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

by Tom Johnson on Dec 18, 2013 •
categories: beginners

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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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.