Breaking into Technical Writing
October 21, 1999
There were three big things I took away from the invaluable seminar on technical writing given by Andreas Ramos of Brio Technology and Bruce Hartford, Secretary-Treasurer of the National Writer's Union. The most salient was that you don't have to have a technical background to get into technical writing and make the big bucks. In fact, people without technical backgrounds, not having lost touch with the common idiom, may actually be better at translating tech-speak into everyday English than are people with technical backgrounds.
The second thing I learned was that "big bucks" is an understatement. There is a fortune to be made in technical writing, with freelancers routinely charging $80-$100 an hour (or more!), and onsite technical writers loading up on stock options in addition to making very nice salaries.
The third big thing I took away from this meeting was that work abounds for technical writers. In fact, there is so much work to go around, employers are constantly scrambling to find people.
So what are we nontechnical writers waiting for? Well, who in his right mind would want to write a manual on HTML? Or UNIX? When I put this question to Andreas Ramos, a former philosopher, he said some projects are actually interesting, and the money you're making really makes up for those that are not. Bruce Hartford, a former longshoreman, agreed. (These guys were so candid!) Fair enough.
So how do you go from being a philosopher or a longshoreman to a technical writer? First, you've got to pick up the necessary skills and tools. You have to learn FrameMaker, Quark, RoboHELP, etc., and of course you have to be familiar with the Web and e-mail. The more hardware and software you are familiar with, the more marketable you will be. And being familiar with something doesn't mean you have to master it; it means you have to know the basics. Hartford says you can probably learn what you need know about a given application in a weekend.
The next thing you need to do is rewrite your resume and prepare it for online transmission:
Know that all resumes are put into a database, and when an employer or recruiter needs someone, they search the database by keywords. The more keywords in your resume, then, the more hits you'll get. Also, don't worry about limiting yourself to one page with online resumes—it's better to get it all in there.
The next thing you need to do is network. Network, network and network some more. The first thing an employer of technical writers does when she needs someone is to go to her friends. If you happen to be a friend of her friend, you'll get a call. The next thing an employer tends to do is go through professional associations, like the Society for Technical Communications (STC), the National Writer's Union (NWU), or our very own Bay Area Editors' Forum (BAEF). The more active you are in an association, the better.
When all else fails, an employer will go through recruiters or agencies. Since companies, which have limited budgets, have to pay recruiters a sizable fee, finding a job through one means having to work for less than if you had found the job by yourself.
For more information on technical writing, pick up a copy of the NWU's book on tech writing. Breaking into Technical Writing is loaded with links, addresses, and practical information. Order a print copy from the NWU's West Coast office or call 510.839.0110.