we all support each others efforts. I really hate the term ‘aspiring novelist/writer/author’. Either you are writing or your not. Doesn’t mean you have to have something published or write hours at a time. If you’re writing a novel, your an author period. Give yourself some credit. Tech Writing isn’t always easy, but it pays the bills.

    As for time, if it is something you really want to accomplish, you need to carve time from your schedule. Sometimes I get lucky and can set aside and hour or two before the day begins. Sometimes I can only find time on the weekend. Just find some time and if you can find a local critique or writing group in your area, that may help you create and meet your self-imposed deadlines.

    Tom — great blog. I found you while blogging on my site via Zemanta recommendations. Thanks. I’ll be adding you to my list. Sorry for the long winded reply 😉

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