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Collaborative Post: Giving Guidance to a Masters Student about Technical Writing Careers

by Tom Johnson on Jul 14, 2011 •
categories: beginners technical-writing

Questions from a Grad Student about Technical Writing CareersI received the following email from Anna, a literature PhD candidate who is considering changing career paths from teaching into technical writing. This is a collaborative post, so if you have advice to share, please add it in the comments below.

1. What is it like doing tech writing on a freelance basis? (My understanding is that you have a full-time, permanent position, but since you're so active in the community, I thought you might have more insight about this than I do.) It has been difficult for me to adjust to sitting in the same cubicle for eight hours a day. It's not intolerable, but I would be happier with a job where I could decide where I do my work (at least sometimes), and freelancing seems like one way to achieve that. Given some of what I've read about the profession, it seems as if permanent full-time jobs are starting to give way to temporary contract gigs anyway. So do you think freelancing is feasible way to go? Have you considered going the freelance route instead of the permanent route? If so, why did you decide against freelancing? Are there permanent jobs where the writer doesn't have to be in an office for 40 hours a week?

I have never done freelance technical writing. The only freelance I do is WordPress consulting. I have a family to support, and I prefer the stability and benefits that come with a full-time company job. However, rather than freelancing, it's more common to be a contractor -- the difference being that a contractor works on site for a short period of time, whereas a freelancer perhaps works from home. A lot of people who contract really enjoy it. Employers will perceive less risk if you're employed on a contract basis rather than full-time.

As for siting in a cubicle 8 hours a day, yeah, that's somewhat of a drag. Your current job may have you doing more grunt work than is usual for more mid- or senior-level technical writing jobs. I do attend meetings almost every day (hence I shift from my cubicle chair to a conference room chair), but overcoming the sedentary nature of an IT job is difficult. I balance all the sitting with regular games of basketball.

If you want to move around, you certainly can -- interviewing subject matter experts, interacting with users, attending project meetings, going in and out of your recording room, and so on.

2. You posted some slides that you used in an STC conference for a student-oriented presentation. One of the slides that I found particularly interesting addressed the issue of whether tech writing could turn out, for some, to be some kind of trap. The worry was something like this: what if I go into the field and decide I don't like it? Will it be too late for me to go into any other field without having to start from scratch? You proceeded to list a number of different fields that you thought an experienced tech writer would be well positioned to move into. (One that I find particularly interesting is UX-related work.) But I'm a bit skeptical about this. Do you know people who've managed career shifts like this? If so, did they have to go back to school or do anything drastic to prepare for the change? I do like the idea that tech writing might be more flexible than my previous career path, but for some reason I have a hard time imagining someone moving from this field into another one. If you have any stories about people who've done that (whether they went into IT, development, UX design, information architecture or whatever), that would be very encouraging. (I couldn't find any such stories.)

Many people see technical writing as a transitional career. There are a lot of related disciplines that tech writers can cross into: content management, XML, usability, information architecture, visual design, interaction design, content strategy, marketing and communications, e-learning, screencasting, project management, taxonomy, business analysis. If you have the incentive and drive to move into one of these related disciplines, you certainly can.

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My comment about windows of opportunity closing is probably more focused on me. I have a family of five to support, I own a home, I'm 35 -- to suddenly decide to try law or medicine, or to rethink my career path entirely (e.g., marine biologist) is pretty hard. Luckily, I'm quite satisfied with my path. I have found a lot of creative fulfillment in the tech comm field and its related disciplines. And that fulfillment isn't in writing dry procedural tasks all day, which I will confess gets boring. I'm fascinated by information architecture and findability, screencasting, visual design, and blogging. It's been a while since I last sat down and wrote a how-to topic. Today I spent most of my time writing a screencast script. Yesterday I edited several web articles.

Tech comm provides a lot of cross-disciplinary opportunities. The field is wide, with a lot of room to move around. Also, your background with literature will prepare you with an analytic, problem-solving mind -- perfect for tech comm.

3. Suppose I decide to go full speed ahead with technical writing. Where do I go from here? If I do decide to stay in this field, I'd probably get involved with some open-source documentation projects (to build a portfolio, since the stuff I'm writing now is owned by my company), create a website where I could showcase my work, build up my technical skills a bit (I'm a novice programmer, and I could work on that some more), join STC (to network and also learn more about the profession) and perhaps find small contract jobs I could work on to make some extra cash and establish contacts. Do these sound like reasonable goals? Any other things I should shoot for?

I think you have the necessary experience and education to break into the field. Many jobs require at least 2 years of experience, so maybe stick with your current location or job for another year as you build up your portfolio. Then move to a tech hub city and find a recruiting agency that can help you land a job. Other tech writers can help ground and guide you.

Moving to the city where you want to work is key. Few companies hire out of state employees at the entry-level. If you don't have to earn a lot of money, you could perhaps get by living in inexpensive housing. One day I'd like to move to California, but I'm not sure I could afford it, and I quite like my life here in Utah.

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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.