The Answer Lady: Landing the First Technical Writing Job

Editor’s Note: Rachel Houghton begins her role as TechWhirl’s Answer Lady, ready to provide readers with advice on working in the technical writing field. Send your questions to AnswerLady@TechWhirl.com.

I am a new technical writer with an English degree. I currently work in administration, and I am looking for work in the technical writing field. Any advice?

answer lady - first technical writing job

copyright 2013, Rachel Houghton

I’ve found that most employers don’t want just a writer with a technical degree, though there are those kinds of employers. For instance, there are some companies that prefer writers with electrical engineering degrees. Most employers look for candidates with a degree in English, Communications, or Journalism (all majors that show you can write in some form), and a few even specify a technical writing or scientific communication degree. However, one class on Technical Writing from community college will not suffice. At the least, you need a certificate program (a number of community colleges have a technical writing certificate program), or a course of study (with coursework that can be used for a portfolio) that shows your aptitude.

If I was just starting out, I’d also add training or education in “training” or course development software such as Camtasia, Captivate, or Articulate.

Look at this recent job listing for a junior level technical (or a new college grad) job that requires technical or engineering knowledge. The responsibilities section lists some fairly common tasks, and the qualifications section outlines the requirements necessary to do the job. Notice that the only “engineering” requirement is the first bullet, the rest is applicable to most job descriptions. A good rule of thumb is “the higher in the bullet list the requirement is, the more important the requirement” – so we can see that the engineering knowledge is the most important qualification.

We are looking for a self-motivated individual who works well in teams.  Your specific responsibilities will include but are not limited to the following:

  • Ensure all necessary product documentation is produced and published in a timely manner and adheres to the  company’s quality standards of accuracy, thoroughness, readability, usefulness, consistency, and organization
  • Edit peer documents
  • Seek and recommend new tools and technology to improve document development process
  • Research engineering documents to produce user-friendly documentation

The successful candidate’s minimum qualifications will include the following:

  • Engineering degree with technical writing experience or an English or Technical Writing degree with strong technical background or equivalent
  • Excellent written and spoken English
  • Good analytical and teamwork skills
  • English Language Competency: Ability to clearly and concisely communicate in English (verbal and written) so that persons you work with can understand you clearly, particularly in technical conversation

The first step to a successful career in technical communication is laying the foundation with skills that can be applicable from job to job, no matter what tools or specific knowledge the employer or client wants. Landing your first technical writing job will set you on the path. The skills and qualifications listed above are representative of most employers, but there may be variations based on industry.

Rachel Houghton

Rachel has been taking photos as a serious amateur since she got her first camera at the age of 16 - a Canon AE-1 Program. She has a Nikon D100, a Nikon D7000, and is anxiously awaiting the new (as yet unannounced) Nikon D400. She's a technical writer, specializing in software documentation and online help, with more than 14 years of technical communication experience. She is a former Secretary for the Society for Technical Communication (STC), past program chair of the STC Technical Communication Summit, and is actively involved in the STC Willamette Valley community and reviews books for the STC journal, Technical Communication. She enjoys photography and Photoshop. Find Rachel on Twitter @rjhoughton or view her photos on Flickr at http://www.flickr.com/photos/rhoughton.

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