How to Use Volunteering to Get a Job in Technical Writing

No, really! You can use unpaid work to your advantage in your technical writing career search. Here’s how.

volunteer and land technical writing jobOne year ago, I graduated from Portland State University with a Master’s in Technical Writing, and set out into the world, sure that a career as a professional writer was within my grasp.

Then reality showed its ugly head – I was going into the expertise-heavy world of technical writing with a piece of paper and little practical experience. Every job listing included the soul-killing phrase “5-10 years of experience preferred”. Whenever I did get a job interview, I was told that while my skills were impressive, my employment record left something to be desired.

Then I found a pathway to getting a job in the unlikeliest of places – a volunteer position. The volunteer gig writing technical copy for a friend’s advertising company led to a more diverse portfolio, valuable connections to people working in the technical writing field and, miracle of miracles, actual paid work. The cliché of being “paid in experience” was not so ridiculous after all. Thanks largely to volunteer experience, I am on the right path to establishing a career as a technical writer.

Of course, volunteer jobs are not real jobs, and your search for paid employment must always come first. That said, volunteer positions can teach you the skills you need to be qualified for actual paid work, and the connections that can open the right doors. You can also use them to create as much portfolio content as you can, and use it toward your ultimate goal of finding paid work.

There is no magic formula for using volunteer work to get a job, but there are a number of ways you can start your career using volunteer experience. Check out a few ideas for getting started on the volunteer path and using it to get a technical writing job.

1. Do your homework

Research the companies and organizations you want to would like to work for, and find out how you can volunteer with them. Find out what services they provide, what connections they have to other companies in your area, and what kind of skills they want in an employee. Online resources such as volunteermatch.org, idealist.org, becomeatechnicalwriter.com and simplyhired.com offer tons of possibilities; you can also check out an organization’s website and look for opportunities to donate your time. The best places to volunteer will vary according to your area of interest; technical writing is a broad field, and different companies and organizations specialize in different things.

2. Get informational interviews

Once you have identified what companies and organizations you would like to volunteer and eventually work for, find out who does the hiring. (Recruiters are also an excellent resource, and can be found at networking sites like 52Limited.) Contact that person and arrange an informational interview – ask them how you can get connected with major companies and organizations in your industry, and how you can use those connections to get experience. Then, volunteer your services to them – say you’re just starting out in the industry and would love to help them out with any project, free of charge. They will likely be sympathetic – they were beginners once, too, after all – and at the very least point you in the right direction.

3. Make yourself indispensable

Once you have found a volunteer position, offer to do anything and everything they need done. No job is too big or too small. If you put your nose to the grindstone, you will learn a host of new skills and impress your way into a letter of recommendation or two. To get experience in a wide array of technical writing-related disciplines, you could join your local branch of the Society for Technical Communication (STC). I joined the Willamette Valley chapter just after graduating, and volunteered to do everything from user personas and technical research to writing copy for their fliers.  If you think it would look good on a resume, volunteer to do it.

4. Challenge yourself

No one is born an expert. If you are just starting out as a technical writer, you have a lot to learn and lots of skill sets to build. Volunteer positions offer opportunities to learn these skills, but you have to use those opportunities to the fullest.  For example, say you volunteer to create a technical report for a company or organization. Since such reports usually involve the use of charts, graphs and diagrams, this is a perfect chance to learn how to use Microsoft Visio and Adobe InDesign, which are both very marketable skills in the technical writing field. Whatever skill you need to learn, volunteer to take on a project that will give you the chance to master it.

5. Network

Once you begin volunteering for a company or organization, get to know as many people as you can; go to official functions, collect business cards, become a part of their social network, and ask for references. The technical writing field is a relatively small world, so the more people you know, the better. When it comes to finding employment opportunities, it is just as important who you know as what you know.

The prospect of doing unpaid work might seem unappealing at first; everyone has bills to pay, and it is only natural to want to make money as soon as you can. Nevertheless, you have to keep in mind that finding gainful employment is a process with many, many steps, and volunteer work can be an important step toward learning the skills you need to begin a career. If it worked for me, it may well work for you, too.

Michael Munkvold

Michael Munkvold is a graduate of Portland State University’s Technical Writing Master’s program. He has been a journalist and technical writer/editor for a number of years, having written for such publications as Flossin’ Magazine, beportland.com, Into the Woods and the Institute for Sustainable Solutions. You can connect with Michael on his Facebook and Google+ pages.

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