Get a technical writing internship or on-the-job experience without having much time for it

A reader asks,

I am a college student that is unsure of what I want to do when I “grow up.” I previously thought that I wanted to work in human services, and although I still have the same drive to help those less fortunate I don’t think that I want to make that my career.

Besides raising a child and taking care of the house, which I think is a full-time job on its own, I also work outside of the home (I get to my school work some time between serving dinner and falling asleep on the couch while watching Big Bang Theory re-runs).

Because of my hectic life, I don’t have the option of traditional college classes or, more importantly, unpaid (hah!) internships. Not only do many college students find employment through internships, they also get on-the-job experience before committing to a specific degree or career. Lucky them, huh?

Basically what I am getting at is this: what kind of short-term internships or job shadowing opportunities are available for someone like me? Is there a contact (person, business, etc.) that you recommend? I live in Pennsylvania, about 1.5 hours from Philadelphia. I really appreciate your time and look forward to hearing from you.

Educational programs and internships don’t fit into everyone’s schedule. Fortunately, you can break into technical writing without either of those things. See my series, Get a Job in Technical Writing: 7 Steps for more details. Basically, here’s what you mostly need to do:

  1. Build a portfolio of technical writing samples.
  2. Learn some tools and technologies that technical writers use.

Although it may be hard, somehow you’ll need to find the time to create some compelling writing samples. I recommend digging into an application you already know and writing sample help guides for it. If you’re looking to learn a new project, try contributing to the WordPress Codex. Or if you like Drupal, create some good documentation for the Views or Taxonomy modules.

Second, re the tools and technologies, CSS, XML, HTML, DITA are all good to know. And for tools, maybe oXygen, some help authoring tool (e.g., Flare or Framemaker), graphics (Snagit, Illustrator), a video recording tool (Camtasia Studio), and others.

Finally, learn to self-learn. There are abundant resources online that you can leverage. The best technical writers pick up new tools and technologies on their own.

Re the time to do it all, if you can only devote an hour a day, chip away at building these skills over the course of a year or two. You’ll be surprised at how it adds up. Use your weekends to do most of the work (if your weekdays are too busy).

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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.

  • Craig Wright

    How about spending some time learning tech comm theory before writing the samples? I’ve come across writers who have experience and know the tools, but make basic errors in terms of their approach. Especially in software – I’m sure most of us have seen manuals/help that just goes through each interface, describing field after field, with little in the way of conceptual info or task-orientated help.

    1. Learn how tech communicators identify the audience
    2. Learn how tech communicators create a documentation plan
    3. Create samples applying 1 and 2 to your work
    4. Learn the tools of the trade.

  • Mica

    I would add that if you want hands-on experience, find an open source project and add/improve their documentation. FOSS projects are generally glad to have all the help they can get, especially user-level documentation.