How to break into tech writing in 30 minutes a day
September 20, 2010 9:04 AM   Subscribe

I am interested in getting into technical writing. I have a full-time gig presently, but what can I do in my limited spare time that will make me a more attractive candidate for tech writing jobs in a year or two?

I've always thought I would really enjoy and be good at technical writing. Disposition-wise, I think it would suit: I'm very logical, with excellent analytical skills, love systems, am a very quick study at math/science stuff, and am good at figuring out technical processes. I'm also very interested in design and readability issues.

My paper qualifications, however, are limited. I've got a hard-science bachelor's (top school, high GPA), and a grad degree in a writing-intensive humanities field (also from an excellent school), so I do have the "tech" and "writing" aspects covered separately, I suppose. I've also taught about ~3 semesters worth of intro technical writing and related stuff at the undergrad and high-school level, and helped edit/coach drafts of science dissertations and journal articles as a writing tutor. That's about it, though. Zero coding or other CS knowledge. Zero web design skills. No illustration or other artsy talents. No relevant professional experience beyond teaching.

Although I'm not looking to leave my current situation immediately, I'd like to investigate activities that might ultimately help beef up the tech-writing portion of my resume, or otherwise pave the way for a future job either teaching technical writing or practicing it. What inexpensive things can I do now, in a few hours per week, to strengthen my candidacy for tech writing positions at some point in the future? Should I be starting to network? Learning a particular programming language or software package? Reading any specific books? Or what? I'd love to hear any and all suggestions.

Oh, and I've recently come to realize that after many many years in school, I'm a little clueless about the way the real world of employment works; so if everyone could err on the side of specifics and over-explanation when making suggestions (e.g., not just "Start networking!," but "Start networking... here's how, and here's where!"), that'd be tremendously helpful. Thanks!
posted by gallusgallus to Work & Money (6 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
My husband moved from a career in software testing to a career in technical writing eleven years ago. The first thing he did is spent six months documenting everything about his testing career that he possibly could. He wrote test plans, test manuals, test machine setup procedure documents, you name it -- if it was something he did more than twice, he wrote a document explaining it.

Not only did this give him some real-world experience in writing documentation, it gave him a quite nice portfolio of writing samples to send to people looking to hire writers. He had the advantage of working at a positively enormous company, so he was able to make the career switch internally, but I would still investigate this approach even if you can't.
posted by KathrynT at 9:14 AM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

You could try to read up on some of the software and methodologies used these days by tech writers:

--DITA is a popular methodology for planning/writing documentations--you can read about it online; it uses XML, so it's good to get a sense of XML as well.

--A lot of places use FrameMaker to edit documents, so, if you can read a book about that or take a course in it, that's good.

--Most of the time the subject matter in tech writing is software, so learning any new software systems is useful, expanding the range of operating systems you're familiar with, etc.

--In general, at most large companies, software development takes place within a sort-of standardized life cycle/process flow, involving things like version control systems, daily builds, QA, bug reports, and scrum. As a tech writer, you work in that framework, so those are also things to learn about.

As far as making yourself look better on paper, I guess completing a course in technical writing at a community college or a school of continuing education is something concrete you could do.
posted by Paquda at 9:23 AM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I also changed fields into writing, but with a different emphasis (medical, but I think similar things will apply to technical writing). Here are some things that I think that you can do, which may help you eventually get that job:

• Before you leave your current job, have you thought of approaching your employer and asking if you can take writing projects and moreover, technical writing projects? It may great to have the experience and samples, as Kathyrn T suggests
• Join an organization with peers who do what you want to do. I found that the American Medical Writers Association was helpful for contacts and meetings within my city (I also had access to a forum and emailed queries to a few people). Now I don’t know if this organization offers the same, but you can check to see if it has any meetings in your city, etc.: Society for Technical Communication
• Info interviews with people who have a similar background (I describe how to do this here) – you may want to see if you can find people in your previous undergrad uni (alma mater list?).

Finally, you describe what you envision doing. Medical writing may be a good fit for you, too, if you like science and have analytic skills. If you think that you are interested in that field, too, I posted a question a few years ago as to how to enter the field and got some really helpful replies (besides sharpening up a CV, all it took was a writing test…that’s it ...although a person would need to know how to read and interpret a primary and review artice from a medical journal plus write a paragraph to a page in response to a question)

posted by Wolfster at 9:38 AM on September 20, 2010

Fellow tech writer here, seconding the advice to develop a portfolio. Your qualifications on paper are impressive; back those up with some solid examples of your writing ability and you'll look very attractive to prospective employers.

Googling "technical writing portfolio" will give you an idea of what you should include.
posted by Zozo at 9:54 AM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Portfolio of work that shows various document types and genres pertinent to the position being sought. From a liability perspective, do not include proprietary information. If you must, you may need to create documents that do not have legal issues surrounding them. I always suggest to students that sourceforge may be a good place to take on writing projects with the intent of adding to their work portfolio.
posted by jadepearl at 10:10 AM on September 20, 2010

Open source software projects usually rely on volunteers to create documentation, both for end users and developers. It's a good way to get portfolio material (if you can get a release from them to use the doc that way), and it's also a good way to build relationships with people who might get venture capital in the future and want reliable, known people to come on board quickly.

That said, "technical writing" is a huge umbrella. For example, do you want to write about software? You can focus on end users, administrators, developers, salespeople, or purchasers. (I started out writing for beginner-to-intermediate end users, and they're still my favorite audience.) Do you want to write about medical devices? That gives you patients, medical students, doctors in practice, RNs, physician's assistants, volunteers, and even camp counselors for kids with severe illnesses. I've worked with a huge range of industries while wearing a "tech writer" label: banks, publishers, web developers, architects, governmental and nongovernmental agencies, biotech firms, law firms, etc. The point is not that your margins are too broad, but that it's a good idea to think about how to repurpose individual portfolio artifacts as you create a specific portfolio for an individual situation.
posted by catlet at 10:49 AM on September 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

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