Who you are
If you’re reading this, then I am going to assume three things about you:
- You can write reasonably well.
- You have some computer skills.
- You are seriously considering technical writing as a career.
If those don’t apply to you, then this may not be the right place for you. Now, on to the tips.
Research local technical writer jobs
Take a look at the job listings in your area. Use Indeed, Dice, Monster, LinkedIn, and any local sites that might be of help. Look up technical writer and junior technical writer jobs. You should also want to look at content writer jobs. If you have limited local options, try the nearest major city. Look at what the job requirements are, especially when it comes to tools. I contracted for years, and many times the entire reason I got the contract was that I knew the tools they used in-house. The other reason to look at job listings is you’ll get a feel for what they want you to do every day.
Read the flipping manuals
RTFM is a common technical writer acronym. It means Read the Flipping Manual, except of course they don’t say flipping. Read as many software manuals, guides, and quick starts as you can find. Get a feel for the writing style. You’ll find a lot of variation in style and quality out there. Get used to it, and learn to spot good writing.
Learn how to write a procedure
Step-by-step procedures are the bread and butter of software documentation. Luckily, it is not a hard form to master, and you’ll see it almost everywhere once you start looking for it. you can find some guidelines in the next step.
Study the Microsoft Style Guide
As you learn to write software documentation, there are a lot of little rules to learn about word choice, presentation, and overall writing style. The Microsoft Style Guide isn’t the only style guide out there, but it is used in a lot of places, and better yet, it’s free and available online.
Find a piece of software to write about
There are literally hundreds of thousands of pieces of software out there, and most of them have little or no documentation. Start with something small that you can create a whole set of documentation around. The goal is to build a portfolio that shows you can do the work. Also, you need practice. I would recommend starting with an application on a computer because it is easier to use some of the other tools you’ll need to master, but it is possible to use a phone or tablet app. You’ll just need to transfer images to your computer so you can do the other work.
Pick a writing tool that you will master
There are many writing tools to use. You can start with Microsoft Word, but there are also more complex tools such as Confluence, Madcap Flare, RoboHelp, Drupal, WordPress, and the mother of all technical writing tools, Framemaker. This is why it is good to look at technical writing jobs near you to figure out what the local companies are asking for. If all else fails though, stick with Microsoft Word. In fact, it is good to learn all of the Microsoft Office tools, because almost every office uses them in some capacity. On the Mac, you might look into Pages or Scrivener, but Microsoft Office is on the Mac too. They’re everywhere.
Pick a graphics tool that you will master
It is really good to have some mastery of a graphics tool. My top recommendation here is Snagit, a tool that is focused on working with screen captures. As a technical writer, that is going to be one of your primary uses for a graphic tool. There are lots of other tools to try out, ranging from a free tool like Gimp to more expensive tools such as PhotoShop and Canva. This is one area where companies rarely use a Microsoft tool. On the Mac side, I still recommend Snagit, but you can get started with their basic photo tools.
Pick a presentation tool that you will master
This is an area where Microsoft Office shines. PowerPoint is a very popular program and actually a pretty good one too. If you want to move up to a higher level, try Articulate Storyline and Rise, or Adobe Premiere. On the Mac side, Keynote is the default tool and does a good job.
Get on LinkedIn and post your projects
If you don’t already have a LinkedIn profile, get one. Even if you have no relative work experience yet, add a position as Freelance Technical Writer as of this date. This is not a lie. As of today, you are looking for freelance work as a writer. You’re going to find some too, but more on that later. For now, post anything you are working on for your portfolio to the Featured section of your profile. You can post virtually anything, from links to blog posts or videos to uploaded PDFs, PowerPoints, and almost anything else that can be displayed. This is going to be your public portfolio. As you get better, remove the weakest ones, but try to always have at least a top-three featured items people can view. The more quality work you can post, the better.
This is one area where it pays to get a LinkedIn Premium account, and you can usually get a free trial for 30 days. LinkedIn Premium offers online classes in Technical Writing and virtually every tool you would use as a technical writer. The best part is, once you complete the courses, they will be listed in your LinkedIn profile. As with portfolio items, the more certifications and classes you can list, the better you’ll look.
Get on Fiverr or another site and pick up small jobs
Remember how I said you were going to find work? This is the part where you do that. There are lots of online freelancer sites. I recommend Fiverr as a start, but with a little research, you can find plenty of others. List yourself and put yourself up for any jobs related to technical writing. Yes, the pay is going to be low, low, low, but any paid work makes you a paid professional, and each new project gives you something to post to your portfolio on LinkedIn.
Apply for bigger jobs
While you build up your resume and portfolio through small jobs, keep an eye on the market and apply for anything that you feel like you might get an interview for. More than anything, look for jobs where your tools skills match their list. No, you probably won’t be hired for a full-time job on your first try, but every interview is a chance to learn more about what companies are looking for. Meanwhile, continue to pick up those smaller gigs, and as your skills increase, raise your prices a little bit at a time.
When I first decided I wanted to be a technical writer, it took me two years to move from freelance work to a regular gig. This was the early nineties. Most people thought America Online was the internet. The tools we have today just weren’t available. With persistence, you can move to a technical writing career pretty quickly.