Tips for Embarking on a Career in Technical Writing

May 31, 2012

I was recently invited to give a guest lecture to students at the University of Limerick (UL) in Ireland who are studying technical communication. The university offers a range of part-time and full-time courses in this area both for undergraduate and post-graduate students, including the popular, industry-focused M.A. in Technical Communication and E-Learning. As a former graduate of UL, and somebody who was involved in teaching technical communication there, the idea of my lecture was simply to share some insights from my journey thus far with the students. I spoke about some of the projects I’ve worked on, tools I’ve worked with, how the transition to Agile development affected me as a writer, and what it’s like to work as part of a virtual team. I finished by giving the students some tips to consider if they decide to embark on technical writing career.

Patrice Fanning founder of TWi shares technical writing career tips

TWi founder, Patrice Fanning, shares her technical writing career tips

Tips for Your Technical Writing Career

I thought it might be worthwhile to share some of my technical writing career tips here, as I’ve noticed a number of requests for this type of advice from newbies on technical writing forums and LinkedIn groups.

Have a Good CV and Sample Documents

It seems like the most obvious advice in the world, but you would be amazed at how many people submit applications for technical writing jobs that are poorly written and include typos and grammatical errors. If you can’t do a good job of writing and editing a CV and cover letter, it’s unlikely any employer will trust you with their technical documentation.

You will typically be asked to submit samples of your work or take a test to assess your writing and editing skills. At TWi, we do both. You’ve been warned, so be prepared for this! If you’ve just gone through a university programme, chances are you’ve spent a lot of time on certain assignments. Pick one you got a good grade in, incorporate any changes recommended by the lecturer who corrected it, and have it ready to submit to potential employers on request.

Understand the Importance of Team

From my experience, graduates have a tendency to focus solely on their own performance. This stands to reason when you consider that university degrees are awarded based on each individual’s grades. Teamwork is not widely recognised within most education systems. A career in technical writing, on the other hand, is based around collaborating and working well with others.

As part of a technical writing team, you may be expected to edit other people’s writing and allow them to edit yours. It’s good to be open to feedback and constructive criticism from the outset. Remember that your peers and mentors are not trying to attack you personally if they suggest changes to your work – they’re simply trying to improve your writing skills and the consistency and overall quality of the deliverables produced by the team.

Even if you work in a company where you are the only technical writer, you’ll have to work closely with developers, designers, engineers, solution managers, translators, sales and marketing people, and others. If you can demonstrate a positive attitude towards teamwork during the recruitment process, you will enjoy considerably more success in your technical writing career.

Get Used to Multi-Tasking and Meeting Deadlines

A key trait that employers look for in technical writers is the ability to deliver on time, every time. Technical writers are constantly faced with deadlines and juggling assignments. The deadlines are usually tight, so you need to be organised and structure your workload in such a way that you manage to complete all of your tasks on time.

In the case of software development, writers often have to wait until the software has been fully developed to complete the documentation. They only have a very small window after development close however, before the documentation has to be passed over to translation and of course production so that it’s included in the customer shipment along with the software itself.

The trick is to start work early and get as much writing done as possible on the different deliverables before development finishes. Try to get into the habit of setting milestones for your college assignments and working on a few of them in parallel to test your ability to meet deadlines. Talk to potential employers about this if you’re called to an interview. It can be difficult but, like most things, with practice it gets easier!

Focus on Tool Features Rather than any Specific Tool

From my perspective, having technical writing skills is far more important than knowing how to work with Author-It, Confluence, Adobe Framemaker, WordPress, or any other tool du jour. No university programme is going to teach you how to work with every tool on the market. Even if it did, new tools are developed all the time, so your knowledge would become outdated very quickly. Additionally, a lot of the bigger companies have developed their own proprietary tools, which you can’t learn to work with until they hire you.

I’d recommend spending some time researching what functionality the leading tools offer so that you understand how they can help you to do your job. I’ve worked with many tools over the years and find that you can pick them up easily by using the built-in help system or going through tutorials and other training material to find out how to use the features you expect it to have.

If you do want to invest time learning to work with one specific tool, I would recommend choosing one that enables structured XML authoring. The advantages of using XML (such as content reuse, single sourcing, and documentation consistency) are covered extensively elsewhere, so I’m not going to go into them here.

Use the Internet and Social Media to Learn About Industry Trends

I’m a relatively new convert to LinkedIn, Twitter, and other forms of social media, having only really started to take an interest from a career perspective just over a year ago. Even in that short amount of time, it’s amazing how many interesting people I’ve connected with. This includes experts in different areas of technical communication and based in different parts of the world.

It’s never too early to start building a network of contacts in the industry and learning from them. I would recommend looking out for some of the highly experienced individuals who share their knowledge openly and free-of-charge through:

Demonstrate a Hunger for Knowledge

Over the course of a technical writing career you’re constantly expected to learn new things and transfer that knowledge to others. You will typically spend as much time researching new topics and interviewing experts to gather information for a project as you will actually writing.

If the idea of continuous learning doesn’t appeal to you, you may want to consider another career. On the other hand, if you can show a potential employer that you are curious about their products and services and eager to find out all about them, it will go a long way towards convincing them you’re the right person for the job. Never underestimate the power of a positive attitude!

And to finish on a positive note, I thought I’d let you know that if you choose a career as a technical writer, you’re making a great choice! And I’m not the only one who thinks it – choose a technical writing career and you’re entering the 37th best job according to a 2012 Careercast 200 tops jobs survey.

I hope you find these tips helpful and I wish you the best of luck as you embark on your journey!

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