Technical Writers in Demand, Mix Experience and Education Before Applying

This post was contributed by Kelly Kilpatrick, who writes on the subject of online colleges and universities. She invites your feedback at kellykilpatrick24 at gmail dot com.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 49,000 technical writers in the United States last year. They also say job prospects are best for technical writers over all other types of writers. So, why are so many people just coming out of college with technical communications degrees having a tough time landing that first job? It can be completely frustrating for both new graduates and prospective employers who have vacancies and feel the talent just isn’t there.

Let’s look at some of the skills and education required for technical writers and then examine why entry-level technical writing jobs are few and far between.

Some of these include:

A degree or certification in technical communications.

Often a background in another technical field such as engineering or science and may specialize in a technical area where they have expertise.

An ability to create, assimilate and convey technical material in a concise and effective manner.

In technical writing, even more than in other fields and industries, you need experience to get the job. A technical communications degree is a very good start but many companies (often led by engineers) doing this sort of hiring see writers as ill-equipped for the job and seek a more technical background to “prove” they can handle the job. Writing skills aren’t enough and even knowing the lingo and the software used are often not enough. So, what’s a new technical writer to do?

Here are some ideas:

If you can, take some engineering or computer science classes. If you’ve already graduated, take some continuing education classes to bolster your knowledge.

Offer to do a small project on spec (unpaid) for a company, or seek out volunteer work, such as documentation for an open source software project. You get a portfolio piece if nothing else and the company or organization for whom you did it may be willing to keep you around if they like what you’ve done.

If you’re a more creative type, learn how engineers work and think. They are very linear, literal and see few gray areas in anything. If you can learn how to talk to them in their language, you’ll be more successful.

Like anyone starting a new profession, you’ll need to take smaller or lower-paying jobs in the beginning as you build your portfolio and gain experience. This takes time, but if you decide you can stick it out, you’ll find a wealth of opportunities in a field that’s got nowhere to go but up.

5 Comments

  • December 9, 2008 - 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Timely post Anne, and very true! We’ve been struggling with this at my current employer, as management is trying to ‘foist’ some Marketing input on our technical writing projects, and not for the right reasons. We all value the different perspectives different writers bring, but the one thing we can agree on is that we don’t want to have marketing copy inside a software user interface! :-) We keep having to give reasons to management why you want a technical writer to write the content that shows up in a software UI rather than a marketing writer, so this will help me in our battle! haha. Cheers.

  • December 10, 2008 - 3:46 pm | Permalink

    Julia, I disagree with you…kind of.

    From my perspective, our profession has diminished until writing is simply filling in blanks, and more people pride themselves on their tools’ skills than what they bring an end user.

    There’s a place for that (i.e., India), but I would like to see a new level of creativity introduced to technical writing–a new generation of documentation that’s engaging in a way we’ve never been engaging before. Imagine documentation that was as alluring as watching TV… so that prospects would want to read it, even when it’s intended for customers.

    I think we could stop being a necessary evil, and start bringing new levels of business benefit to companies.

    In that way, I think we should bring some marketing perspective to technical writing. Only…I think we should be leading the way as a profession rather than become robots for the marketing department. (That’s where I agree whole-heartedly with you. Never really want Marketing writing your copy.)

    I know the comments section on Anne’s blog is probably no place to start my campaign to change the outlook of the entire profession, but it’s been on my mind ;) Thanks for the outlet, JRC!

  • December 10, 2008 - 4:45 pm | Permalink

    Good point Cat. I work for a software company and in addition to writing help, I also create feature demos. I focus the demos on showing end users how to work with a feature, but the demos also act as great marketing tools for our sales people. For example, they can show these demos to prospective clients without scheduling a full product demo (which involves travel and more of the client’s time).

    I find that when technical writers have more to offer beyond traditional writing, they’re worth more to the company. To me, it’s all documentation in some form. I’m still guiding users, structuring content, etc. I’m just providing different output types.

    New writers looking for work can always create tutorials for software to show off their skills. A simple tutorial on how to add a TOC to a Word doc is a great example. Then create a job aid to go with your tutorial. Sometimes you have to build your portfolio from anything you can get. And this doesn’t change once you get a job. Most of my work is protected by NDA so I can’t use my latest work in my portfolio, even though I have years of experience.

  • December 11, 2008 - 12:24 pm | Permalink

    @Rachel

    Exactly! I’ve also created feature demos used in sales/internal training/documentation. We knew we were successful because the same people who never had time to read a tutorial were sneaking the demos to each other before release.

    I have come to think the most interesting problem in our work is engaging users. I hope for a future where marketing, creativity, and building audience count for as much as, or more than, how many years of experience you have with Framemaker and Robohelp.

  • Deb
    August 18, 2010 - 10:50 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for both this article and the comments. As an adult thinking of earning a Masters in Technical Writing, I really appreciate the input!

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