Looking to add to your quiver of writing skills? If you’re good at breaking complex processes and diagrams into simple terms anyone can understand, you may want to consider the lucrative field of technical writing.
This type of writing normally involves creating documentation for technical processes, software and systems. I began my career as a technical writer working in the information technology field, where I noticed how many companies around me needed custom diagrams, technical content and how-to guides. However, writers aren’t limited to IT companies; all sorts of businesses and organizations, from colleges to web development startups, need their services.
If you’re keen to explore the world of technical writing, you’ll need to develop your skills, establish contacts and find clients. Here’s how to get started.
Who needs technical writers?
Many types of businesses need technical writing services. Schools, including community colleges and distance learning institutions, may need support with curriculum development. For example, an online school may want to offer a course on how to effectively use Microsoft Excel. Businesses may need support manuals for software or articles about how best to use their products.
Many vendors, academic institutions and government agencies need white papers. These academic documents explain technical topics and often follow the same methodology as a how-to guide, but they may require additional information such as citations.
You could also become a technical editor, though most of these roles require more experience, as you’ll need to identify mistakes in technical concepts, diagrams and pedagogy in addition to grammar and syntax.
Breaking in is easier with a mentor
The first step to building a lucrative career in technical writing is breaking in. Like other types of writing, it can be challenging, but it’s not impossible.
As a reviewer and paralegal, Allison Bishop did a lot of report writing and other document preparation work. While researching and reading articles, she became interested in writing them herself. After contacting editors at multiple publishing companies, she connected with an author who showed her the ropes of the profession. Within two months, she contributed to two technical books that were published this year.
“Breaking in was easier once I had found a mentor who could assist me,” said Bishop. She was able to make new contacts in the field and convince editors to offer her trial assignments. “Once I showed my editors that I was reliable, handed in my work on time and produced great work, I was offered more to do.”
Any aspiring technical writer can follow Bishop’s lead: As you build your network and make contacts within the field, approach one or two about helping you learn the business.
Develop a technical writing resume and portfolio
Create a technical writing resume and portfolio featuring samples of your work. Since you’re new to technical writing and likely don’t have previous work in the field, highlight as much relevant experience as possible. Use sample resumes like these to guide you as you present your past work in the best possible light. Consider focusing on a specific niche, such as health care or software, that builds on your education or work experience.
You’ll also need to create samples of your work. Don’t let the fact that no one’s ever hired you for a technical writing job stop you!
“Since I was just entering the field, I created sample technical writings so that potential hiring managers could evaluate my work,” said Bishop. Volunteer to help a friend or contact with a project, or create your own. Perhaps you could rewrite support documents for a well-known tool, such as the iPad how-to manual. Or develop a user guide for a product you enjoy, like Tim Murphy did with The Mint Manual.
You could also review new products on your blog or write guest posts for technical sites, like this post I wrote about using software to provide security. Add your work to your portfolio and share it on LinkedIn and Twitter to develop your personal brand and show potential clients what you can do.
Combine job boards with networking
Now that you have a resume and portfolio to highlight your experience, you need to find clients. Technical writing jobs are generally posted with other writing opportunities, so keep an eye on your favorite freelance writing job sites. You can set up alerts on many of these sites to email you when technical writing jobs are posted.
However, you’ll also want to go beyond the job boards to find potential opportunities. “I contacted organizations directly and sent them my technical writing resume,” said Bishop. “Once they saw that I could create what they needed, they hired me immediately.”
Develop a network of contacts at organizations or firms that require technical writers. First, look within your existing network for people who might be able to help — do you know anyone who works at the types of organizations or businesses we discussed above? Get in touch and share your portfolio and resume.
Look at the tools and products you use on a daily basis, and check out their documentation; could their creators use help with a FAQ, troubleshooting guidelines, how-to manual or other technical writing? Contact the company to pitch your services.
Consider attending conferences or technology-focused events in your area to help connect with other potential clients. Always be on the lookout for ways to expand your network.
Whether you’re looking for a full-time technical writing role or freelance work, you’ll need to work hard to master your niche and develop an active network. However, there’s a lot of work out there for technical writers — good luck with your new specialty!
Have you tried technical writing? What kinds of projects did you work on?