Monday, March 10, 2008

Breaking into Technical Writing

By Susan Bilheimer (Guest blogger)

Would you like to earn steady, dependable income as a writer?

If you answered yes, consider technical writing. It isn't sexy, and it won't make you famous. But working as a technical writer has provided me with an excellent, steady income, and greatly increased my creative writing skills.

The field of technical writing is exploding, due to the need to keep up with advancing technology, so there are plenty of opportunities. After all, SOMEBODY has to write the instructions for all the products and services we use. And age is NOT an issue! I began my technical writing career in my 40s, and know plenty of technical writers who began in their 50s.

In 2004, according to the Society for Technical Communication (from the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Outlook Handbook), the median annual salary for entry level technical writers was $42,500. The median annual salary for midlevel nonsupervisory technical writers was $51,500, and for senior nonsupervisory technical writers, $66,000. Rates for contractors are always higher at each level. In fact, I've earned as much as $38/hour.

While you do need good writing skills and the ability to communicate instructions clearly to become a technical writer, you do not need a specialized degree or certification. And you can begin in this field at any stage of your life. While some technical writing jobs will be way above your skill level (I’d never write a medical or legal manual, for instance), there are many types of documentation that may fit in with your own background (for instance, a former HR professional could write a Human Resources manual or a former accountant could write the documentation for a new Accounts Payable system).

Here's the best news: more and more, technical writers telecommute ... every writer's dream. In fact, I’ve worked remotely part-time or full-time since 2000. But don't get too excited yet. You will most likely have to earn this privilege by establishing your reputation first.

So, how DO you break into the field?

First, look at existing examples of technical writing, such as the Help section of programs you use, or even your car's owners' manual. You'll soon find that technical writing is simply documenting steps clearly.

Next, think about instructional writing experience you may have. If you've never written instructional material, do some on your current job. Volunteer to write instructions on office procedures, a quick-start guide for the voicemail system, or a how-to article for the company newsletter. If you aren’t currently working, I’ll bet you can get an opportunity if you offer to provide such services for free to a local business or non-profit organization.

Next, rewrite your resume, adding in this new experience. (But ALWAYS be honest. You’ll inevitably be tripped up if you don’t. It’s not worth the embarrassment.)

You'll need two copies of your resume. One will be nicely formatted. You'll present this resume to potential employers or when you mail the resume. The other must be saved as text. This is the copy you'll place online. (TIP! Use asterisks [*] instead of bullets in the Text Only copy.)

Next, the job hunt begins. Most job opportunities for technical writers are located online (see listings below), but newspaper Help Wanted sections are also a source. Check the online website for your local newspapers for jobs.

Here are some suggested web sites:
  • CareerBuilder
  • Monster
  • Dice
  • Jobsearch
  • ComputerWork
  • Guru
Since these are technology-oriented sites, entering "writer" in the search box will return technical writing jobs. Tip: You may even think about putting yourself on www.elance.com or even www.craigslist.com. Though there is a lot of competition, if your rates are reasonable enough, someone may just give you a chance.

Many sites allow you to place your resume online. Be prepared to spend some time (about 45 minutes) filling out questions on the forms. Once your resume is online, it's very likely that you will receive calls or emails from recruiters requesting more information, and maybe an interview, even if you are just starting out! Remember, recruiters make money by getting you hired and are hungry to find good talent.

So if you have writing talent, open your mind and increase your income by becoming a technical writer!

For more information on becoming a technical writer, check out Susan Bilheimer's website, www.becomeatechnicalwriter.com

6 comments:

Bill Gruener said...

Susan's post is on the money. The salary and hourly rates are within an accurate range, depending on the region--Silicone Valley, Boston, Oklahoma, etc. Her estimate of 45 minutes needed per online application is realistic; I'm pleased to see another person spent as much time as I did. She's correct about the age issue. I became a technical writer in my mid-fifties and returned to school to earn a masters degree in technical writing. I even was a college intern at Sun Microsystems--what a hoot having beer blasts with dudes younger than my kids.

Two resources lightly mentioned are the Society for Technical Communication (STC) at www.stc.org and the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA)at www.amwa.org. Both organizations have local chapters, and members are eager to help others interested in the profession. The local chapters can give insights into the job market in the local area. Note: some chapters are more active than others so you may be pleasantly surprised or a little disappointed.

Susan also didn't mention further education or certificates. I recommend considering some retraining. Employers are looking for previous experience or degrees. Ah, that previous experience gotcha! If you haven't done any official technical writing, consider volunteering or interning for free. By working, if for free, you'll build a portfolio, and you'll get experience with the major word processing, graphics, help authoring, and other technical writing oriented tools.

If breaking into the area be prepared to fight for the job. Try to keep contacts face to face. Network aggressively. Plan on fighting if you're switching because your resume will be short on technical writing experience and quick into the HR recruiter's recycling basket. The networking activities will be aided by joining the local chapter of STC or AMWA. Then, you'll have someone who knows someone--six degrees of separation.

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Sanders46 said...

Thank you so much for this information! Having always loved writing - both creative, technical, academic, etc. - and now being an RN in my 40s I only recently became aware of medical writing and it is made for me! However, I had no idea how to break into this field and your article was well worth the read and chock-full of usefull information. THANKS!!!

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yashodha patil said...

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