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How to Break into Technical Writing

by Tom Johnson on May 27, 2007 •
categories: beginnerstechnical-writing

T asks:

I have been a professional pilot for 37 years. I have taken about 7 online courses in Technical Writing and earned a certificate in Technical Writing from Clemson University. I have a Master's degree in Aeronautical Science. I don't have any experience in the graphics software like Photoshop. How can I break into the technical writing field?

If you've been a pilot for 37 years, you probably know more about the airplane mechanics and the airline industry than anyone else. I recommend targeting that industry for technical writing careers. Luckily for you, industry knowledge is preferred over tool knowledge (supposedly). So emphasize your subject matter expertise on your resume.

Your question about breaking into technical writing surfaces at least monthly on technical writing mailing lists. You might try searching the archives. But here's my recommendation:

  1. Look at the software requirements for the jobs you're interested in applying for.
  2. Download trial versions of the software, and publish several sample help files demonstrating your ability with the tool.
  3. When possible, volunteer for internships to gain more experience. (I realize this option is often not feasible.)
  4. Write some help content for products that need help. You can visit about any open-source project and add a few pages of help content. Alternatively, pick a topic you know well (such as your cell phone) and write help content for it.
  5. Join the local STC and volunteer for things. For example, just about any chapter can use someone on their newsletter team, someone to help coordinate food, someone to look out for and welcome new members, or someone to work on their website. Ask how you can volunteer. Then pick the brains of these members for the best places to work in the area.
  6. Apply for lots of entry-level jobs. Be persistent and patient.
  7. Know that your tool knowledge can remain superficial when it comes to applications like Photoshop. Photoshop is the mother of all graphics programs, but chances are if you can use SnagIt, you're fine. Photoshop is for photo manipulation. And actually, it's cumbersome to use to draw arrows. You could probably spend your life learning Photoshop, when all you basically need to do is crop screenshots.
  8. When you go to interviews, bring samples of anything you've written and are proud of. If you can write well, chances are you can write technical instructions well too. I think it's considerably easier to write instructions than literary essays. So if you can demonstrate your literal ability in another arena, employers might overlook lack of technical know-how.
  9. Develop an abiding interest in technology. Get techie and stay techie. Learn to love podcasts like Slashdot Review.
  10. Move to a city where tech comm jobs are abundant. See this post in my archive for the cities.

I haven't said anything revolutionary here. Maybe a cleverer reader can add more insight. And T, what are your thoughts?

By the way, is a great resource for finding jobs.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.