Getting a Technical Writing Job, Even If You Have No Experience

Technical writing jobs can be hard to get if you have little or no experience. But there are things you can do to improve your chances of getting hired.

Join the STC
First of all, if you have not already done so, join the Society for Technical Communication (STC), the professional organization for technical communicators.

While this in itself will not get you a technical writing job, it will bring you into contact with many people who can help you in your career. Networking is a far more effective method for finding work than flooding the marketplace with your résumé. Nevertheless, many employers list their current technical writing job openings only with their local STC chapter; therefore, you will have access to a greater number of job opportunities if you are a member.

Technical writers in India might prefer to join the Technical Writers of India (TWIN), which lists a huge number of job opportunities.

Search Jobs Online
Many employers never advertise their jobs. Rather, they hire people through word of mouth or they hire agencies to do their recruiting for them. In turn, these agencies often post career opportunities with the online job search engines. To find them, type search jobs city (where city is the name of your preferred location) in the search box of your favorite search engine. One particularly good job-search site for North American technical writers is Dice.

Create an Error-Free Résumé
Ensure that your résumé is error-free. Even if you are an excellent speller, for example, do a spell check on your document before you send it to anyone. Also, search for words that are spelled correctly, but that are nevertheless incorrect. For example, I invariably type "form" instead of "from" and "manger" instead of "manager." Ensure that your grammar is correct and do be consistent about punctuation, particularly at the end of bulleted lists.

There are many web sites on the subject of résumé creation. If your attempts to get a job interview fail, you might wish to consult one of them. In any event, show your résumé to a friend or relative. This person will quite likely see problems that you have missed.

Many companies prefer that you send them a copy of your résumé in Microsoft Word. If so, make sure that you know how to use the software because the potential employer will look closely at your résumé to see how you have formatted it. Formatting errors such as unnecessary tab stops, oddly aligned tables, and the use of paragraph returns to create white space will all show you off as someone who does not know how to use the tools of the trade.

Write Grammatically
If you do have difficulty writing grammatically, you might find technical writing boring and unsatisfying. That said, few writers have perfect grammar; therefore, as with anything, do not let a little uncertainty and a handful of imperfections prevent you from pursuing your goals. Besides, good grammar is a skill, not a talent. You can improve your grammar! Unfortunately, grammar texts tend to be awfully dull and I can think of a hundred books I'd rather read. However, The Elements of Style is actually fun to read. Fowler's Modern English Usage is also fun to read, though perhaps not from cover to cover. The Complete Plain Words has, among its other qualities, many amusing examples of poor writing. Finally, the website Lynch's Guide to Grammar and Style is delightfully entertaining as well as informative.

All of Your Writing Experience Counts
If you have no technical writing experience, other types of writing experience will be taken into consideration when you apply for a job. Thus, if all or most of your essays at college netted you grades of A- and above, make sure that you mention this in your résumé. If you've had a letter printed in the newspaper, find some way to mention it. If you were the poetry editor of your university's magazine, say so! All of your writing experience counts, whether you were paid for the work or not.

Know Thy Software
Just as important as a little writing experience is the ability to use the software. You should know how to use Microsoft Word. If a company requires knowledge of FrameMaker, for example, and you know only Word, do not let this prevent you from applying for the job. If you know how to use Word well--and I mean really well--you will be able to apply that knowledge to the other tool.

What do I mean by really well? Well, you should know how to create the following:

  • a chapter whose first page is different from its remaining pages
  • right- and left-hand pages
  • three heading levels
  • running heads
  • numbered lists
  • white space, using the Style dialog
    Here, white space refers to the space above and below a paragraph, and to the left and right indents. White space is also created with the page-margin settings.
  • tables and captions
  • a graphic surrounded by a border and vertically aligned with the text above and below it
  • page breaks and section breaks
  • headers and footers, some with page numbers in Roman numerals, others with Arabic page numbers
  • cross-references
  • a table of contents showing two to three heading levels
  • an index

Create a Sample Book
If you are just starting out, it is quite likely that you don't know how to create all of the elements described above. Consulting Word's help files will tell you how to do all them, of course, but potential employers won't know that you know unless you provide them with a document that shows off all your knowledge. The next thing you should do, therefore, is create a sample book that contains all of the elements listed above. Choose a subject you know well.

Your sample book does not necessarily have to be technical, but, since most technical writing jobs require that you write instructions, it must contain a couple of easy-to-understand step-by-step procedures. Start by making a list of things you know how to do well. Here are some ideas:

  • growing orchids
  • tuning up bicycles
  • balancing checkbooks and paying bills
  • searching Microsoft's Knowledge Base
  • buying and cleaning oriental carpets
  • composting with worms
  • making perfect pastries

The primary goal of the sample document is not to show off your technical knowledge. Rather, it is to show that you know how to format a document and that you can write instructions that are easy to understand. The ultimate goal is to prove to a potential employer that, if they hire you, the only thing you will have to learn is how to use their product.

Your sample book should contain the following elements:

  • cover page
  • title page
  • table of contents
  • introduction
  • two or more procedures
  • glossary
  • index
  • back cover

Keep everything as simple as possible. Use only two fonts: a sans serif font (Arial, for example) for the headings, table text, headers, and footers, and a serif font (Times New Roman, for example) for everything else. You may use four heading levels within the document, but use no more than three heading levels in the table of contents. Ensure that the table of contents, index, and cross-references are electronically generated — do not hard-code them.

You will find more information about book design in The Chicago Manual of Style. Also, Word 97 Annoyances provides excellent information about working with any version of Microsoft Word.

Create a PDF File For Free
Once you have completed your sample book, save it as a PDF file. If you don't own Adobe Acrobat, you can go to Adobe and create up to ten PDF files there for free.

When you are called in for an interview with a potential employer, take with you a copy of your sample book, printed on both sides of the paper. Also, take a copy of the electronic source file of your sample book. You will be able to demonstrate how you designed your sample book, pointing out, of course, all the elements you are particularly proud of. Be aware, though, that any formatting errors will be more visible in the electronic version of your document than in the paper version.

Work for Free
Nothing beats real experience, even if you don't get paid for it. Consider joining the GNU Writing Movement or contributing your writing skills to OpenOffice.org, where you can write real technical documents for real software applications.

Ace the Editing Test
At some interviews you will be required to pass a test, the length and difficulty of which depend on the employer. If you are given an editing test of just a short paragraph, assume that the person interviewing you is the person who wrote it.

If the paragraph is badly written, do not say so. Correct it as well as you can and be prepared to justify why you made those changes. In this situation, it helps if you know the rules of grammar because you can use them to minimize the sting of your corrections. So, rather than saying, "This is not very well written," you can say something like, "This sentence contains a misplaced modifier. I've corrected it by reversing the clauses." If, however, the paragraph is well written, say so, but mention why you think it is well written. You can say something like, "In this type of sentence, I often see this kind of error. The author has clearly taken care to avoid it by doing x instead of y."

In an editing test you will often see sentences that are ambiguous. Since you cannot be sure which meaning is correct, write down all the meanings as possible corrections.

Longer tests can be quite difficult. You might be asked to format a document, create a table of contents, a table caption, and some cross-references. Thank goodness you created your sample book--you'll have no problem with this kind of test.

Other tests require you to rewrite a complex text. If the text is full of acronyms or technical words that mean nothing to you, you might find the test easier to handle if you replace the incomprehensible words with words that you do understand. For example, if the text says "The OC-1 Delivery Unit is a system that supplies point-to-point DS-1 channels from one location to another," you might understand it better if you think of it as, say, "The water-delivery unit is a system that supplies house-to-house water hoses from one location to another." When understood like this, it is easier to see the problems with the sentence. You might rewrite it as "The water-delivery unit supplies water from one location to another through a house-to-house hose system." You can now correct the original sentence to read "The OC-1 Delivery Unit supplies DS-1 signals from one location to another through a point-to-point channel system."

If the test includes a long passage of several pages, edit the text first and then look for the following formatting problems:

  • paragraphs that do not end with a period
  • sentences that do not begin with a capital letter
  • inconsistent final punctuation in bulleted lists
  • non-parallel structure in lists
  • problems with vertical alignment in lists
  • inaccurate numbering in numbered lists
  • misaligned decimals in a list of numbers
  • changes in paragraph justification
  • changes in margin widths
  • inconsistent page numbering
  • errors in cross-references
  • parentheses or quotations that are missing the closing bracket or quotation mark
  • word repetition at the end of one line and the beginning of the next
  • extra spaces between words
  • changes in font and font size

Be Prepared for the Interview
If you have made it to the interview stage, it means that the employer, having reviewed and rejected many resumes, has selected you as someone who has the skills and experience they are looking for. The purpose of the interview, therefore, is not to confirm your skills and experience; rather, it is to learn something about your personality, demeanor, and work ethic. No employer wants to hire someone who might annoy other employees or make the company look bad. Interview questions are designed to discover if you are lazy, negative, or just plain weird. Of course, if you are unprepared for the interview, you might appear lazy, negative, or just plain weird, even if you are none of those things. How to Answer 23 of the Most Common Interview Questions provides excellent advice on succeeding at this challenging phase of your job search.

Still Haven't Found a Technical Writing Job?
Technical writer Darren Barefoot suggests that you complete an internship.

In an internship, you work for a company for a specified period of time for little or no remuneration. Internships are frequently offered through colleges or universities, but there is no reason why you should not set one up yourself. First identify the companies you'd like to work for; then contact their Human Resources departments to see if they are interested in obtaining two months of free labor. Many companies will respond positively. At the end of your indenture, you will be able to ask for a letter of reference. You might even find yourself being offered a full-time job!

Caveat: I hope that the information in this article helps you to find work in technical writing. I regret that it does not guarantee that you will.

Did you get the job? Find out what you can expect in your technical writing career.

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