Getting Started in Technical Writing with Little or No Experience

Note: There are times when someone asks me what employers are looking for in technical writers. In other words, they want to know how to get into this field. I originally posted this article on June 29, 2016.

People with a technical or scientific background shouldn’t have too much of a problem becoming a technical writer providing they write pretty well. But what if you’re starting off and don’t have experience or proven writing skills to promote? We’ve all been there. The following ideas may help.

Before you get started…

See if technical writing is what you want to do.

Seriously. Before getting too far, is this what you’d like to do? Take time to do your research on technical writing. Many tech writers have a Bachelor’s degree. Is that type of commitment in your plans? Once on the job, quite often you’re required to meet deadlines. Most tech writers I’ve known really enjoy their work, yet have days feeling that it isn’t the most glamorous job out there.

Interview technical writers.

Get off the grid and contact people the old fashioned way–for several reasons. Get out of the house, tramp the streets, walk into some companies, and ask the receptionist if there are any technical writers that you can interview for career advice. I did, unannounced. And yes, the interviews I got were worth the time and effort.

If you plan to do this, be professional. Professionalism is only a matter of attitude, and it’ll be on display. Be prepared, get to the point, and don’t be a pest. Ask pertinent questions and don’t waste their time. Meeting face to face is more personal and shows initiative. Who knows, they may have a connection or two for you to get you started.

You need a portfolio.

Portfolios are important. If you don’t have one, start getting one together ASAP. You need writing samples to show to potential employers. Published material is more credible.

To get experience without experience…

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” — Seneca

Create a website.

Invest a bit of time and money in a website. If you’re short on money but have an Internet connection, there are websites that will allow you to create a website for free. Do a blog, write things. Create on-line material that you can use for your portfolio. Your visitors will judge your work, and you can tweak your work as you improve.

Write for non-profit organizations.

Working for a respectable, well known company will look pretty good on your resume. You may get paid little or nothing at all by volunteering your time, which is often the case in small, local organizations. The upside is that people at non-profits are very helpful and dedicated, which will probably turn out pretty well for a newbie breaking into the field of writing.

City publications.

Many cities have monthly publications for their local citizens. Ask if the city is looking for writers.

Small businesses.

Many businesses are feeling the economic pinch and are trying to find ways to save money. These are the jobs I often see on Craigslist. A business may need simple, basic instruction sheets (or manuals) for their products and they may feel they don’t need a professional writer or simply don’t want to pay for one. If you have special knowledge of their service or product(s), that’s even better.

Keep sharpening your computer skills.

Software skills are always in demand. Basic graphic skills, for one, are an asset to a tech writer. You can learn these easily enough in your spare time at home. Open source graphic tools and specialty software are available for free download. GIMP (image) and Shotcut (video) are two such editing programs. If you know electronic circuitry, for example, then you could download NI Multisim (for beginners) or DipTrace (powerful, but a high learning curve).

If you have some experience…

STC (Society for Technical Communication).  STC requires a membership fee, but if you can afford it, joining the STC may be well worth it. Consider the STC like a LinkedIn account, but dedicated mainly to technical writers.

Job fairs, seminars, and technical events.

Being around like minded people always helps. While you’re there, be sure to snag all the relevant business cards you can in case you want to follow up.

Copywriting, (web) content writing.

Not to be confused with copyrighting your work [1]. Copywriting for the web is usually for marketing purposes and often involves SEO (Search Engine Optimization) skills [2]; it’s usually for selling or endorsing products or services. This field is harder to get into, and may not be tech related.

Clickbait (or, linkbait) writing.

Just like copywriting, the purpose of clickbaiting people is to bring them to a website. It’s usually viral content, creative, and eye catching, compelling copy. If you think you have a flair for this kind of writing, give it a go.

Regarding both copy/clickbait writing: Many companies outsource [3] as they have limited writing staffs and are looking for freelance writers to publish upwards of hundreds of pages of new copy per day.

Notes:
[1] http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ03.pdf
[2] https://www.quicksprout.com/the-definitive-guide-to-copywriting/
[3] https://www.upwork.com/i/freelancer-categories/

Other places to look:
1) HireWriters, Textbroker, and Writer’s Domain. (Only three sites out of many.)
2) Part-time and freelance writing work can be found on Craigslist under Jobs > Writing/editing.
3) Put “on-line sites freelance writers” (without quotes) into a search engine. You’ll get more hits than you’ll know what to do with.

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