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© 2011 Ugur Akinci
“Ugur, I know technical writing is a good niche, it pays well, and I want to do it. But how and where do I begin? I have not done it before and any time I apply for a technical writing position they ask me to show what I did earlier…” is a question I get a couple times a year from my readers.
It’s a typical chicken-and-egg situation… or so it seems. But actually it’s not.
You have to start with questioning the premise of this assertion — that, you need to be a “proper”, “experienced” or “well-established” technical writer to find job as a one.
No, not really since there is a continuous “gradient” (to use a Photoshop term) between hi-tech technical writing (including medical writing) and other types of procedural writing, including what is generally known as “business writing.”
You can certainly slide sideways from one to another step by step. The transition need not be abrupt and in one single hop. Let time be your friend.
Let me try to explain how that may work by commenting on the following two fictitious situations.
Let’s say you’re an engineer, a field technician, or an installer at your company and for one reason or another you’d like to shift to a technical writing position.
Great! You can start by offering your services to write the “field reports”, for example, if you’re not already writing them. You can volunteer to write the style guidelines for writing such reports. You can volunteer to write meeting minutes. You can write “installation plans” or “installation specs” or any other “plans” or “specs” that you can imagine.
Perhaps you might be rebuffed at first. Perhaps someone will object saying “but that’s not what you’re supposed to do.” It happens.
But in some other situations they may actually welcome your extra effort to contribute something new to your team. And before you know what your name will start to circulate around as someone who can write “these sorts of things.” That’s how you can build yourself a writing portfolio while keeping your regular job. That’s how you gradually slide from one position to another.
2) A WAITRESS
This time, let me volunteer to play the devil’s advocate and take a more seemingly unlikely situation.
Let’s say you’re waiting tables at a restaurant but you still one day would like to work as a technical writer. Perhaps you could end up as rich as J. K. Rowling too who also started writing her Harry Potter novels while she was working as a waitress.
The thing to do is to watch like a hawk every opportunity that would create for you an opening to offer your services as a writer.
For example, let’s say a customer loved that special French onion soup and asked whether she could get the recipe. You should immediately go talk to the chef and the owner of the restaurant and ask their permission to write the recipe for such inquiring customers. Remind them that such a thing would be a part of the total “customer experience” and customers who feel they are treated well by a friendly personnel do come back and spread the word around. You may have to do some sweet talking to sell the idea but then like anything else in life, this good thing needs some extra effort too.
The next step can be talking your owner into writing a special cookbook for the restaurant. That would both “brand” the establishment and create a new stream of income for the restaurant. Remind your owner the importance of building the restaurant’s in-house mailing list and the kind of excellent free bonus a recipe e-book would make to collect people’s names and email addresses.
Once you also have that under your belt, why shouldn’t you volunteer to also write the restaurant’s web site, and if there is none, volunteer to design and set up one? If you have no web design skills you can always partner with a friend by taking over the writing part of the project.
The next thing you know, you might be writing a Standard Operating Procedure handbook for the restaurant, clearly defining how the restaurant personnel should behave under different circumstances. See, you took another step towards becoming a “technical writer” without naming it as such.
As you can see, by slowly diverging from your traditional role as a waitress, you can build up an impressive portfolio consisting of e-books, web sites, SOPs, and all sorts of manuals… all while still waiting tables! Everything you write and create would of course reflect your focus on food and the restaurant business but what matters is you accumulate a body of work displaying your skills as a … technical writer.
The next time you apply for that technical writing job, even if you don’t have any hi-tech samples under your arm, you can at least show them how well you can write in another field. That should still impress some if not all recruiters. If you continue pressing on that “sliding path” I’m sure one day you’ll get the break you want and deserve.
As they say… “one thing leads to another”. If you want your fate to open and hold the doors for you, remove the adjective “impossible” from your mind and start working towards your goal by taking one mini step at a time, and by “sliding sideways” if necessary. Good luck!
(Public domain photos courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.)