Do I need a formatl certification to break into the technical writing field?
July 31, 2009 8:51 AM   Subscribe

Technical Writing -- Can I break into it without a degree/certification? and how?

I've got a good 8 years of experience as a writer/editor under my belt, with 5 of those concentrated on web writing. I need to broaden my skill set so I can broaden my job search. As there seem to be no shortage of technical writing jobs, that's where I've decided to focus.

Here are my questions:
Can I break into the industry with a non-technical writing background? If so, what is the best way to market myself as a technical writer when in the past I've been a much more editorial/creative writer?

Do I need to look at certifications? If so, where are the most reputable places, preferably online? (Google-fu is failing me in this area -- so if you have personal experience, please chime in!)

posted by unlucky.lisp to Work & Money (10 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Anecdotally, I broke into tech writing 10 years ago after being a legal assistant (emphasis on writing support statements). My degree is in history, but I have a lot of geeky experience outside work: my husband and I host mail and web service for our own domain on machines located in our home and have for more than 10 years now. I found the job through a friend who was working at a software company that needed a tech writer, and after a couple of years I was able to move to a larger company looking for someone with more experience.

If you're looking for a full-time job with a single company, I suggest you brush up on subject material expertise in the tech writing field you're interested in: software, pharma if you're in one of the pharma corridors, etc. A writer who knows something about the area that the company operates in has a leg up on other candidates.

(Contract tech writing is unappealing to me. Sorry I can't advise you there.)
posted by immlass at 9:36 AM on July 31, 2009

If you can show that you know the subject you want to write about, I think that is the essence. My husband got work writing software manuals because he is good at installing and testing software. Knowing the subject is the most important thing and since you already have writing skills, that is all you need, it seems to me.
posted by Listener at 9:39 AM on July 31, 2009

I am, and have been involved in hiring, technical writers (in the software industry). You can probably break into the field; the first writer I hired had a background in teaching and writing history textbooks, and he turned out to be great (he really wowed in the interview, personality-wise).

My biggest fear (this probably applies mostly to the software and hardware fields) was always that the candidate was not as comfortable with technology as they needed to be. If you see your computer as a magic box, you're not going to be able to communicate with developers in the ways that you need to. There are a lot of technical writers in the software world who just aren't interested in software, and they can be a real pain in the ass to work with.

So I looked for anything that indicated that the person understood the world of software -- not how to use it, but how it's working under the hood. Anyone can write help doc to use a GUI, but you have to work harder to prove that you can write docs for developers, system admins, etc.

To a lesser extent, I tried to get a feel as to whether they'd be good learners; tech writing is all about learning new concepts quickly and thoroughly. That's more of an intuition thing in the interview, though.

A good way to market yourself is to learn some of the tools that technical writers often use; Word (learn all of its little tricks and eccentricities), Adobe FrameMaker and Acrobat, etc. Learn about content management systems, XML, topic-based authoring, and DITA (the current buzzwords). You can pick up more buzzword-y topics at the STC's Web site.
posted by transporter accident amy at 10:11 AM on July 31, 2009 [6 favorites]

Yes, I was a technical writer for five years. I have a degree in mathematics and I spent several semesters at university tutoring computer science courses. I specialized in writing API reference documentation because I have a technical background and I am coherent.

So go ahead and learn how to program. If you have web experience I would focus your training there. I think learning to program is way more valuable at this point than any technical writing certification will be.
posted by crazycanuck at 10:52 AM on July 31, 2009

I was a tech writer for ten years with no degree, just a natural aptitude for writing, logic, and technology.

Find your local chapter of the STC and start going to meetings; most chapters have regular workshops that could help with your skills.

The skills you need, at base (in my experience at least):

1. Writing. Not being able to write a short story, but having a good grasp of grammar and spelling, being able to follow stylistic rules, and most importantly being able to write structurally and coherently. Also, learn to be consistent about terminology, not only for items but also actions. Boring but a necessity.

2. Attention to detail. The details of the thing you're writing about, and the details of your writing. I've seen a lot of bad technical writing where the main weakness was that the writer couldn't see logistical gaps in their instructions.

3. Logic. Goes with #2 above. The ability to break a thing down into its parts and understand the patterns. The ability to take a procedure or problem apart and work it out.

4. Aptitude for technology. It helps to love it, but you at least have to have a knack for it. If you pick up technical stuff quickly, that will be one of your greatest assets.
posted by Billegible at 12:29 PM on July 31, 2009 [2 favorites]

Additionally, re: certifications: you'll find that that's a real hot-button topic in the TW world. No one can agree on what the basics should be, or who is qualified to judge, etc, etc... that said, you can definitely find courses on technical writing at your local university that might be worth checking out, at the very least to get acquainted with the tools of the trade; one thing I forgot in my list above is that you'll need to become acquainted with publishing tools. I'm a few years out of the field so I couldn't tell you what's in use these days; this is where the local STC will help you out.
posted by Billegible at 12:35 PM on July 31, 2009

There is a huge difference in technical writing and the type of writing you do now. That's not to say you can't be a good and successful technical writer, but you must make yourself aware of the differences.

In my experience (in the US, in software and engineering fields), you will need a portfolio. Getting portfolio items is tough when you have no experience. The usual suggestions are for you to write without pay. For example, write instructions for electrical equipment that did not come with a manual, freeware or shareware software, complicated tasks that are not commonly known but you know how to do, and so on.

Join the Society for Technical Communication (STC), a professional organization of technical writers. Attend their meetings, and meet and talk with other technical writers.

Sign up for the techwr-l listserv and follow the conversations there.

Read articles at WinWriters.

Read several style guides (such as Microsoft Manual of Style).

Pick up JoAnn Hackos' Managing Your Documentation Projects and read it to understand the full documentation cycle.

At a minimum, learn Microsoft Word inside and out. Kill two birds with one stone by reading the entire online help file for MS Word, so that you can learn everything about the software, and also learn how online help systems are structured. You will use many other tools as a technical writer, but this is a minimum. For your portfolio items, build a template with styles. Use fields and switches to populate your headers, footers, table of contents, cross-references, and index. Bring a hard copy and electronic copy to interviews, to show that you really know how to use Word.

As mentioned above, certification is a touchy subject. Personally, I don't think it's helpful to have a certificate. When interviewing and hiring, I look at the portfolio to see if the person can do the job.
posted by Houstonian at 4:20 PM on July 31, 2009 [5 favorites]

It's been my experience that local STC chapters can vary; members can attend and "audit" a few meetings before fully joining (a price proposition, especially considering how many services have been cut to the quick in recent months).

Certifications are a nice shiny piece of paper, but might not be what a typical smaller software company is looking for. As mentioned upthread, build a portfolio of "free" bits you write to show the skills a company might be looking for - varied from newsletters to quick start guides, to other pieces appropriate for the industry you're targetting.

It's been my experience that they don't necessarily know what they want or need should be hiring for, and are looking for someone more than a glorified typist, but less than a full blown department head. Starting as a "cowboy" with one company is a great way to jump in and get "real" writing under your belt.
posted by tilde at 8:21 PM on July 31, 2009

And with that I blow it, I meant:

non-members can attend and "audit" a few meetings before fully joining
posted by tilde at 8:21 PM on July 31, 2009

As a software engineer, if *I* were asked what kind of technical writer I would be happiest to work with, it would be one who had contributed documentation to an open source project. There are a bazillion open source projects out there with nonexistent or inadequate docs (honestly, I can count the number of free/open source projects that have even half-decent documentation on one hand, that I'm aware of)...find one you like and start helping out. Being able to point to the manual of a software that's in people's hands and being used and say "I wrote that, from start to finish" is worth so much more in most sane people's minds than a certification.
posted by crinklebat at 10:01 PM on July 31, 2009 [2 favorites]

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