Re: Breaking In
I have worked as a writer for years. I only worked as a technical writer for a very brief time (about one year out of nearly 20). I see ads for technical writers all the time but each job I see listed states you must have experience with the program or application they are using.
How can i break into the technical writing field if every job lead specifies you must have experience with the program or system they are using?
Should I focus my technical writing on nontechnical writing areas?
Any employer worth their salt will be able to look at your samples of 20 years and see whether or not you've got the stuff to analyze documentation problems and write readable instructions. Likewise, if you have ANY writing tool experience, the basic skills will transfer to most common writing tools. MS Word is far and away the most common tool provided to tech writers by employers. If you feel like it would be a hard sell to claim that you can ramp up quickly on tools, then set up a few job search agents and start winnowing the opportunities for whatever tools you know. They're all represented, even DTP.
There must be some merit in the ubiquitous advice about learning a tool and creating samples, but the oleaginousness of that approach is no substitute for greasing the wheels. The real thing you've got to overcome in order to get on the tech writing road is, in a word, risk aversion. There is nothing reassuring, to an employer or recruiter, about a sample you wrote at home for no one in particular. You, and the recruiter who recommends you based on such evidence, and the manager who hires you based on such, will risk being thrown under the bus if you don't work out on the job. This is the real sticking point that you need to handle in order to get work. You're an unknown quantity on the tech writing circuit, and as such you pose risks to anyone who gets you hired. If you have good work references, that might help mitigate the risks by spreading the decision responsibility over more people.
AFAIK, the standard approach to your problem is to strike up relationships with recruiters/contract agencies. You might consider asking a recruiter for an appointment to visit their office for a discussion. Or you could invite one to meet you for lunch. Even if you just do it over the phone, use the time to explain your background and circumstances and make it clear that you are serious and (here's the hook) will consider opportunities even where the pay is substandard or the contract is short-term. IOW, you're willing to take some career risk yourself, by agreeing to a few marginal contracts. If the recruiter then gives you the lizard eyes, or says "I'm not feeling anything, Harry," then you might need to up the voltage a little more. In that case, you might suggest that they probably get orders that they can't fill from their stable of cherry-picking tech-writing highliners, and you, by happy coincidence, currently consider yourself available for just about any tech writing assignment.
Don't do this if you're thin-skinned, because a shocking number of tech writing jobs do deserve to go unfilled. But if you're determined to break in and be a tech writer, and you're willing to pay those dues to recruiters and employers (and probably a few professional-sounding organizations, too, if you're status-concious), then by all means go for it. One way or another, the experience will probably stoke the fires that make you want to be a writer.
Hope this helps,
doc -at- edwordsmith -dot- com
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Breaking In: From: Harry Husted
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