Advice on becoming a technical writer
June 4, 2019 9:57 AM   Subscribe

I think I could be a great technical writer, and I'm not starting from zero. Please help if you can.

I was floundering at 49 when I suddenly connected the dots:

-- I have a degree in English, with an emphasis in writing.
-- I worked first as a reporter and publication designer, mostly in newspapers.
-- I've been a public school teacher but moved on to being a technology coordinator for a small district, coaching teachers and writing lots of documentation.
-- I've been around programming, without doing it for a living, for a long time. I've taught Java in high school. I'm not a working programmer, but I'll spend hours on blog posts about, say, functional programming.
-- I've always found writing easy, mostly because I'm unafraid of the hard parts. I will spend a long time polishing a text until it is perfectly concise. Making a clear image out of something complex soothes my soul.

You get the picture. I've learned that few people want to condense difficult information into something useful and polished, and I love to.

I would like to find a niche and thrive within it. I wouldn't mind making a little money for the home stretch. Perhaps contract work, or mediation, or technical manuals, or grant writing. I'm looking for the perfect combo of a) demanding a lot of mental effort and precision; and b) paying well in return.

I live in the Seattle area, so technology reigns. But non-tech (or tech-adjacent) work is fine as well.

So far I've thought of:

1) Online courses in tech writing through local community colleges;
2) Finding GitHub repos of wonderful code that needs good documentation;
3) Working up a few GitHub repos of my own, to show some facility with programming.

What else could I do? What niche can I aim for and how do I get there?
posted by argybarg to Work & Money (11 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
If I were making this jump, I’d start by joining the Society for Technical Communication. My tech writer contacts are all retired, but were active in their local branches up until retirement.
posted by Nancy_LockIsLit_Palmer at 10:14 AM on June 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Former tech writer (10+ years) here. Ideas #1 and #2 are great. For #2, I would look at open source tools that are popping up around Kubernetes; the CNCF is a place to start.

I like idea #3 because it shows technical prowess, but for most tech writing jobs, the only programming you'll probably do is HTML, CSS, and maybe a little Javascript... though Python might be handy to know. You should also learn how to work with Markdown (easy if you're editing GitHub readmes). In terms of reading up, look into DITA, CCMSes like Flare and AuthorIT, and static site generators like Jekyll and Hugo. You might also want to get familiar with API doc generators like Spring REST Docs and Swagger.

I highly, highly recommend going to Write the Docs meetups and checking out their resources.
posted by neushoorn at 10:33 AM on June 4, 2019 [5 favorites]

I'm a retired tech writer who got into it after a couple of other tech careers. If I were hiring writers, I would definitely interview you after reading what you wrote here. I think you can handle the work. FWIW, I didn't get anything from the STC, but I know others who did.

If you can get a gig as an independent contractor, it's great. If you're tempted by an agency's offer, be aware that they will charge their client several times the rate that they pay you (this is something that agencies treat as a National Security Secret.) If you dealt directly with the client, you'd be getting that higher rate.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:49 AM on June 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Are you wanting full-time work, permanent work? It can’t hurt to just try applying places. I’m a tech writer now, and career switched into it from Curriculum Design. You have more tech knowledge than I did at the time, and possibly now. And I got hired at one of the best places to be a tech writer. I mean, a lot of that was luck and knowing someone and privilege, but my company hires career switchers all the time.

I’d apply for open positions while brushing up on skills.
posted by greermahoney at 1:03 PM on June 4, 2019 [1 favorite]
posted by KMH at 1:51 PM on June 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

I transitioned into technical writing from UNIX/Linux admin and support work, and have worked as a tech writer now for over 11 years. Given your experience, I'd say to just start applying to every single tech writer job you see - you're more than qualified. At most you'll need to put together a small portfolio with a few writing samples to show.

Looking at your list, I'd go with #2 and possibly #3. Tech writing certification courses can be really hit or miss, and the reality is that no employer will have ever heard of any of them.

Also, I agree with Kirth Gerson - I was an STC member for around 8 years, and got nothing from it. You're in Seattle, you want Write the Docs - Seattle instead.

Reddit's r/technicalwriting (where I'm fairly active) also has an informative sticked post that covers a lot of this: Read this before asking about salaries, what education you need, or how to start a technical writing career (this came about because the sub was getting a dozen or so nearly identical posts a week from people who wanted to know how to get into technical writing). There is a lot of good information there.
posted by ralan at 2:23 PM on June 4, 2019 [5 favorites]

Agree that, as a developer who hugely values competent technical writers, your CV/background sounds perfect.

Specific advice, especially given your location: you might like to look at Steyer; a number of large tech companies in your location (particularly Microsoft) use them to source tech writers. They have a good rep.
posted by parm at 3:35 PM on June 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Agree with much of what the others have said here, particularly those who suggested looking at listings and applying now. I'm a tech writer / communicator and the exact skills required are as varied as the jobs. Be sure to think about what you want, not just what they want from you. Also, when you do get an interview, pay attention to the person who will be your supervisor; their qualities as a boss and as a person will be a huge factor in your happiness should you get the job. (I think people often forget the human factor in the tech job hunt process.)
posted by aught at 6:07 PM on June 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've been a technical writer for 13 years, all of them in software. You mentioned wanting to find a niche - I suggest that you look into specializing in API documentation. APIs are everywhere these days but good API doc writers are rare. I'm currently looking for a writer (in Vancouver, BC) with just some familiarity with API documentation and have received 136 resumes, resulting in 6 phone screens, 2 interviews, and 0 offers.

And, yes, do take some introductory technical communication classes at a reputable post-secondary institution. Enroll in a certificate program, if you can. You'll get some portfolio pieces out of it and the classes tend to be taught by working technical writers who can be good resources as you look for work.
posted by subluxor at 7:01 PM on June 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I’m so grateful to everyone who has answered. I’m honestly shocked at how encouraging the responses have been — even have a bit of a tear in my eye. I’m doing this.
posted by argybarg at 6:23 AM on June 5, 2019 [5 favorites]

Oh, and by the way, if you’re concerned about age, I career switched at 45. The media makes tech seem like all 20-30 year olds, but I haven’t found that to be the case in tech-writing. There are many older than me. Interestingly, the devs themselves skew much younger. I worry where my scrum teammates will all be in 10 years. There aren’t enough management jobs for all of them.

Oh, and I glossed over before that you were a teacher. One of our other career switchers was most recently a teacher.

Best of luck to you!
posted by greermahoney at 7:01 PM on June 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

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