Advice about breaking into tech comm

Some time ago, a lab technician asked me how to go about breaking into technical communications. I’ve already replied to J privately, but I thought the issue could be of interest to you as well, so here’s J’s question and my reply, both edited for publication.

J wrote me:

I’ve recently become very interested in the Technical Communication field. Currently, I’m working as a lab technician for laboratory machinery which can sometimes be very difficult to operate.

I’ve been spending more and more of my time poring through technical instructions, talking to sales associates, and transcribing everything into easy-to-understand instructions to be used by my co-workers. This has expanded to the point where I break down complex laboratory procedures, peer-reviewed studies, etc. into something my co-workers can understand.

I really enjoy this sort of work and would like to make a full time career out of it. But I don’t know where to begin.

Ideally, I’d like to begin by doing this sort of writing as a freelance gig and slowly build up my business until it affords me a comfortable living.

What’s the best way to get started? Do tech comm writers typically work freelance or are they typically full-time employees for a particular company? Can you recommend any websites or books that might help me out? How do most people in the Technical Communication field make their money?

And I replied:

Hi, J,

From what you tell me, you’re on a very good way to becoming a technical communicator, for two reasons:

You focus on users. In my experience, it’s essential to have the right perspective in that job: To understand the users and to make sure they can do their jobs well. Many tech writers get bogged down by the systems they describe and their features, because they’re right in their faces. Of course, knowing these is important – but your first obligation should be to your users. They are your customers, whether they are inside your company or outside.

You have strong domain knowledge. Many tech comm’ers either have a strong writing background (and a liberal arts degree, like I do in American Studies), or they have, loosely speaking, an engineering background. You’ll find your background valuable in 3 ways:

  1. You’ll need it to get respect from your peers, whether you collect information from them or ask them to review your documents.
  2. You’ll gain trust from your readers/customers, when they realize you speak their language and know what you’re talking about.
  3. It will help you with managers who often appreciate domain knowledge over writing skills, if only because they think that “anybody can write”.

A general disclaimer before I go on: I’m afraid I don’t know the US job market nearly good enough to offer reliable advice. I’ve gone to school in the US, and know some tech comm’ers there, but I’ve never actually worked in the US. So I can’t really advise you on the freelance vs. employed question. My impression is that it seems to be pretty difficult to go the freelance route when you’re just starting out…

That said, there are really both scenarios:

  • Self-employed tech comm’ers often appreciate setting their own rates and hours and the mix of topics they cover. But it’s difficult to build a customer base that keeps paying your rent.
  • Employed tech comm’ers have a regular paycheck, but many complain about being awfully low on the corporate totem pole/food chain. Unless you establish good rapport and earn respect (which is hopfully easy for you thanks to the two reasons above), you might find that many colleagues and managers don’t really understand what you do, how you add value to the company.

Two books I’ve found especially helpful are:

  • Developing Quality Technical Information is good and relevant, even though it’s 7 years old. It’s basically a gigantic, well-argued check list with lots of good examples. If you only were to read a single book on tech comm, I recommend this one.
  • DITA Best Practices came out about half a year ago. This is a very good book if you publish any kind of online documentation, whether you follow the DITA standard or not. Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, and 10 are about topic-based authoring, specifically about designing, writing, linking and editing topics. It’s a very instructive hands-on book with lots of examples.

Online resources are plentiful, I recommend you start with:

  • Tom Johnson’s blog I’d rather be writing. He’s the most visible tech comm blogger and has been helpful in the past, answering questions about breaking into tech writing. Lately, he’s opened up a few such requests to communal answers. If you don’t get a direct answer from him, I think you’ll find his past posts and their comments helpful. Plus, he’s based in the US!
  • Social networks are nicely summed up and compared in Bill Albing’s post “How social can we go”. I like ATC and TWW.
  • Twitter is also a massive hangout for tech comm people. These two lists are a good start to follow us around.

I hope I could give you some ideas and helpful advice. I wish you good luck in what I think is an exciting profession!

All the best, Kai.

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6 Responses

  1. Hi Kai,

    Lots of great resources available at TechWhirl.com too!

    Connie Giordano

    • Thanks, Connie! Did you have anything particular in mind – or did you just want to point to techwhirl in general?

  2. Good answer, Kai. I would add that in addition to reading books and taking part in online interactions, newcomers should look for local in-person meetings and events. Local events are an opportunity to meet people (or to “network with your peers” if you prefer!), and to find out if there are any possible local job opportunities.
    There are professional associations for technical communicators in many countries, including STC in the USA, ISTC in the UK, and tekom in Germany, amongst others.

    • Oh, excellent advice, thank you, David!

      I guess the reason I neglected to mention local events is that, in my particular situation, the events I have attended were less helpful than the online networking and the conferences. But they can be very helpful for all the reasons you mention!

  3. […] Advice about breaking into tech comm at Kai's Tech Writing Blog […]

  4. Thanks Kai. I appreciate the mention of my blog. I do try to answer questions from students. In fact, I have a response about tools I’ll publish soon.

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