How to advance a career in Content Managment/Tech Writing
August 5, 2009 4:23 PM   Subscribe

Straight out of college, I stumbled into a nice job as a Content Manager/Technical Writer for a major corporation's website. What can I do to help my career in this field?

So, I just graduated with an English degree from a respectable liberal arts college, and I do an excellent blog that won a recognizable national award. I know my way around html and css, but have no experience with more complex computer science. At my new job, I'm getting some great experience working with the most popular Content Managment System for enterprise, and I'm writing help docs and design patterns. I have no previous expereince in either of these areas.

I'm hoping that when I've got some good work under my belt and the economy turns around, I'll be in a pretty marketable position (I live in one of the tech capitals of the US). But since I never planned to enter this field, I feel like I'm missing some context as far as career advancement goes. Say I want to work for Microsoft, Apple, Google, or Amazon some day. What should I do now to start down that path?

Anon because I guess this implies dissatisfaction with my current gig.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (4 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
You have almost the same job as me. If you want to stay in this field and expand your skills, you might learn DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture), an XML based DTD. Lots about that here. You could learn XSLT as well, which might help you understand how content can be built into different deliverables, and might help you transition into more programming stuff.

You could also join the Society for Technical Communication, though that's of debatable use (lots of networking mostly).
posted by Kafkaesque at 4:36 PM on August 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

There's a lot of randomness involved with the technical writing field. I've done work for both Adobe and Microsoft and I essentially stumbled into this work due to the fact that I worked for a training company.

So, in other words, I'm not sure if there is an easily described "ladder" that you can begin to climb. My first thoughts are twofold:

1.) Locate the folks that are currently associated with the companies you are interested in, you can usually do this by signing up for every possible "free" training the company might offer on their website, and then look for any partners associated with trainings, conferences, etc. Then contact those partner companies and offer your services.

2.)Most large companies also have some sort of official imprint they work with (Adobe used to be associated with Peachpit press, for example.) You'll also find that most companies also release press releases when they announce new training or publishing schedules. These are usually found on PRWire I believe. Again, you can reverse engineer these and find the names of individuals or companies connected with the mothership. Then contact them.

If you have a particular interest then dive down into it deeper than anyone else in the world and begin to publish tutorials on a blog. Stay way on top of the latest developments and publish articles that are bound to get attention due to their uniqueness.

Finally, try to choose something you are genuinely interested in. Your enthusiasm will show through and separate you from all those other writers . . .
posted by jeremias at 4:45 PM on August 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

posted by Houstonian at 9:55 PM on August 5, 2009

From a resume standpoint, your degree and blog prove that you can write, so (if you want to remain in the software/hardware industry) develop your technical skills. I think everyone should learn to write standards-compliant HTML and CSS from scratch, but in my experience, many companies don't care if you can because they don't mind relying on tools to do it (e.g. Dreamweaver).

It's good that you're learning a popular CMS, but it helps to learn more than one, because you never know if you'll be moving to a company that uses a popular one or one that no one's ever heard of (I'm in that position right now, argh).

It also helps to learn the popular old-school tools really, really well. Even big companies that are moving to DITA and XML often have legacy content that's still in Word, Framemaker, etc., and that has to be maintained. Learn the quirks of these programs.

Anything that you can do to prove that you're really interested in technology will help you. You can put together a nice portfolio that shows that you can write good help docs, but you want to also be able to demonstrate that you can grasp technical concepts quickly. There was an AskMe a day or two ago about technical writing, and someone suggested volunteering to write documentation for open source software. That's an awesome idea.

A couple of books that I recommend: The Microsoft Manual of Style and Developing Quality Technical Information.
posted by transporter accident amy at 12:24 AM on August 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

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