Want to Be a Technical Writer? Here’s How to Start From Scratch

Want to Be a Technical Writer? Here’s How to Start From Scratch

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?

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38 comments

  • Gina Horkey says:

    I haven’t tried technical writing yet, but have been intrigued by this type of work for some time. Thanks for shedding some additional light on the topic!

  • Aisha says:

    This is interesting I have written some technical related stuff but this has given me a new direction on how to get more technical writing jobs.
    I like the research that is needed because it gives me the opportunity to learn new things by writing on it.
    The complexity can sometimes be challenging but I must say I love the challenge.
    I have written reports on
    -Attendance management systems
    -Architectural photography
    -Gothic architecture
    -Emergence of mobile technology in Africa
    -Metal fabrication
    just to name a few.
    For some writers this type of writing might be boring but for me I love it.
    Looking for technical writing buddies any one interested? contact me
    Great write up Rob!

  • C.S. Jones says:

    Quick question: Would you say that having a college degree is any more or less important for technical writing than other types?

    • Rob says:

      Thank you for your question – I will say that having a degree is something that creates a well-rounded invidual and gives you an advantage when looking for work. It provides you an edge, however the more focused your degree is on English/writing, technical topics and concepts (computer science/engineering, etc) – then yes I believe it will be helpful. Hope that answers your question!

  • Thank you for this invaluable information. I’ve written a manual letter suite for a credit-related company, but this article takes me off in a whole new direction.

  • Sara says:

    Very informative! I have been considering something else in the education field (I’m a teacher) and love to write. I have no portfolio yet, tho….. Thanks for the ideas!

  • kate reifers says:

    Though it may sound intimidating, technical writing is already a skill most general writers have. The greatest skill for technical writing that you bring to the table, is how to present data and technical copy is with concise, succint writing.

    Most professions, engineering for example, may have highly intelligent individuals, but just because they can draft a design for a combustion engine or fabricate an electric lighting fixture, doesn’t mean they’ll be capable of explaining it to the general public. Take, for example, installation instructions for a new gadget or toy.

    Think about the last set of install instructions or users manual that you’ve read!!! How many of you are like me and whip out the red pen every time, just to correct (sooo OCD!!) poorly explained instructions or even spelling mistakes!!!???

    Most non writers can’t write a cohesive sentence to save their lives (not a criticism, but an observation. )

    I love specification sheets, tech manuals, and especially white papers!

    Here is an example of a White Paper I researched, wrote and designed. Its called, “Aerospace & Defense Manufacturing in Tijuana, Mexico – An industry overview.” You are welcome to view or download no charge. It might help you organize an outline and may serve as a reference for approaching the narrative this type of document uses.
    Here’s the example:
    http://www.slideshare.net/katethepoet/aerospace-defense-manufacturing-in-tijuana-mexico-white-paper-2013

    • Kate,
      Thank you for this input – I agree with you 100%. I think you hit the topic points extremely well. Writers can embark on technical writing but the ‘writing’ part of it needs to be there. This is why excellent technical writers (who can write) are able to do well. Thanks for your feedback!
      Rob

  • Fiza says:

    Hi,

    I am an electrical engineer with 6+ years of experience in technology products and services as a design engineer and project manager with excellent communication and written skills.

    I am now looking for a home based technical writing career and would love to be connected to someone who can help me excel in this career path and I can assure a very long term commitment in return.

  • Pamela Ye says:

    I would love to get a job as a freelance technical writer. I’m not sure how that works. I have no experience in this area but I did write Lab Procedures and SOPs. I have some knowledge in business writing such as business letter, employee handbooks, mission statements, etc. I have a B. S. in Chemistry, minor in Mathematics, Master in Business Administration, and Master of Science in Accountancy. I’ve learned how to write better in my MBA classes. My background is in science, health care, and sales. I am good at editing. Since my background is not in English, I am not sure how I can attract someone’s attention in this area.

  • Ariana says:

    I have always loved writting with a pen and just writting about anything in general i have a strong interest typing on computers and really believe that this is my dream career that i want to do for myself how would i start and what qualifications would i need to enter the job of my dreams

  • Jeff Young says:

    I sincerely desire a technical writing career, whether as an employee or freelance. My problem is that in spite of all my research, I am still not certain how to proceed. I really need a mentor to show me the ropes. I don’t even know how much to charge for a freelance assignment.

    I have a business degree from a well-known university. Subsequent, I amassed decades of technical writing experience from work assignments while serving in the military and later for civilian manufacturing companies. Typically these organizations did not employ technical writers although it would have been in their best interest. Normally these organizations waiting until someone joined who demonstrated very good English verbal and written skills. More, they were not resistant to taking on additional work beyond their official job duties. Yes, some organizations had individuals who could have done the writing but evaded the extra work one way or another. Enter myself. My bosses learned quickly that I could write English well. They also saw that I was, ‘can do’, and did not resist, evade, or complain of the extra work. They handed me the technical writing assignments. Often my bosses were fair and allowed me to do the writing assignments during work hours and not insist I do it on my off-time or on the weekends.
    My specialty has been, standing operating procedures, work processes and procedures, how-to manuals, instruction guidelines, training materials such as job booklets and tests. I’ve also written administrative documents. Now with all that experience I hope to become an official technical writer. But I need help and I am not in a position to pay someone to teach me. Can you advise?
    Thanks,
    Jeff

    • Malcolm Armstrong says:

      How did you go Jeff?
      I am interested as I have much the same experience as you have.
      Im just looking at technical writing as a job now as Ive just been make redundant.

      • Jeff Young says:

        I have been looking at Technical Writer job openings on the Internet. There’s a huge problem in what companies identify as a, ‘technical writer’. Many companies expect technical writers to be software programmers and web designers. Others post a job description that could only be filled if you had already worked at the company. Many are asking for unique software and program skills that are not related to technical writing but are part of the information database software systems of that company. I’ve read requirements to be trained in, SQL, ERP, SSL, RHNO, and other proprietary computer skills. It’s simply not enough to be a writer these days. Most of us technical writers simply use WORD, Adobe, EXCEL, maybe POWERPOINT, maybe VISIO, and that’s all we need to do technical writing but many companies have made it very limited in scope as to the necessary requirements of a technical writer. These companies may be looking for a long time. I’ve applied to a few companies seeking technical writers but have not heard back from a single one. It seems the best way to get a technical writer job is to work at some company as a clerk and learn their computer software systems then later apply as a technical writer. But it’s not a practical career path for your typical technical writer like you and me. I tried finding an established technical writer to glean the necessary information but haven’t found anyone. I tried through LinkedIn but no responses from those I contacted.

    • Melanie says:

      You ARE a technical writer! Those things you wrote about are very much in demand! Just because you do not have the actual TITLE does not mean you cannot pursue it. Beef up your resume to highlight what you WANT to do and GO FOR IT. You have nothing to lose by writing more do to this. You like writing, remember?
      ~m
      PS. Perhaps try USAJOBS.gov for your particular skills.

  • Matthew Trull says:

    In the spring of 2002 I came to the realization that I hated working retail. Having been laid off from a technical support job a couple of years before that, I had landed on anything that would pay the bills.

    With a strong desire for a career change but no idea what I wanted to pursue I visited the local Barnes & Noble and purchased “Careers for Dummies.” I spent the next couple of days working through the workbook style career fair and found that my interests and abilities pointed toward technical writing. I had never heard of technical writing, but reading the description of the career choice I was intrigued.

    I looked around a bit and found that one of the local universities offered a program for technical writing, so I signed up. About a year later I completed a Technical Writing Certificate Program through the University of Massachusetts.

    Once I finished the program I was revved and ready to go. I eagerly began my job search ready to start my new career. To my horror, every job posting I found online required a minimum of three years experience and a working knowledge of programs like RoboHelp. Unfortunately for me the tech writing program I took did not include the fancy software that was required for these jobs.

    Crushed I figured the next best thing would be to “get my foot in the door” of a company and try to move into a tech writing position from there. There I was back in an IT support position again. I began using what I’d learned about the elements of technical writing to rewrite the online documentation for the department, in my downtime. The people who had created the documentation on the intranet were definitely not tech writers, so I had a bunch of fun work to do during my downtime. It was GREAT!

    Unfortunately for me the company, one of the BIG corporations in America, didn’t see the value of having a tech writer on staff to create clear, efficient documentation for the help desk.

    Here I am again, unemployed due a “corporate restructure” with a strong desire to pursue tech writing, but I still lack any real, documented experience as well as the working knowledge of the tech writing software.

    What I did take away from that position is over ten years of help desk experience AND a bachelor’s degree in IT Management, for which the company paid. So, it’s back to the ‘ole drawing board.

    Now, I find that the job postings for Technical Writers include ridiculous requirements such as Flash, Javascript, and SQL! Why on earth should a tech writer need to write database code? Whatever happened to the good old days where tech writers just wrote clear, efficient, easy to read and understand, how-to documentation, and created some helpful diagrams?

    • Jeff Young says:

      Hi Matthew,

      in search of a career in technical writing, I’ve come across the same ridiculous software, computer language, graphics design requirements of various companies. These companies may not truly understand the role of a technical writer, or, are trying to economize by combining technical writing with software engineering, web design, programming, etc. Just as you and I discovered, how can the typical technical writer be certified in so many, non-technical writing computer language and programming requirements? Yes, I’ve seen technical writer job descriptions that ask for ERP, SQL, RHNO, Website design and programming, and a slew of other computer requirements. At my past manufacturing employers where I worked as a production or quality supervisor, the employers didn’t require I know anything beyond WORD, EXCEL, and PowerPoint, which was enough for technical writing, although ADOBE should be added. So I accomplished much technical writing at former employers while working as a supervisor. It seems to me the other companies would be better off diverting their IT and engineering people into technical writing assignments. The problem for them is, the very same IT and engineering people decline or deflect the technical writing assignments on the basis that it is not part of their job description and interferes with their official job duties and responsibilities.
      I have applied for technical writing jobs over the past 8 months without success. Companies are just too demanding over their peculiar technical writer, non-writing requirements. I suspect the only thing aspiring technical writers can do is to freelance, establishing themselves for hire in places like, Craigslist.org.

      Sincerely,
      Jeff Young

  • BAM says:

    Thanks for the info. I’ll definitely reread this a few times to help when I’m ready to get started.

  • Melanie says:

    I’ve been a technical editor/writer for 12 years. I have scanned the comments here and agree, each new job seems to require experience and a technical skill.

    I lucked out with my (now) job title by working for a temp agency. The original job was for an admin assistant and when they found out I could write, they YANKED me in; I had to learn really fast! I did not know the job title existed but have not been out of work since – also there are always head hunters looking for my skills. I’m blessed.

    Nerds/techies of all types do not like to write and if you can get the subject matter experts to explain things, and you can write and translate that to text, HTML, etc., you will be in demand. *I call it translating to HUMAN* Communication and people skills are definitely a must.

    I’d suggest you find a nerdy/technical skill that interests you and dig in. I’ve done manufacturing, medical device, research & development, pharmaceutical, and now I’m in IT. IT is very much in demand. It’s not exciting to learn but when writing about computer stuff, it’s really important to know the difference between writing MB and mb!

    Knowing grammar has helped me little in this field – anyone can google grammar rules these days and breaking the ‘rules’ is commonplace anyway. I’m worse at grammar and spelling than before I started. The goal is to be consistent, to communicate clearly, to write to your target audience, and to meet deadlines.

    Deadlines. That brings me to my last point…I think. 🙂 Process. You would do well to study process and task/time management. If you write a document, who reviews it? How many times? What workflow is used? How long do YOU need to review/write/revise?

    Fields that require similar skills include Quality Assurance (QA), Configuration Management (CM), and…*gasp* Administrative Assistant.

    I hope that helps.
    ~m

  • Megan says:

    I am extremely interested I becoming a technical writer. Do I need to have a degree to be expected to get a job doing it?
    I’m looking for a career that I can work until I am retirement age. I have spent the last few years doing physical labor or always being on my feet.
    I sincerely believe that writing for any type of job would be ideal. Not only because it is less physical but because I have a talent for writing.
    I have hope that after I am able to secure a job writing then one day I will take the time to write a book.
    I would appreciate any advice given to help give me an advantage and allow me to find the perfect job!

  • Jeron says:

    Hi,
    This is quite an informative post. Thank you. I’d love to delve into technical writing. Could you help me get started. I have an MBA in Project management

  • poorvi says:

    hi,
    I want s to start technical writing. Can you suggest me few sample ideas I could add in my portfolio? I have 2 years of experience in IT industry.

  • ROZ says:

    I need recommendations for the best online techinal writing programs.

    I have worked in social services for almost 15 years and looking for a career change (ASAP). I have an BLS in Human Resource Management. I graduated almost 20 years ago and seem to be stuck in my current field of employment.

    I am a complete novice at tech writing; therefore, I need to acquire tech skills. I am interested in this field and need a mentor as well as respected program to attend. These programs can be costly , so I want to attend the most respected online program.

    I hope 🤞 to get an reply because I could use the advice.

    Thanks in advance

  • Sakshi Sharma says:

    Hi,
    I have worked as a Java Application Developer earlier. Want to give a fresh start to my career as a Technical Writer . Can you please refer some useful sample technical documents for the purpose.
    Your help will be very useful.

  • Alex Hughes says:

    Excellent advice!

    I’ll add to this that another good source of work early on can be language service providers. I landed my first technical writing job through Lionbridge and was able to gain experience with a very high-profile company.

    If you’re just starting out, then seek out providers that specifically offer technical writing services in addition to other language services. They have the connections to help you gain experience at large companies, which can translate into an amazing portfolio.

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