Reader Response: Is Technical Writing for Me?

This week I received an email from Camille, a reader who is a recent transplant to the U.S. who is hoping to make the jump from education to technical writing. Her message and my reply can be read below.First, let’s hear from Camille.

Hello Bart,

My name is Camille and I came across your blog in my research. I’m, as you may have guessed, considering breaking into the technical writing field. I’ve been reading through blogs and even reached out to the STC, but I need a more objective perspective, please.
I have a B.A. and an MFA in English-Creative Writing and a Certificate in Publishing from Columbia. I currently teach remedial English at a community college and I need to make a career switch. I don’t have experience with technical writing, let me state that upfront. I contacted the STC, as I said, and they advised doing their Foundation certificate. I’m self-studying for that now using the “Technical Communication Today” text by Richard Johnson-Sheehan.
My concern is that…well, I have several of them, but primarily: will I be a strong candidate for a TW job? Does this certificate make me viable? I keep seeing mentions of portfolios; I’d need insight/help on creating one. I plan to take some Adobe suite courses online at Lynda/LinkedIn to shore up my skills, but will that get me in the door.
Also, is their any field where my background in teaching, research etc would be utilised? I don’t want to do user manuals and write about software. I don’t think I’m the person for that. Honestly, I love research, proofreading, and editing, and I’m great at that. However, I don’t see many Technical Editor positions available, and the salary is lower for that role.
I know I’ve said and asked a lot, but I’m quite concerned and would like some real insight before I depend money doing this STC certificate. Thank you so much for your time and attention!
Hi, Camille!
Thanks for reaching out to me.
Re: Portfolio
Check out the following entries on my blog for suggestions:

Re: breaking into tech writing

I’d say that the STC certification program will definitely give you a leg up on your tech writing street cred. My approach was to get an MA in tech writing.

Like you, I have little to no interest in writing software documentation.* If you look at my resume, you’ll see that I’ve managed to steer clear of that job. Most of what I do qualifies as teaching, in that I serve as a technical writer in instructional systems design (ISD, a.k.a. training & development)–essentially corporate training. That might be a good fit for you.

(* My apologies to those of you who do software documentation. I could not function in the tech world without you! However, I know enough about myself and my interests not to choose that as a way for me to pay the bills.)

I have also done a lot of education and outreach writing for NASA. That amounts to sharing agency activities with the general public or specific stakeholders, such as elected officials or technical/engineering audiences in the form of conference papers. If space isn’t your thing, you might find comparable jobs with other government agencies, companies, or other organizations that handle scientific or technical education and outreach.

I’m guessing you’re writing from the UK, Canada, or some part of the British-influenced world (I saw a “utilised” in your email), so I apologize if I can’t be of much better assistance. My experience has been confined to the U.S. However, given what you’ve done and your stated interests, I would give serious thought to instructional design as an outlet for your teaching/writing talents. Feel free to contact me if you have additional questions.


Bart D. Leahy

Additional thoughts after I sent my email:
As far as your portfolio is concerned, poke around your files to see what types of writing you’ve done and see if you can categorize it: instructional, procedural, inter-organizational, etc. Then determine what you could share with a prospective employer. The goal is to demonstrate your ability to write for multiple audiences (or one particular audience) consistently and well. Cheers!

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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2 Responses to Reader Response: Is Technical Writing for Me?

  1. Really nice reply! I’m going to add a few things, as I talk with many hiring managers on a frequent basis. I’m not sure the certificate will add significant value, but as Camille is switching careers and has an income now, the return might be worth it. Her biggest hurdle will be tools, so online hiring is completely out. An ATS will disqualify you immediately without a particular tool being used at a previous role (so using a tool outside of professional experience wont count). In which case, she must use networking and in-person hiring events (career fairs) if she wants to get anywhere. Hiring managers are looking to connect with people they like and need to be convinced the candidate can do the job… not so much on previous experience or tools. This is where the portfolio comes in. Her background as an educator will be highly valuable. Many companies consider technical writing as a training role, and educators make great trainers. Although, like you said about instruction designers, she’d also be a great fit. Those hiring managers seek educational/training experience first and are often happy to train for the tools. Those jobs just aren’t as plentiful as technical writers. If those things don’t work, then I’d absolutely recommend getting the certificate, then volunteering for the local STC so she can get tool experience on her resume (hiring managers love volunteer experience).
    I hope that helps!

  2. Thanks for this! I have a similar background as Camille and am also trying to make the switch to technical writing.

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