A Technical Writing Career
Is a career in technical writing for you? By now we've talked enough about the kind of work that you'd be doing to give you a sense of whether it's the kind of work you might enjoy. Do you enjoy learning new things? Do you have a flare for explaining and teaching? Can you manage large projects? Can you write clear, simple, and engaging prose? If so, you have the basic skill set to succeed as a technical writer. Now, how do you find a job?
| Degree and Certificate Programs
A growing number of colleges and universities offer degrees in technical writing, both as an undergraduate major or as a graduate program. Check with schools in your area to see what is available. Sometimes technical writing is called by other names in college catalogs. If you don't see it listed, try looking for professional writing, science and technology writing, professional communication, or technical communication. Chances are that there is at least one school in your area that offers a technical writing program. Many have graduate certificate programs for students who have completed college and want some additional training, but don't want to pursue a full blown Masters degree. Graduate certificate programs often encompass approximately half the coursework of a Masters degree and don't involve completion of a Masters thesis.
If you can't find a program in your area, there are now technical writing programs with accredited universities that are offered completely online. Though you'll pay higher out-of-state tuition if you enroll from, say, Kansas, you'll never need to set foot on university property to complete the certificate. Online learning is not for everyone, though. Ask yourself if you think that you'll be able to absorb the material well without the opportunity to interact face to face with the professor and other students.
When considering a college or university program, try to find out as much as you can. Talk with the department chair and professors, and if possible any students who are currently enrolled or have completed the program. What is their impression of it? What is the placement rate for students who have completed the program? What sorts of courses will be offered? Will the coursework be more theoretical or research oriented, or more practical, with courses in markup languages and programming? How do the answers you receive mesh with your own interests? Since you do have the opportunity to learn online, you have choices, and you should take the time to find the choice that's right for you.
Getting to know others in the technical writing community can lead to greater job opportunities as well as greater opportunities to learn from your peers. Even if you're just starting a training program, it's never too early to begin making acquaintances and friends in the field.
The Society for Technical Communication, or STC, is the premier professional organization for technical communicators. With a membership of over 14,000 professionals, and with chapters around the globe, the STC offers members continuing opportunities for networking, idea exchange, and continued training. Regular chapter meetings bring in guest speakers who share methods and ideas that can aid others in better performing their duties. The STC is a great place to meet and to get to know others in the technical writing field. If you are still unsure whether technical writing is for you, contact your local STC chapter and ask if you can attend a meeting or two. Perhaps meeting and talking with other technical writers will help you decide whether you would like to pursue this field. The STC also offers online job boards, forums, and resources for those pursuing training and career opportunities in the field.
|The Web 2.0 phenomenon of Social Networking affords many opportunities to connect with others who share your interests or are working in your target field. Consider placing a profile on LinkedIn, a social networking site for professionals of all kinds. There, you can make connections with other technical communicators, or with employees at firms that might be able to use your services.
For another interactive opportunity, enter the blogosphere. A growing number of technical writers are blogging about their profession. You can read their posts to learn more about the field, and get into the dialog yourself by posting comments.
As a technical writer, what software will you be using to write your documentation? Is there an industry standard? Unfortunately, no, though there may be in the future. One way to get an idea what technical writers are using and what tool-knowledge companies are expecting is to scan the help wanted ads. Often, when posting an advertisment for a technical writing job, potential employers will call for expertise in the software that they are currently using. An ad for a technical writer in your area may specify familiarity with Framemaker, or Robohelp. Likewise, joining the STC and the social networking sites will help you learn what tools other professionals in your field are using to write their documentation.
Some technical writers use GUI (graphical user interface) programs like those memtioned above, while others write in native markup languages like xml or xhtml. Make a list of the tool-knowledge requirements you see in the jobs that are available. If a particular tool appears frequently, it is worth your while to learn more about it. Professional technical communication software packages can easily run a thousand dollars or more, so investing in these tools will not be cost effective when you don't yet have a job where you'll use them, but many companies offer free trials of their software. Download the free trial and get to know the program. Try authoring a sample help file to attach to your resume. If you've spent some time learning a piece of software, you'll be able to tell a prospective employer you're familiar with it. If markup language knowledge is frequently mentioned, you may want to enroll in a college course on the subject, or buy a book and teach yourself the basics.
Of course, prospective employers are always looking to hire people with experience. What do you do if you're new to technical writing and have no job experience to show off? There are opportunities out there to engage in technical writing projects that will both help you learn the trade and will look good on your resume.
If you are currently employed in a job other than technical writing, are there any opportunities to engage in some technical writing? Could you volunteer to write a procedural manual for fellow employees, or a training manual for new employees? These can easily be considered examples of technical writing, and can be a great thing to show potential employers if you decide to switch into a technical writing position.
As we mentioned above, when you are familiarizing yourself with the different software packages available for technical writers, try creating sample help files for either real or hypothetical products. Besides gaining valuable experience in using the tool, you'll be creating a deliverable you can show employers to prove that you really are familiar with the tools which you will be asked to use.
Another opportunity to build your portfolio while contributing to the open source software movement is by getting involved with writing FLOSS manuals. FLOSS is an acronym for Free/Libre/Open/Source/Software, a category of software products that are distributed freely for the public good. Open source software is not only usually free to download, it can be modified and adapted by other developers. FLOSS is part of a growing movement in the software community towards sharing and the building of communal knowledge rather than proprietary hoarding of information.
Since free, open source software developers have little or no budget, writing user documentation is not a priority. Documentation is written on a volunteer, unpaid basis, and the site is in the form of a wiki. Becoming involved with FLOSS Manuals is an opportunity to get hands on experience with the writing of documentation. While your name and byline won't be readily visible on your help pages, you can get your name on the list of contributors, and point employers toward pages you have created as a part of your portfolio. You will also get a chance to meet others in the free and open source software movement, some of whom could be the paying clients of tomorrow's latest greatest products.
| Types of Jobs for Technical Writers
There are several ways technical writing jobs can be structured, ranging from full time, to contract, to freelance opportunities. Larger companies with ongoing documentation needs will often have a staff of one or more full time writers. Large software companies can have staffs of twenty or more writers. These situations obviously offer the technical writer the most long term stability.
Many other technical writing opportunities are offered on a contract basis. For companies that don't have a full time need, technical writers are often hired to work full time and onsite like regular employees, but only for the duration of the project that they are engaged in. They may spend three months or a year at a given company, but when the project is completed they will move on. Many smaller companies can't justify a full time writer when they only have an occasional need for technical writing.
There is also a certain amount of freelance technical writing work available. Since the term freelance can be construed to include the contract employees mentioned above, we are using the term freelance here to mean outside contractors who are hired to produce documentation independently. They will often work remotely and spend little or no time onsite. They will often be paid a flat fee for a project instead of a salary. Since technical writing can involve a lot of teamwork and interaction with the development team, freelance technical writing is relatively uncommon in the field. The freelance technical writing opportunities that are advertised online are often available on freelance bidding sites such as guru.com and elance.com, and the globally competitive nature of these sites means that the fees offered and accepted for projects can be quite low. Nevertheless, as the world becomes more and more globally connected, the possibilities for technical writing by freelance contractors from remote sites could grow over time.