how do you get experience if all the jobs require you to already have experience?

A reader writes:

I’ve been working on applying for jobs in a different career track. My educational background is in English and writing (including technical writing). I used to teach writing at the college level, and now I want to be a technical writer.

Every job posting I see requires at least three years of experience in technical writing. Many technical writing positions also require three years of knowledge about a very specific subject matter area. This three years of experience requirement seems to be true of grant and proposal writing positions too.

How can a person get three years of experience at doing something if all paid jobs and volunteer positions in that particular subject area (such as grant writing) require it? Can education in the area suffice in certain situations?

Very, very often, job requirements like “three years of experience in X” aren’t hard and fast requirements. They’re more like “eh, when we picture the ideal candidate, this is about the amount of experience we imagine them having.” They’re more of a signal — a “we’re looking for someone roughly at this level.” Sometimes it’s even less well-thought-out than that; sometimes it’s “we’re supposed to quantify how much experience we’re looking for, so throw a three in there.” And sure, sometimes they are both well thought-out and firm, but more often than not, there’s some flexibility.

That said, the question is how much flexibility. There’s a big difference between three years and zero years. There’s less of a difference between five years and eight years; it’s the zero that’s carrying so much weight here.

Education typically isn’t going to count as much as several years of experience. But you do have some related experience — you used to teach writing. I bet you might have other related experience too. That counts. It doesn’t make you a perfect candidate — but it might make you a plausible one, and if there are enough other things they like about you, that can get you the job.

For your broader question, about how you get experience if all the jobs require you to already have previous experience: You kind of cobble it together. It’s a combination of not assuming the requirements in job ads are truly rigid, getting any possible work experience you can in school (internships, etc.), showing a track record of success in the skills that are most core to the job, even if they’re from a different context  (in your case, writing). In some cases, it’s also working your network or doing things like volunteering for places that are more in need of help and thus more flexible on their requirements (smaller organizations are a better bet for this than bigger ones). And it really helps to excel at things that aren’t central to the job description but that people still find compelling — like being great at communicating, or obviously really smart or driven, or particularly personable. (And if this weren’t already a writing job, I would put great writing on that list too.)

But yeah, it’s hard, and it takes some perseverance in the beginning (not to be confused with gumption).

{ 211 comments… read them below }

  1. Dee*

    As a technical writer, I can say that it’s much easier for a client to teach me about a subject than it is to teach someone else to write well. And I do say it, usually in interviews.

    If you taught writing, you know how to construct effective documentation. If you’ve got a writing sample you can spin as relevant, that would help. Or even write something for the purpose.

    1. LW*

      This makes sense to me. I did create documentation as part of my job (progress reports, SOPs for tutoring, etc.). Thank you for your advice!

      1. Turtle Candle*

        If you have experience with SOPs or similar, definitely keep them around as a sample! Demonstrating a skill is really important to me when hiring for these positions.

    2. Chantel*

      I’m a technican writer too! And this is just what I was going to say; if you have technical writing samples those can be great to show. And if you can talk about being able to learn quickly and HOW you accomplish that, it goes a long way.

      I was recently hired for a job in the insurance industry as a writer, and I have literally no experience. But because I could say, “I edited articles for economics professors in college and worked in X other industry I didn’t have experience in before I started,” I was able to show that despite not having specific experience with one area, I am a quick learner and can still be successful in a field I don’t know about.

        1. LW*

          Heh, it happens to all of us. :) I made a shift after teaching/tutoring/administrating to the business world (not writing though), and I feel that shifting industries and doing well at that is a big deal!

  2. Anonymous Educator*

    I had this problem when I first started looking for teaching jobs. I had my degree and certification and student teaching experience, but every single teaching job I saw was looking for 3-5 years’ experience. I faced rejection after rejection (and usually just no response). All it took was one school willing to take a chance on me.

    1. Moonsaults*

      “All it took was one school willing to take a chance on me.”

      Yes, that’s the ticket. It’s frustrating and it can feel utterly disappointing being in that boat but that’s the ticket right there. Keep digging, never give up on finding the one place that’s going to give you a chance.

      I have no formal higher education and all my experience now makes me more valuable than ever to a lot of companies. So I’m always telling everyone to always keep beating the streets and you’ll find your match one way or another. You are qualified for the job, find the right place that will let you show it.

    2. jack of all trades*

      I find this interesting in that schools seem to want the cheapest teacher they can get. I’ve heard of people who subbed while waiting for an opening and then not getting a job. They went for a newbie with less or no experience.

      1. LW*

        I got my first FT college teaching job right out of grad school; however, I’d been teaching part-time for a year and a half as part of my graduate assistantship, so I did have experience! I’m starting to feel overqualified and under-qualified for technical writing, with no technical writing work experience.

      2. Koko*

        Teacher compensation and hiring can vary pretty wildly from one school system to the next. In the affluent county where I grew up, all public school teachers (from kindergarten to special needs to high school chemistry) were required to have a Masters’ degree and were paid respectable wages. OTOH, when I last looked into the situation several years ago, many counties in North Carolina had a practice of firing all the teachers every June and rehiring them in September just to avoid paying summer wages or letting anyone gain tenure.

        1. LW*

          That’s so awful. :( People really devalue teachers. Teachers need to pay bills and eat over the summer, too!

        2. Rob Lowe can't read*

          Absolutely. I teach in Massachusetts and competition for many jobs is fierce; in my district, it’s even difficult to get hired into jobs that are widely considered “shortage” areas (math, science, bilingual, SPED, etc.). A Master’s is unofficially required for even novice teachers, and many of my colleagues have multiple Master’s degrees or other advanced training in their specialty. But my friends who teach in other states (in districts that pay much, much less than mine even when you account for substantial differences in cost of living) report that it’s much more common to struggle to fill vacancies, in part because of lower salaries.

          I’ve never heard a reliable or personal account of someone not getting hired because they were “too expensive” (i.e. because their education or experience would have required a higher salary than the school or district was willing to pay), but that doesn’t mean it’s never happened, of course. There are plenty of for-profit, corporate-run institutions that are happy to host a revolving door of short-term, under-experienced, under-paid teachers, though, so it’s not hard to imagine that getting the cheapest person with a pulse in front of a class might lead to that kind of practice.

        3. Rob Lowe can't read*

          Although firing in June shouldn’t dock summer pay checks – if the district is on a system where staff get 26 checks per year, those checks in the summer months aren’t free money, it’s what they’re owed for work already done. I make less money per paycheck for the 10 months per year that I actually stand in front of a class, and they give me the rest in July and August when I’m on “vacation” (AKA sitting poolside while revising my curriculum). So if I get fired on the last day of school, they still owe me the rest of my salary for that academic year.

        4. Turtle Candle*

          This didn’t happen with teachers in the school district I grew up in (their salary was extended across all 12 months of the year, as Rob Low can’t read describes, thanks to union rules) it did apply to aides–until one of the aides successfully argued for unemployment for the two months “in between.” (Previously, aides had been told that if they filed for unemployment between their May firing and September hiring, they’d be blacklisted from September hiring; I’m not sure whether she got legal advice advising her to go for it, or just–being an older woman close to quitting anyway [I say quitting because she wasn’t eligible for retirement either]–didn’t give any fucks.) She got the unemployment, which encouraged other aides to do the same, which got the district to stop firing them, at least. (They didn’t get any more money, but at least it meant that their minimal benefits didn’t lapse and require them to go on COBRA every summer.)

          1. Travis*

            Sad, that this was the route respective teaching aides had to take in order to secure their finances all because management was taking a sour, divisive approach to budgeting. Seems to be happening all to often here in America.

  3. Anon1*

    “Three years experience” for a technical writer is just barely beyond entry level. Apply for these jobs.

    1. LW*

      Thank you! I have been, since I read somewhere that men will apply to jobs where they have 75% of the qualifications and women won’t. (I’m a woman.) I’ve had interviews, but haven’t landed anything yet.

      1. Becky*

        Tech Writer here. There’s a huge scope of work covered under the job title “Technical Writer”. I work in the U.S. in software in a rapid-turnaround environment with many Federal Government customers. If we’re looking for someone with 3 years experience, what we mean is “someone who can demonstrate that they can rapidly learn software, won’t be put off by extreme changes in deadlines, and can research and interpret Federal standards without a lot of hand-holding”. All of that information is available in the job description. We don’t necessarily need 3 years experience, but we’ve determined that a Tech Writer with 3 years experience is more likely to have the skills necessary to succeed in our environment. That doesn’t mean someone with zero experience won’t be considered if their other skills line up.

        Use the job description as your queue card. If you were applying for a job at my company, I’d want to know:
        – How can you demonstrate that you understand how to put documents together?
        – How can you demonstrate that you understand the importance of concise, accurate content?
        – How can you demonstrate your comfort level with gathering information from other people or other work?
        – How can you demonstrate familiarity with the concept of reusing an established body of work (also called single-sourcing)?
        – How can you demonstrate an understanding of the importance of information design (i.e. charts, screenshots)?

        I’d also recommend listing specific classes in Tech Writing. There is theory behind what we do, and if you don’t have a lot of practical work experience, knowing that you understand theory is helpful.

        Good luck!

        1. LW*

          This list of questions:

          “How can you demonstrate that you understand how to put documents together?
          – How can you demonstrate that you understand the importance of concise, accurate content?
          – How can you demonstrate your comfort level with gathering information from other people or other work?
          – How can you demonstrate familiarity with the concept of reusing an established body of work (also called single-sourcing)?
          – How can you demonstrate an understanding of the importance of information design (i.e. charts, screenshots)?”

          is so helpful to me! I think all of those things are relevant to most writing jobs, especially concerning proprietary software/systems/products/etc. I suppose it is about showing capabilities and competencies. I will also list out the tech writing courses I took on my resume. Thank you for this excellent advice! I am so determined to make a career change happen.

          1. Anon for This*

            In addition to the list of questions above, I’d add “How can you demonstrate experience with communicating a process by breaking it down and outlining its individual steps?”

            I now have a role in marketing leadership, but at a Previous Job far earlier in my career, I had to pitch in to help with software documentation. I already knew how to write concisely (press releases, web content, marketing brochures, newsletters), but I had to learn the fundamentals of technical writing on the job. It was a baptism by fire, but the experience was valuable. I continue to this day to use those fundamentals when I’m training others or just helping coworkers figure out how to do something.

            It’s awesome that you have taken multiple tech writing courses! If you saved any assignments, maybe those could serve as writing samples.

            1. LW*

              Ah, this is a great question: “How can you demonstrate experience with communicating a process by breaking it down and outlining its individual steps?”

              I feel like tutoring (especially working with students in developmental writing classes) is exactly this, over and over again. Discussing how to correct certain common grammatical mistakes and walking students through the writing process involves patience, the ability to break things down well on a granular level, and the ability to come up with many examples on the fly.

        2. Travis*

          FYI, when recruiters list 3 years experience under “required qualifications” section, any literate person is going to logically assume these qualifications are “required” hence the word required. Word of advise, for recruiters that struggle to find talent; be more vague when listing experience levels and encourage relevant work experience as an alternative.

      2. Ife*

        This statistic is always so fascinating to me. I don’t think I’ve ever applied for a programming job where I met all the requirements, because companies tend to throw in a lot of “nice to have’s” and will list every programming language/tool that you might come into contact with. My department recently posted a job description for an entry level developer, who would be doing the exact same thing that I do every day, and I don’t meet 100% of the job requirements as listed!

        Honestly I try to figure out the top 3-5 requirements and see if I meet those, or almost do (like they want experience with MySQL and I have experience in TSQL). If yes then I consider applying. I realize that does not transfer to all other fields though.

        1. LW*

          I’ve seen these programmer lists too…listing all of the languages that have ever existed. I’ve been trying to think about what is really essential to the function of the job, and what can I learn quickly? I can write and edit well; that took a lot of education and experience. Do I know Teapot Company’s Style Guide? No, but I know MLA, APA, and Chicago Style, so I think I’ll catch on quickly.

          1. Turtle Candle*

            Programming languages in nice-to-haves are there because you do sometimes get a magical unicorn who majored in CS and then decided that they really preferred writing to coding–or the electrical engineer with a significant minority of CS classes who decided they preferred writing to EE–and yeah, they get bumped to the top of our list, although on the flip side they get scrutinized pretty heavily on their writing samples. The reason they do this is that onboarding tech writers without a coding background for writing API references can be a lengthy process, because you have to basically teach them to read code first, so if you can find the engineer-who-doesn’t-want-to-engineer who will cut that process down from a year to two months, it’s… well, like finding a magical unicorn.

            It happens sometimes, so it’s not completely bonkers to look for. My tech writing department has one magical unicorn (significant pre-employment coding experience), one… um, half-magical unicorn, I guess (minor pre-employment coding experience), and three quite nice ordinary ponies (including me). But we put it on the ‘nice to have’ list because it’s super nice to have, not because we’ll only hire the unicorn.

      3. MsMaryMary*

        The position I applied for at my current job was a stretch for me. I ordinarily wouldn’t have applied, but I’d set a target of applying for a certain number of jobs each week, and it was the end of the day on Friday. So I figured what the hell, and applied. The hiring manager liked my resume, and during the interview process the position morphed into something that only shared about 50% of the responsibilities of the original posting, but that was a much better fit for me. I’ve been here three and a half years, and moved into another, more client facing role last year.

        So go for it! I mean, don’t apply for jobs you’re qualified for at all, but give it a try even if you’re not a 100% match. You never know what will happen during the interview process, or if something in your resume or about your skillset might catch someone’s eye for a different position.

        1. LW*

          I like your success story :) I figure I might as well take a chance. They can only say no. Besides, an interview is almost like advanced networking, in that we’re all working to get to know each other in a short period of time.

  4. Office Mercenary*

    This question has perfect timing; I just finished grad school and am trying to find full-time, non-internship work in my field but they all seem to require 2-5 years of progressively more responsible experience. I have bits and pieces of experience in the field but I don’t know how to put them together to arguably equal two years. I have 3 internships, one AmeriCorps year, and about six years of general office admin experience, but many of those positions didn’t have much responsibility, technical training, or room for growth. How have other people here gotten past this?

    1. Intelligent but Budgetless Gladys*

      Take the description of the job you want. Scan it for buzz words – what you think are the most important parts of the job.

      Look at each of your past positions and do your best to match each of those important parts of the job you want with a success story and/or work you did at one of these past positions. (You’re going to need this anyway if you get to the interview stage, so think of it as homework.) All successes are positive, no matter how small you might think it is. This process also useful to see what you’ve done and what successes you have under your belt, b/c this is CRUCIAL to bolster your self-esteem.

      Rinse and repeat for other jobs.

      Stay positive. I’ve been looking for a new position for 3 years (I’m over a decade out of school) and if you’re young-ish, you’ve already got a better job outlook than many of us :)

      1. LW*

        I took this advice and Alison’s general advice for tweaking my resume and revising my cover letter recently. It’s almost like “responding to the prompt” in English composition. If you’re assigned an essay where you need to persuade your reader that you would make an excellent teapot engineer, then you need to find specific proof and use the terminology that teapot engineers use. (Or that the job posting uses…oh, analogies.)

    2. BRR*

      What level jobs are you looking for? I find that grad school graduates have the issue of not enough experience for higher jobs but get passed over for lower jobs because people think they’ll be bored.

      1. Office Mercenary*

        I’ve been looking at entry-level positions in the private sector, aid work, and think tanks, and P2 positions in UNOs and GS-10 positions in the US gov. My main fear is getting stuck in admin work, but you raise a good point about employers not wanting to hire me for fear I’d be bored, which is probably well-founded. I’m interested in a lot of different fields and can argue (what I think is) a good case that my education is relevant to them all, but they each require different technical skills. While I’m job hunting I’m working on language and computer skills but I can’t reasonably to learn, say, GIS software as well as someone who has used it on the job for two years.

        1. CheeryO*

          Ugh, this is late but maybe you’ll see it – I just wanted to say that you shouldn’t sell yourself short when it comes to the tech stuff – just thinking about GIS in particular, I’ve used it for the last two years in my job, and it’s part of the official job description, but everything I do is SO basic. I was doing more advanced tasks by the end of my undergrad GIS course than I do at work. Of course, YMMV, but you could definitely learn enough to be comfortable with the basics in a short amount of time.

  5. AMT*

    On a similar note, companies often advertise for candidates they’re realistically not going to get. They might be unaware of the market value of a candidate with that level of experience, constrained by their budget, and/or hoping for candidates who don’t know their own value. I’m currently dealing with a lot of frustration as my workplace tries to hire for a high-level, uber-necessary position without offering a reasonable salary. It’s been months and, unsurprisingly, no one has taken them up on their offer.

    1. Intelligent but Budgetless Gladys*

      Ha, that’s happening here at my office as well. You wonder if they’ll eventually see the light, eh? Probably not…

      I recently told a recruiter who put me up for a position and in the nicest way possible that the company I’d interviewed with was looking for someone who did not exist, that it was unlikely to find someone with those kinds of skills outside of corporate. They took the job listing down. Surprise!

    2. LW*

      I’ve seen a lot of tech writing job descriptions that ask for obscure knowledge that you would only know if you worked in certain government sectors, or if you were a high-level programmer. All I can think is, “??????!!!!” Then I apply anyway.

      1. Photoshop Til I Drop*

        You can also get into defense tech writing, which requires security clearance. You usually can’t get clearance without job sponsorship, and you can’t get the jobs without the clearance. It’s a downward spiral of government nonsense.

      2. Becky*

        Have you checked out specialized job boards? The Society for Technical Communication has one (http://jobs.stc.org/). If you aren’t a member, you get access to jobs 14 days after members, but there are good options up there.

        Niche skills are often on Tech Writer job descriptions for a reason – someone with those skills would be hired way ahead of someone who needs to develop those skills, because the training time on those skills is long and the process of learning is often complex. BUT, if you can demonstrate a parallel skill or an ability to learn comparable skills quickly, you can still get an interview.

        1. LW*

          Thank you, great advice! I have been looking into learning coding (checking out different languages and uses of languages before committing to one) so that I can better understand this and so that I can demonstrate the ability to learn quickly.

      3. Rocky*

        If it’s phrased as “knowledge of Obscure Programming Language” (for example), then you just go and read some online training materials about OPL. There, now you have knowledge of OPL. You’re qualified! If you get the interview you can research it more – maybe read a book about it and talk to a real OPL programmer.

        1. Slippy*

          Yeah if you can brush up on Cobol you can be golden in a number of different areas. On the other hand trying to learn it may make you physically ill…..

          1. LW*

            I just googled Cobol. So many businesses have oldey timey computers that this makes sense.

            Incidentally, sort of related, when I went to the marriage license office to get the license last fall, they had these 1980s monstrosities and printed it out on a dot matrix printer. !!!

    3. Lia*

      Ha, do we work together? We are about to repost a job just like this. They definitely have champagne tastes on a tap water budget, here. I think it’ll conservatively take us 12 months to find someone.

      1. AMT*

        “Champagne tastes on a tap water budget” — that needs to become one of those AAM catch phrases! I work in a field that has huge salary disparities for similar roles and experience levels. I can’t count the number of times I’ve turned down jobs offering $10K or even 20K less than I’m making now. But of course they’d like someone with supervisory experience, specialized skills and certifications, bilingualism, a flexible/night schedule, and experience with X, Y, and Z types of clients!

      2. Bigglesworth*

        I am totally going to steal this phrase. My workplace is like this right now! It takes us anywhere from 8-12 months to find someone who is:
        a. A new grad
        b. Unaware of what their value is
        c. Desperate and just needing a job

        I fell into the c category, but we have a lot of a’s and b’s too.

    4. Travis*

      I rightfully pity employers who search for top talent yet are not willing to pay for it. Those are the companies that will fail and or have all their sensitive information stolen by ransomware usually by internal employees….Sony…cough…cough.

  6. Sans*

    If you have any writing samples that show your abilities, that would be invaluable. They just want to be sure you have the skills. If your samples show you’ve got what it takes, the exact amount of experience you have matters less.

      1. ceiswyn*

        Yes, ABSOLUTELY create a portfolio. Every time I interview, the hiring manager expects to see samples of work. If you have some nicely structured, clear technical documents then that will demonstrate that you have equivalent skills to a three-year tech writer, and offset your lack of employment experience. I’m in the UK, but I doubt it differs much from the US in that respect.

  7. Sherm*

    Hang in there. I’m in a similar field, and it took me a loooooooooong time to find my first job in this career. Definitely network, and pick people’s brains and ask for advice. Freelance if you can. I finally struck gold when I interviewed with someone who actually preferred hiring people with limited experience, as she felt, in this role, there would be a lot to unlearn if you already “learned” it.

    1. LW*

      That makes sense to me. Plus, if you don’t know how something works, you’ll ask the right kind of questions that need to be answered in documentation, I would think.

      Thank you…I am really appreciating the advice here! I am having trouble networking because I am new in town. :/ But I’ve been going to tech meetups!

    2. NW Mossy*

      I admit to a preference for newbies as blank slates too. So much of what my team does is following well-established processes, and it’s often easier for someone to learn it from scratch than it is to teach someone who’s already got another org’s best practices baked into their heads.

      I also like newbies because if your processes and documentation stink, they will expose it in a hot minute because they get stuck. They are the best auditors for this kind of thing you’ll ever find, because they can’t fill in the gaps the way an experienced person does when they follow the process or write the documentation. When your new person says, “I read the documentation and I don’t know what to do now,” that’s a gift – it means they uncovered a gap or a defect before it had an impact on a customer. Their fresh eyes are also great for suggesting better ways to handle something, especially if they happen to be tech-savvy.

  8. Intelligent but Budgetless Gladys*

    I understand this conundrum. I have been passed over for positions, being told that I had everything else that they were looking for, except that I was missing budget experience (as in creating budgets, not only contributing to them).

    If your current position will not allow you to gain this kind of experience, what else can you do? I’ve never going to be given budget duties at my current position b/c we’re in a small office and the CFO takes care of budgets, he’s OCD about it, and he won’t let anyone else into it. It bothers me b/c it’s not like you’d be starting from scratch with a brand new budget. Shouldn’t proof of increasing responsibility be sufficient?

    It just seems like employers are increasingly trying to find ways to disqualify otherwise qualified employees.

    1. Rocky*

      Is there some way you could get budget experience as a volunteer? I’ve known people who got budget experience through volunteering with a professional association, for example. Honestly, there’s not a lot of competition among volunteers for those kinds of duties.

      1. Intelligent but Budgetless Gladys*

        I’m going to look into that, my brother had suggested that for me. I’ve avoided volunteering for things for fear of not being able to put in the time and then disappoint people – I have chronic fatigue syndrome and while I can do a full day’s work on the job, the majority of my time off work is spent coping with the fatigue.

        1. LW*

          I also deal with fatigue. It’s tough when you’re trying to develop new competencies on top of your FT work. You can do this! What about volunteering for nonprofit grant writing where you create budgets as part of the grants?

    2. BRR*

      I think this highlights a key point in job hunting, certain requirements are non-negotiable.

      I agree that employers are trying to find ways to disqualify candidates (first round cuts are more about what a candidate is missing than who is the best for the position) but I think a lot of it has to do with a lot of industries still skewing towards the employer side of hiring. What I think happens is candidates who could do the job well end up being cut because employers have to start somewhere.

  9. Rocky*

    I work in a field that’s notorious for requiring X years of experience for pretty much anything, but I find that entry-level folks perceive the bar to be much higher than it is. If I’m hiring an entry-level Rice Sculptor, a required qualification will usually be “two years of experience in rice sculpting.” Now, that doesn’t mean that I assume you’ve already had the job of Rice Sculptor for at least two years. I’m looking for someone who assisted a Rice Sculptor for two years, or had a more generalist position where they did a decent amount of rice sculpting, but weren’t an expert at it.

    Also, I’ve coached a bunch of new graduates on applying for jobs, and so often I hear someone say, “Well, the job requires experience with fintoozlers, and I’ve never used fintoozlers, so I don’t think I’m qualified.” and I say, “Yes, you have, remember you got to mess with the fintoozler for a week when you had your internship here.” They’re thinking “experience” means “expertise.”

    1. Intelligent but Budgetless Gladys*

      +1,000

      Bless you. You’ve just given these graduates a vote of confidence. I was able to get out of a bad situation by applying for a job where I hadn’t had any experience with fintoozlers. Turns out customer service and diplomacy were considered more important to do the job well than actual fintoozler experience.

          1. Gadfly*

            I thought lateral fintoozlers were now standard? Excepting, of course, those industries that require dorsal or posterior fintoozlers.

          1. Windchime*

            That was my thought as well. I’m pretty sure that the Who’s down in Whoville give fintoozlers as part of the Christmas celebration.

    2. Mimmy*

      Oooh I like this analogy! So what you’re saying is, even if I’ve never created rice sculptures myself, but have evaluated others’ rice sculptures on a volunteer basis, does that count? I’ve been doing that for 5 years now.

      1. Rocky*

        Possibly, depending on what we’re actually talking about when we say “rice sculpting.” In any case, you’ve had 5 years of exposure to the field, so it’s probably worth a shot.

    3. LW*

      Yes!!!! This makes so much sense! If I helped fintoozler-users with writing about fintoozler-users, then can’t I apply that towards the “must have experience working with fintoozler-user SMEs, working cross-functionally” or what-have-you?

      1. Rocky*

        Hard to tell from the hypotheticals, but it sure sounds like it. Whoever’s doing the hiring might have opinions about what “counts” and what doesn’t. But don’t let that stop you from applying if you can make a good case that your experience should be considered.

    4. NotAnotherManager!*

      This is a great post, and I love your approach for new grads!

      I hire recent college graduates, so I see a lot of parlaying internship, student organization, and part-time job experience into my requirements. I gravitate towards the people who can use those experiences to demonstrate they have the skills I’m looking for. Being able to generalize your experiences beyond the job in which you used them is really helpful for “stretch” jobs where you don’t meet 100% of the job “requirements”. I hired a person with zero direct experience for a 2-year experience required job because the applicant did such a good job using their cover letter to explain how the experience that they did have matched up with what I said I needed. They ended up being a great hire.

      (I also used to work with a supervisor who would pull the people with food service and retail experience out of the resume pile because she said that if you could deal with the general public, dealing with the difficult personalities in her job was not going to be a problem.)

      1. MillersSpring*

        Amen to this. For new graduates, I DO want to see their unrelated work experience, particularly if it’s office temping, retail, food service, construction, lifeguarding, etc. I’m ALL about recognizing the part-time or even full-time work that candidates have performed during high school or college.

    5. Spike Lee*

      Does watching rice sculpting videos on YouTube count??? Because, unless you had some sort of relevant work experience outside of school your resume is shuffled to the back. IMO the word “required” means just that…required. A more accurate word to use if qualifications are only a benchmark, would be to use the word “preferred”. Its as if the English language has fallen to the wayside….

  10. yasmara*

    (Former technical writer & technical writing hiring manager here.) Good advice so far! Also, if you can figure out which tools or methodologies are used in your target jobs, get yourself some training in those areas. So, for example, there are some very common software packages used by technical writers (uh, beyond MS Word) but they are by no means common across all industries or companies. So if you’re targeting a particular company or field, find out what’s used in that field. Some technical writing is so heavily tool dependent that the writing is almost (almost!) secondary.

    STC is a great resource. https://www.stc.org/

    Also, some jobs may be for a specific kind of writing – paper or PDF manuals, short wiki topics, help, etc. Be familiar with the types so you can at least talk about them intelligently and possibly even show why your current experience could apply. For example, as a hiring manager, I might take a chance on someone who could show a direct connection between their experience synthesizing and summarizing academic studies to working with complex technical topics and adjusting them for a non-technical audience.

    That said, I have a degree in technical communication and 15 years of experience in the field (before I moved over to exclusive project/program management) and I was rejected for a job application because I had no direct experience writing about small engines. So some hiring managers may want someone with very, very specific experience & there’s not much you can do about that.

    1. LW*

      Yes, I’ve seen a lot of government contractors’ technical writer job postings, and they want you to know about very, very specific things that the general public would never know.

      I will explore the STC site more! Thanks for the recommendation.

      You have excellent advice. :D I plan on exploring project management software/services, so I can have familiarity with them, too.

  11. Cyril Figgis*

    There are plenty of open source software projects that need their documentation improved. Volunteering with some would help to boost your experience.

    1. SusanIvanova*

      So many upvotes for this! Even paid products have trouble getting good documentation, and the downside of open source products is that people prefer to work on the “cool” stuff, and doc is considered less cool.

      I’m a programmer and back during the last tech bust, when I needed a new language on my resume I ported an open source product into that language. It worked – I got the job I wanted.

  12. Audiophile*

    This applies to so many jobs. When I first great-hearted, I had such a hard time navigating the job world, every job listing I saw said “requires x years of experience.” This of course scared me out of applying altogether. It wasn’t until I started volunteering some years later that I finally had the confidence to start applying for those scary “reach” jobs. Turns out, they weren’t much a reach at all.

    1. LW*

      This makes me feel more confident. My husband told me these requirements were more like wish lists; that, or they had a very specific person in mind for the position.

      1. Audiophile*

        Obvious “great-hearted” should be “graduated.” That’s what I get for writing too quickly on my phone’s keyboard.

        As others above said, look through the job description and focus on how your experience fits what they’re looking for.

  13. Gene*

    One note on local government jobs (maybe state and fed too, I’ve been local govt for 35ish years), typically if it says 3 years experience and you don’t have it, it won’t make it past the HR screener to the hiring manager.

    Unfortunate, but true.

  14. Anon for this One*

    I hire entry level STEM people and HR has slapped the 3-year experience thing on my postings in the past. I count senior design projects, lab-tech work, and just about anything else as experience.

    But more than that, I want someone who sees a hurdle as something to jump over, not as a wall. If the posting says 3 years and you only have 1 year, apply anyway and make the pitch as to why your experience is relevant.

    Also, in my industry and locality, the labor market is getting really tight. The ideal candidates are all happily employed elsewhere for more money than my company is willing to pay.

    1. Sharon*

      I have a 30-year career behind me so this doesn’t affect me. But it really irritates my inner pedant. I don’t consider 2 or 3 years of experience to be entry level. I consider an entry level person to have education but no experience. Apparently I’m a very, very old dinosaur with this opinion, though. I really feel bad for our young people these days!

      1. Anon for this One*

        I hear what you’re saying. This has definitely changed over time.

        I would highly encourage anyone currently in college to seek out resume-building jobs, projects, or portfolios while still in college to avoid this trap.

      2. LW*

        I agree with your definition about what entry level is. Also, my favorite comment on my end-of-semester feedback my first semester teaching was, “She’s still learning.” Haha, those students were so patient with me!

      3. Rocky*

        In my field there are basically two levels of entry, which muddies the waters. For the true entry level (as in, ZERO experience), you might not even need a bachelor’s degree, but the pay will start right around minimum wage. For the professional entry level, a graduate degree is required, an internship or experience in one of those true entry-level jobs is expected, and the starting salary is $40-$50k.

        1. Anxa*

          This feels like nearly every laboratory support job I can find. Glass washers requiring a high school diploma that I’ve applied for with no luck. I love doing dishes at home, in lab, and I loved dishwashing in restaurants. I’m not klutz-immune but I am extremely confident I am extremely thorough, efficient (I’m kind of slow in general unless I can develop a good workflow), and am super safety concious. Those jobs seeming go to new high school grads all of the time, and I just don’t know how else I can compete with them if I’m not competitive now.

          The other advertised jobs the next rung up prefer or require masters and several years experience. Ooof.

      4. MillersSpring*

        I agree that entry level means “education but no experience,” but it doesn’t have to mean that they’ve never held a job or internship. Past jobs, even part-time, can be critical for the new grad applying for entry-level positions.

      5. KM*

        It annoys us too. I have 5 years of experience under my belt nowadays and told that I am still on par for entry level gigs.

  15. Mazzy*

    On a side note, I keep seeing the position of “Technical Writer” listed here as if it’s a very common job, but I’ve never met one and rarely see such jobs posted. Can someone explain the where/how/what to do you write/what are the ebbs and flows of the position? Thanks

    1. Photoshop Til I Drop*

      Sure! You know how you buy a new thingamajig, and you pull out the instructions from the box, and throw them behind the couch before trying to put it together yourself, then spend three hours cursing and breaking stuff? We write the thing you threw behind the couch.

    2. The IT Manager*

      Pretty much all IT projects have at least one technical writer. Depending on the project they may develop or assist with the development of the software and/or hard wares training, user guides/manuals/instructions, project documentation to include screen grabs, images, and diagrams or they may just finalize/tech edit the documents that another team member develops. Grammar checking, spell checking, formatting the document, table of contents, labeling all figures and diagrams, making them 508 compliant (able to used by people with visual disability that use an accessibility tool).

      They’re often a jack of all trades picking up general admin work taking meeting minutes (which a good tech writer will be overqualified for.) They might maintain the teams SharePoint site or documentation web pages.

    3. Mimmy*

      To sort of add to Mazzy’s question: I assume technical writing primarily found in the STEM fields? My interests are closer to the social sciences and maybe education.

      1. NW Mossy*

        In my line of work (financial services), we typically don’t hire technical writers explicitly but we absolutely have a need for people who have technical-writer-style skills. Our industry is highly regulated and compliance is a big factor for us, so having clearly documented processes that people can follow correctly every time is key to satisfying our regulators. In my org, such people typically filter into roles in internal training, project management/process analysis, and/or IT support embedded within functional units, depending upon what overlapping skills they have.

      2. Photoshop Til I Drop*

        I have a BA in English and an MS in IT. If you are interested in writing and have an education background, you may want to look into assisting with writing textbooks.

        1. LW*

          I have thought about writing a writing center theory/tutoring book, since I wrote enough at my old job to fill a book about the same. Still thinking about it!

    4. Undine*

      Technical writer positions vary from industry to industry, and even within industries. I work as a tech writer in software in Silicon Valley, which is a hub for tech writing. If you are not seeing a lot of positions, the jobs in your area (if any) may be a little different.

      Basically, I write documentation for new and updated features for the software I support. Here’s some of the things I do:
      * Work with other tech writers, developers, and product management to know what features & changes are coming down the pike.
      * (not all companies do this) Work with the same team to critique the proposed functionality and user interface, making suggestions that I think will make the users life easier.
      * Write a doc plan saying what needs to be changed/added to document this feature, and where.
      * When an early version of a feature is in a product, start playing with the feature and figuring out how it works. How early I start depends on the complexity of the feature and what is available to me. For complex features, I like to get an early look, even though the final functionality will be somewhat different.
      * When the feature gets close to “done”, work with the feature and document it. For a feature with a user interface, that includes going through the interface and documenting each (new) option, then figuring out a scenario that showcases the new feature and creating a walkthrough, including screeshots. For a code feature, it can be similar, but I then need a code example. Again, I may work with developers or product management to come up with a scenario and also the context needed for the overview of the feature.
      * Get feedback from developers, QA, and sometimes product management, on my draft and incorporate it.
      * (not at my company, but at a lot of places) hand off revised draft to editorial department, who ensure it meets company standards.
      * at any time, I may file a bug against the product. In addition, support or other departments may file a bug or comment against the documentation that I need to fix.

      Our particular software cycle is that we push major releases out about three times a year. So it’s a bit of feast and famine — more research, bug fixing, and specification meetings for a couple of months, and then a big push to get the actual documentation out at the end of the cycle. Other places may push doc out constantly in small increments, although you will still see a big bump right before release. As a tech writer, you are one of the last in the production chain, so at the very end, you are squeezed for time.

      When I interview for a tech writer, there are probably three things I’m looking for:
      * Can they write good descriptions and instructions? Good writing is part of that. Most tech writers have some kind of portfolio and I look through that very carefully.
      * Can they handle new technologies and write about things they don’t actually understand? Again, among other things I look carefully through their documentation. If I see things like “The Frobisher Torquing dialog lets you torque frobishers,” with no other explanations, that’s a black mark. They will have to work with the software we produce, all the software engineering uses to communicate with each other, and a bunch of other stuff.
      * Can they get information from people who don’t know how to communicate it? As I said, sometimes you play with the software, but a lot of times, you need information and input from programmers or product managers. Some of them are very helpful, but others are inarticulate, incoherent, incredibly busy, or (in rare cases) dismissive or hostile. You have to be able to get information out of all of those, and, as someone in the same department, I hope your skills and demeanor are improving the reputation of all tech writers, so the next writer to work with the same source finds it easier not harder.

      Finally, we use specialized writing software that can produce multiple outputs (HTML, PDF, etc.). Other places may have you publishing directly to the web. We use styles, conditional text, reusable text — a lot of complex writing features. In all cases, you have to be willing to use the styling and language set by the tech writing department. How carefully you need to adhere to this depends on the company, but this is not the time and place to develop your postmodern writing style.

      Other titles for this or similar positions may include “documentation specialist” or “content developer”.

      1. Mazzy*

        I have to read this at the end of the day.

        But one question before you go away – what is the difference between someone who just wants to write and someone becoming a technical writer? I mean, in my field, there are hard and fast requirements. I imagine alot of people are thinking “I can write so I can be one.”

        1. ceiswyn*

          The real key skills in that respect are structuring information, and writing for your audience.

          Structuring information is about the information you need being logically laid out, easy to find, and at the place where you need it. Understanding that someone using a new bit of software is NOT going to read the manual like a novel, but skim through it looking for specific bits, and so laying it out to make it easy to do that.

          Similarly, understanding that too much information is as bad as too little. Noise buries signal, and if your readership are experts in the area you’re writing in then basic explanations count as ‘noise’. You have to know the level of your audience and then be disciplined writing to that level. And sometimes, of course, your document is intended for a diverse audience, and then you have to figure out how to structure the information so that everyone can find what they need without being overwhelmed by what they don’t need.

          Most people can write coherent sentences. Many people can write coherent sentences about technical subjects. Structuring information and putting yourself in your audience’s shoes, however, seems to be a much rarer skill.

          1. Turtle Candle*

            (All of this is specific to software technical writing, FYI, since I know other kinds can be a totally different world.)

            Yes. It sort of is true in the sense that if you can write complex technical topics in clear words for a variety of audiences, you can be a tech writer–there are certainly classes and certificates, but I never took any and neither did most of the (full-time, salary-with-benefits) tech writers I work with. We could do it, and we could prove it because we had good portfolios, so… we can do it.

            I do find, however, that not everyone who can write well can write with the degree of conciseness and clarity that’s needed (I freaked out a friend who’s an academic writer when I said “you have ten seconds to convince your average IT guy that this is the right article, and if he loses interest through sentence one, it is you as the writer who failed”–which is why so many of the IT-focused articles have a really gracelessly blunt first sentence like “This article explains how to reticulate your splines for HTTPS IIS installations” instead of something more graceful or catchy, as you might for a blog post or a more popular-audience article). Or as you say, that people are going to skim, and you may need to bold your keywords and *abuse your *bullet points to make things clear to skimmers. Or that you need to know where to split a topic so that basic users can get the subset of info they need and advanced users can get the subset of info they need. A lot of it is just practice, though. (And getting your ego out of the way; we had to fire one person who refused to kill his admittedly gorgeous turns of phrase when they turned out to be–while lovely–incomprehensible to users who just needed to know where to find the print command.)

            And the bigger fail case, IME, is people who can’t keep up with what is often a very fast pace of having to absorb new information, often with a minimum of hand-holding, and adjusting very quickly to changing information, specifications, etc. I’m expected to sit in developer meetings, at which the level of technical detail is very high, and read email chains and bug reports and wiki pages that are often obtuse in their technical-ness, and so on, and mostly pick up what I need to document on my own–and to know what I need to ask about, and to not ask questions more than once, and to recognize when a feature has changed so I can update it, and so on.

            Almost nobody fails at this job IME because they’re not a good writer at all; there are a lot of good writers in the world, and we can to some degree screen for that ahead of time. Some fail because they can’t get the necessary degree of concision and clarity, although we can usually use writing exercises to help filter for that. Most fail, though, because they can’t keep up with the flow of technical information, can’t pick it up largely on their own, get overwhelmed and freak out, or get upset when they write something and changing specifications mean that they have to rewrite it a week later, and then again six weeks after that.

            But yeah, at the end of the day, in my experience (and again, I’m talking about software tech writing; I know nothing about other sub-industries) it really is an industry where in many cases, if you can demonstrate by examples that you can do the work… you can do the work. You don’t need X degree or Y certificate, although X degree or Y certificate may give you a leg up (we love CS majors who discovered they don’t’ really like to code… they’ve got a huge step up over everyone else). What proves that you can do the work is doing the work, which is why I’m always in these threads banging on about building a portfolio. Fortunately, you can build a portfolio without getting a job–lots and lots and lots of volunteer organizations desperately need tech writers, and even a quickie six-hour project documenting some small chunk of a project/site/whatever can bulk out your portfolio very well. (And doubly so if you can convince the PM for your project to be a reference, who can speak to your ability to quickly pick up technical topics and turn in work to deadlines.)

            1. ceiswyn*

              Yep, that need to become an insta-expert in complex technical subjects is one of the things I love about the job; I love getting my teeth into a really difficult new subject.

              IME a certain amount of inventiveness in finding new ways to get that information without taking up people’s time goes down well, too. Whether that involves potholing through forgotten SharePoint archives, borrowing about-to-be-decomissioned QA systems to experiment with configuration changes, or getting a developer to show you how to read the source code for a teapot so that you can document all four hundred different teapots on the system without taking up three months of someone’s time.

              I managed to get the phrase ‘advanced psychic powers’ inserted into my last performance review :)

            2. Christopher Tracy*

              Wow, this is an excellent breakdown. I had been toying with the idea of doing this for years, but always thought I’d be the type to become overwhelmed with the amount of information that would be coming my way each day – glad to know that is a legit issue some people face and not just my jerkbrain holding me back.

        2. Photoshop Til I Drop*

          Adding to the other excellent replies: technical writing is specialized in that you want to impart maximum meaning in minimum space, in the simplest way possible. I’ve heard in multiple conferences that the average skill level of a tech writer’s audience is 6th grade. Imagine taking the work a mechanical engineer does and explaining it to someone with minimal education (and who may not natively speak the language in which you write) so that they can safely operate dangerous machinery.

          You have to be aware of the many ways in which your native language can be confusing, so you can re-word to avoid that confusion. (A fun way to research this topic is the book “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”.)

          Skill with fiction/prose is not really helpful, because you need to cut the fat. Skill with research is not always helpful, because you’re often writing about something that was just invented.

          What is helpful? Having an eye for inconsistencies over the long term. Explain things the same way, in the same order, with the same wording as you did the last time. It’s not only important for simplicity and clarity, but can also be important for legal reasons.

      2. LW*

        I will reply more later, but I feel like this shift towards agile methodologies means that documentation is an incredibly, constantly hectic thing nowadays. (This is from someone who learned what “agile” means in terms of technology ~ 1 year ago.)

        1. Turtle Candle*

          I love agile, but it is very fast-paced, which, you’re right, can read as hectic. I’m biased, though, because when I did documentation in a more waterfall development model, I often had to wait until the end and do a ton of work in a rush, whereas with agile, I may have to do several successive editing passes but I’m less likely to get a “here’s the feature, we finished it, we need completed docs in three days, GO.”

          I think a lot of it is just personal preference, though.

          1. Mazzy*

            Do you mind explaining those terms quickly here? I tried to read on them but every description is too vague and long (a good writer is needed:-). I’m in a tech environment that just does “we need everything now and stuff is in people’s heads” and it works. The only person who wants to use agile is the person with high pay and low work, so we kind of ignore the request. However, I still don’t get what they mean!

            1. Photoshop Til I Drop*

              Two methods for project development.

              Waterfall is what it sounds like: one step flows into the next. Conception –> Analysis –> Design –> Creation –> Testing –> Deployment

              Agile is back and forth, creating the project in chunks that are tested and revised throughout the process.

            2. LW*

              To me, agile means releasing parts of the project as they are ready, and conferring with the client (if there is one) along the way to ensure you are on track. You also revise features as necessary, and add features based on client/supplier/partner feedback. Also, keeping the client informed about budget needs along the way is important, if that’s relevant. It’s like doing a scaffolded project in the modern composition classroom, which allows for graded revisions, peer editing groups, and instructor conferences along the way.

              Waterfall is doing everything in a linear, rigid order, and presenting the client/whomever with the finished product when it’s done. It’s like old-school writing classes, where you wrote a term paper, got a grade, likely did not get feedback along the way, and couldn’t revise.

              That’s my interpretation anyway.

              1. Turtle Candle*

                This is pretty close to my definitiosn, but it can be a little different in a company that ships a fairly universal product–we don’t iterate and test against clients because we don’t sell custom software to clients, so that wouldn’t make sense; we release a new version about three times a year, and everybody gets more or less the same thing at the same time. But the principle is the same–it’s just that the iterative testing/demonstration is against internal groups rather than external clients. Things get bounced off QA/UX for initial testing, refined, then bounced off development as a whole for sanity checking, refined, then bounced off the major in-company stakeholders, refined, then re-checked with QA/UX to make sure we didn’t blow anything up–and then all the features that have been tested in that way get bundled up together, smoke tested, regression tested, and released as the September 2016 update (or whatever).

                But yeah, that’s largely it.

            3. Turtle Candle*

              Sure, with the caveat that I’m going to necessarily be oversimplifying. :) And there are other software development models; these are just the two I know best.

              “Waterfall” development is basically sequential and non-iterative. By that I mean, you do all of step 1 before proceeding to step 2. So you first collect your requirements, then you come up with a design, then you implement that design, then you test that design and fix bugs, then you deploy it, and after that you monitor it for bugs or enhancements that are needed and add them. This actually can work extremely well on small projects–like, if I want to create a blog to catalogue my trip to Germany, I might collect my requirements (I want a blog, hosted by someone else, where I can make the color scheme blue because I like blue, and where my friends can comment), then design it (WordPress seems good to me! And I like this layout, and this shade of blue, and I want a header image with this castle), implement it (sign up for wordpress, pick the layout, customize the colors, put in the header image), test it (try it out myself on a couple of browsers and my cell phone; make my friends try it out too), deploy it (make it live, make sure it still looks OK, tell everyone), and maintain it (update it by adding posts, address issues like spam as they come up).

              The problem with waterfall or other non-iterative design things is that if you realize in the testing phase that something you came up with in the design phase is just plain not going to work, you have wasted your implementation time. If you discover that it won’t work in the deployment phase, you have wasted not only the implementation time but also the testing and deployment time. Maybe you go through allllllllll through that and it turns out your mom, who is still accessing the Internet through the ancient Mosaic browser on the library computers, can’t open WordPress, and then it’s like… well, hell, does mom, one of my main audiences, not get to see this? Or do I start all over elsewhere? And so on. To grossly oversimplify, iterative design models (like agile) are designed to make design, implementation, and testing all happen in a microcosm at the same time.

              So instead of going “okay, it’s going to be on WordPress and blue and with a castle background,” you might go “okay let’s try WordPress” (implement right away), don’t futz around with the colors at all, slap a placeholder background in there, and start testing. Can mom see your Hello World post on her library internet at all? No? Okay, maybe we scrap that and try something else. We haven’t spent a lot of time figuring out shades of blue or castle image headers–we’ve done the very first bare bones testing, and it’s clearly not going to work for one of our big users (mom), so maybe we need to think differently. Maybe we need to do something that crazypants backwater Mosaic-using library can access. Or maybe we need to buy Mom a netbook so we don’t have to worry about this. But before we have started to fuss with shades of blue, we have already figured out whether the bare bones will work. Meanwhile, while we sort out the Mosaic-Wordpress incompatibility, someone else can be doing user tests on the perfect shade of blue, so that when we’ve got our platform sorted, the color scheme is ready to go.

              One hallmark of most iterative design methods (including agile) is constant communication. Scrum, the form of agile software design that I’m most familiar with, has daily standups–short meetings (held standing up, hence the name, to ensure that people don’t get too comfortable and drag the meeting on and on) in which you talk about what you’re working on, what challenges or ‘blockers’ you have encountered, and what you’ll be working on next. Blockers may be immediately addressed by others in the standup. Often this reflects the fast changes possible in agile design: someone will say “I couldn’t get it to do X, so I did Y,” or someone will say “I tested P, and I got Q weird result” and someone else will either explain why that happened or offer to look into it. As a tech writer, I mostly listen–because over years of doing this, I have tuned my ear to hear when the changes they mention are likely to necessitate changes in my documentation. (I know this drives some people absolutely batty. There have been discussion on AAM essentially saying “if you have to have daily meetings, something is Wrong with your team.” But they’re basically indispensable for agile/iterative design, because things can change so very quickly–two developers may have gone off in wildly different directions before the next biweekly review meeting, so you need to speak and speak often.)

              The advantage of non-iterative design is that it’s sequential, straightforward, and easy to grasp. (I like it for small, simple projects–the example above notwithstanding, I’d probably use a waterfall model for a simple personal blog.) The disadvantage is that if you end up with a major problem during testing, you can end up scrambling like mad. The advantage of iterative design is that you make sure each element works as soon as you implement it (and for complex projects, that means that you can more or less make sure that each cog at least roughly fits before you try to assemble the whole automaton). The disadvantage is that, as some would put it, that just means you’re always scrambling.

              I prefer iterative because I’d rather scramble a little constantly over months, than move at a confident steady pace forward and then suddenly have to scrap everything at the last minute. But there is some degree of personal preference here. I strongly prefer iterative/agile design, and I think most people looking into software documentation should at least be able to work with it–but some people prefer non-iterative/waterfall design.

              1. LW*

                I love how thorough this comment is! One of my favorite parts about agile (in my experience) is that it is inclusive, which I would think would be helpful to a technical writer.

        2. ceiswyn*

          It is, but I prefer working in that sort of changing and challenging environment. At least you pretty much know where you are at all times; and the work tends to come at you in bite-sized pieces!

          There’s also the huge advantage that you get access to working(ish) software early and often, so there isn’t such a major crunch right at the end of the project; and when you find something a bit broken or weird it’s a lot easier to get it fixed/changed.

          1. LW*

            Yeah, this makes sense. On the other hand, if people aren’t communicating about changes as regularly as the changes are happening, it’s a bit easy to get lost, if you’re not a developer. Technical writers are really necessary.

            1. ceiswyn*

              Yeah; I’ve learned my way around our story tracking system such that I very rarely miss anything even if they forget to tag it for me, but it’s really not well understood or used by anyone outside Development. Though IME very few people need to know what’s happening on a sprint-by-sprint basis; it’s more that the people who need features that are being done in the final sprints start to get twitchy :)

            2. Turtle Candle*

              It definitely requires a high degree of communication. If I wasn’t in the daily standups and biweekly sprint review meetings for my product teams (and following up after with ‘hey, you mentioned a change to the rice sculpture modeling interface in the standup, can you fill me in really quick?’), I’d get lost in a hurry. Some other doc writers get frustrated with having 1-3 standups per day that they have to attend, but to me, it’s absolutely vital.

              1. LW*

                I like being kept in the loop, also, as someone who uses the ever-changing software product and has to explain the changes to others outside of the company.

        1. yasmara*

          OK, weird, this was supposed to be a direct reply to Undine. But I love pretty much everything my fellow technical writers are posting! It almost makes me miss the field.

    5. Gadfly*

      My husband is one. From what I can tell it is a job that pays well if you get in the right niche. But there are a lot of companies who believe all they need is an English major (student even) and $10 an hour. And freelancing is popular.

      In my husband’s case, it is the manuals and labels that go on medical lasers. And it is (or at least can be) more than just writing. You also need to be able to work with the appropriate graphics. Sometimes he has to create the graphics. Sometimes that is charts/tables, sometimes that has been labeling things/adding arrows and such to photographs, sometimes he’s had to take the photographs. If he was able to draw illustrations he’d be more valuable.

      For him, it usually is pretty flexible and easy going monotonous work most of the time. With insane crunch times when the departments you are waiting on finally finalize their stuff and you can redo everything to match but the people past you needed it yesterday because of various deadlines (FDA review/approval? Marketing launch? Product being shipped?) So a fair amount of thumb twiddling with smatterings of intense focus.

      He also does some freelance contract work–For that, he only is involved at the crunch stage so it is more feast or famine. It is nothing for a month or two and then “Can you update all the manuals and labels for X?” If he were only doing freelance it would be rough because there isn’t regular enough work for a steady income, but if you cobble together several clients there will be crunch times that overlap (and if you can’t take them on then they work with someone else and you risk losing them to that person.)

  16. Angela*

    This probably isn’t the most time sensitive or efficient way of doing things, but when I wanted to change careers, I committed to 10 hours a week volunteering at an organization that did what I wanted to do full-time (on top of my full time job). I did this for almost three years (while conducting a job search when I had the energy) and eventually the part time, volunteer experience qualified me for an entry level position in my current field.

    It was at times kind of demoralizing and exhausting, but doing what I wanted to do even on a volunteer basis kind of helped motivate me to keep working towards the goal.

  17. Turtle Candle*

    One thing that stands out to me, as someone who is a technical writer and who does hiring interview for technical writers, is a candidate with a portfolio of specifically tech writing work, even if its small. (Because IME, skill writing papers or writing grants or copywriting does not necessarily translate; sometimes it can even trip people up.) And fortunately, this is something you can develop part time fairly easily. Many, many open-source software projects are hungry for tech writers. Even a small, short-term volunteer project for an open source software team can net an impressive portfolio sample (and sometimes also references).

    So I always suggest looking around and seeing if your favorite free or open source software/websites are looking for tech writers. It’s something that makes me sit up and take notice, since nothing proves you can do it as well as doing it.

    (Obviously this is geared towards software and not say, medical tech writing, but I mention it because it’s a low-commitment way to genuinely stand out, assuming your samples are good.)

      1. Turtle Candle*

        Of course! I’ve known people who built a good portfolio with semi-technical-writing things from prior jobs (checklists, SOPs, etc.) plus a few examples of software documentation from open source projects (friends of mine have done volunteer work for Mozilla, Audacity, and Archive Of Our Own, among others). It certainly can be done!

        If you have any interest in API or other code reference-type documentation, taking a few programming classes (if you haven’t already) can be a big help. The freebie kind (like on Coursera) aren’t as much useful for your resume, necessarily (it depends on the employer), but they can help you make some killer examples for your portfolio.

        Good luck!

        1. LW*

          Thank you! This is such great advice. I was thinking I would review intro courses for each of the most widely-used languages for back-end development, then focus on one.

    1. Marmalade*

      Hi there, do you have any advice or resources about how to get started contributing documentation for open-source projects?
      FWIW, I use github and am a (relatively) noob coderm but I’m not sure how to ‘break in’, aside from correcting typos and so on when I find them. (And is that an annoying thing to do? If it was me I’d appreciate it, but I worry that people find it pedantic).
      If I don’t understand coding very well, or it’s a language I don’t know much about, how do I go about writing documentation for it? It seems like a catch-22.

      1. Turtle Candle*

        I’ve always done it by reaching out first, whether to a volunteering@ email address (if there was one), or on their forums/message boards, or on IRC/chat, or for smaller projects, directly to the original programmer. Larger projects will often have some kind of volunteering or contributor page; smaller projects, you can often just email the person who came up with the software directly.

        My email has usually been very direct and to the point without being insulting of their current docs. Stuff like, ‘Hello! I’ve been using your spline reticulation software for years and I love it. While I was poking around, I noticed that there help for spline re-reticulation algorithms could use some fleshing out–I’d enjoy helping out with that if you’re interested, since I think it’s a great feature and could use some more attention. Thanks!’ Sometimes I get no response, but often the response is extremely positive. A lot of larger projects actually have ‘volunteer’ or ‘get involved’ pages where you can find out exactly who they want you to contact or how you can get started. If not, the help@ or support@ or volunteer@ or whatever email address will probably put you in contact with someone who can help out.

        For what it’s worth, what I’m talking about is usually documentation of the sort that’s user-facing–like this: https://support.office.com/en-us/article/Create-and-use-your-own-template-a1b72758-61a0-4215-80eb-165c6c4bed04 not like this: https://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ms788971(v=vs.110).aspx The latter requires that you have some knowledge of what you’re doing before you start. The former, you can more or less play around until you figure it out.

        I started documentation before I had much code experience at all. If that’s the case, you won’t want to pick a project that would require a lot of technical knowledge, like, I don’t know, an API reference or set of regular expression examples–but plenty of projects need someone to help with the “to do x, click y, then z, then type your password, then click OK” level of stuff, which doesn’t require a ton of knowledge in advance.

        I’ve never tried to modify docs via github without discussing with someone first. Typos are probably not going to upset anybody, but ‘fixing typos’ isn’t likely to be much help in a portfolio anyway. I’d recommend getting in contact with someone and discussing what you want to do for anything more ambitious.

  18. Photoshop Til I Drop*

    Technical writers are often starting from scratch at every job, because they frequently deal with IP. Proving your writing skills and your ability to learn is important to an interviewer; your understanding of their specific thingamabob is secondary.

    Highlight the following in your samples (which may not actually be “tech” writing):

    1. How have you improved something (this is the weird confusing old version, here is my amazing concise Rev B!)
    2. How quickly you can get up to speed (I took a week-long training course on the Flim-Flam 2000, and had a first draft of the maintenance manual ready for review within two weeks)

    1. Turtle Candle*

      Yes–at my job we basically never expect people to already know our industry (which is semi-niche). Being able to pick up new technologies quickly and in a mostly self-directed way is far more important. Specific technologies are often a plus, but rarely a dealbreaker.

      I’m looking for candidates whose writing is solid (and above all, clear–clarity is king), and who can pick up a lot of new info pretty quickly without getting overwhelmed. The rest is largely gravy, unless I’m hiring for something particularly specialized. (The API documentation position required at least basic familiarity with reading code, for example. But again, that’s a special case.)

  19. Milla*

    Technical writer here.

    It is easier to slide into technical writing than to break into it. Meaning, if you have a non-writing job that offers the chance to do some technical writing, such as creating handouts, training, or manuals, it’s easier to use that experience (and work example) to get your next job exclusively writing. Working freelance for a short while will also help land a contract with a company later. It is also easier to get a job writing what you know. Since you have an educational background, applying to textbook or training companies is going to offer better results than auto manufacturing.

    There are certain places which will always be desperate for technical writers, such as manufacturing plants, corporate locations for large banks, and any international corporation with constantly-changing regulations. These places tend to have a dedicated pool of writers. They also have high turnover and are filled with drudge work, but they love hiring ex-teachers since they are very good at explaining things in logical, varied ways. Get your foot in the door by completing a contract with one of these places before using it to leverage your next contract with a better company and more interesting and independent writing tasks.

    Also, be warned that technical writing is mainly “gig” work where you contract for a short time to complete certain projects before being let go again. Expect to do that for a while until you get a feel for which industry and type of writing suits you best. I have never heard of a technical writer being hired by a company as a full employee from the start, ever. There is typically a 6 month to 2 year trial contract first before you can apply to be a permanent, in-house employee if you choose that route over gig work.

    When they say 3 years experience, they mean they want someone who knows enough to not need much training, but will still be pretty cheap. If your recruiter does not know what a technical writer does, or confuses it with a programmer or web designer, do not work with them. Use staffing firms that specialize in professionals such as engineers and other technical positions.

    Flexibility is key in this industry. Every employer is going to have a different writing style and template. You could be a renown, best-selling novelist, but if you can’t adapt to their style guide, you will be fired. Other important things to demonstrate during an interview are the abilities to handle difficult client interactions with professional effectiveness, and to interpret bizarre and incomplete instructions. Project managing, people managing, soft skills, past contracts with large corporations, experience working in the field you’re writing about, SAP skills, layout or graphic design skills, and programming, especially HTML, are all things that will make you extra-attractive to an employer looking for a technical writer.

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      I have never heard of a technical writer being hired by a company as a full employee from the start, ever.

      That’s funny because the only technical writers I know are full-time employees hired by companies (tech companies).

      1. Turtle Candle*

        Same. I’m a tech writer in software, and I and all the tech writers I know were hired as full time employees from the get-go. I suspect this is dependent on the industry or subset of the industry? My experience and connections are 99% in software (but both big and small, famous and niche, branches of software).

        1. yasmara*

          I work for a Very Large Tech Company and we used to hire full-time US-based employees as technical writers (15 years ago, when I was hired). Several years later, the company tried to outsource technical writing to China, with a US-based project manager/team lead – spoiler alert, it didn’t work so well. Now a lot of the documentation mission is back to being US-based, with one experienced full-time employee as the project manager/team leader (who probably still has writing responsibilities) and a team of contract writers, usually full-time but with absolutely no approved overtime. At my company, these contractors have to be hired through one of 2 approved vendor companies. We also have a growing technical writer team in India, with mixed results. But I would say entry-level full-time employee technical writers in the US are not at all common anymore. In smaller companies, you might be a team of one per product, maybe with the ability to contract some stuff out.

          1. LW*

            This is good to know. Also, I can see how outsourcing technical writing about US products to non-US writers would not work so well. Companies are trying to save money, I guess.

    2. Hodie-Hi*

      My entry into technical writing came by way of working for a very small software startup as an admin. They hired me a year after I got my BS in Secondary Ed with a minor in English. A year later, the tech writer did not return from maternity leave, so I slid right into her job. I survived an acquisition by a huge company and stayed there 15 years altogether. Came into my current situation with another global company on a 6 month contract that was extended several times until they were able to open a hiring requisition to bring me on permanently. I’ve been here at total of 7 years now.

  20. Technical Editor*

    Technical writer/editor here! I get this question all the time, so this is what I suggest:

    1. Build a strong portfolio of writing samples. Not academic papers. Show PDFs, website, glossy brochures, anything that shows you applied the principles of technical writing to a particular audience in a specific context.

    But how do you build a strong portfolio, you ask? See items 2-5.

    2. Find a mentor who can help you get experience in an authoring tool or write a specific kind of document. You can set up a short-term project with a specific project.

    Plus, you get the added benefit of growing your network, and now next time your mentor sees an opening you would be good for, they can help you by making introductions, acting as a reference, or by sending your resume directly to the hiring manager.

    3. Volunteer for projects that need technical writing help, even in your own organization. You can also find
    examples of bad documentation and redo it.

    4. Check out your local Society for Technical Communication (STC) chapter. They’ll have a plethora of information, workshops, networking events, mentors, and volunteer opportunities to help budding technical writers like yourself get started.

    5. Consider getting a certificate in technical writing from a community college, university, or an online program (usually 5 classes or under a year total). Find one that focuses on creating portfolio pieces instead of learning about theory.

    Also, check out Tom Johnson’s blog I’d Rather Be Writing for his series on getting started in tech comm. Lots of good info there.

    Good luck!

    1. Turtle Candle*

      3 is a great one. Sometimes it requires tact if the bad doc writer is still there, but I’ve found most of the time if I say, “hey, this process seems not to have been completely documented/I’d like to polish the existing docs, is that okay?” the answer is “oh god, PLEASE, THANK YOU” because the original documenter was doing it out of pressing need and not because they actually wanted to.

      (But as mentioned elsewhere, this may be specific to software.)

      1. Technical Editor*

        That’s true – inside your own organization you have to be a bit tactful. As a student, I would find pieces of documentation all over campus and redo them for my own portfolio or skill building. I never let anyone see them outside my portfolio, and once I got my first job, I didn’t need it anymore.

        There are tons of bad writing examples out there on the web — or you can even check your kitchen and home appliance manuals. Some of those are really atrocious!

        1. LW*

          This is an excellent idea! I received documentation for a phone camera remote that made no sense; it was a random collection of words.

          1. Photoshop Til I Drop*

            Very often that is bad translation. I’ve had some head-slapping moments auditing translated manuals. Warning the user that the tool might have a loose screw is NOT the same as telling the user that the machine might go insane.

            1. Photoshop Til I Drop*

              Here is an example of bad tech writing, which I would fix if I could edit! I should not have changed “tool” to “machine” for reasons of consistency and for reasons that involve legal/agency definitions.

        2. LW*

          Also, I could volunteer to help with our documentation, but I already feel slammed in my current role. There isn’t enough time in the day, feels like!

  21. Mimmy*

    I’m not in technical writing but I’m experiencing this conundrum. I’m at the point where I feel like I should go back and complete the Masters (I just finished an advanced certificate–almost half a Masters) just so I can secure an internship to get experience!

    1. LW*

      I did a technical writing certificate because I wanted to seem more marketable. Is there any way you can do the kind of work you want to do at your job, to help out a colleague?

  22. Allison*

    I remember that struggle. I graduated with a political science degree, but didn’t get enough experience during undergrad so I couldn’t compete with my fellow alums for the few relevant jobs people were willing to hire for.

    Thing is, if you need to hire someone to do a job but your budget is tight, you want to spend that money on someone who can come in and get right down to business with little training. All jobs need some training, but there’s a difference between showing someone the ropes of your specific office and teaching someone a skill that’s completely new to them.

    To pitch yourself to a job when they want experience, your pitch should focus more on what you can do and why you’d be able to hit the ground running in the job they need you do to, and less on what you’re willing to learn or how smart you are.

    1. LW*

      “To pitch yourself to a job when they want experience, your pitch should focus more on what you can do and why you’d be able to hit the ground running in the job they need you do to, and less on what you’re willing to learn or how smart you are.”

      This right here! I should write out my points and back them up with past experiences/measurables/facts.

  23. Milton Waddams*

    Inflated experience requirements are a huge HR problem across industries. HR interested in CYA loves loves loves it, but any business owner should be very strict about not allowing it, as it self-selects for liars and the desperate — those are the people who apply for positions that pay entry-level wages and involve entry-level work, but require non-entry-level experience.

    Unless you have a clear path for the desperate to advance forward, hiring for anything other than temporary roles will lead to unhappy results, as they will always feel like their position is beneath them.

    And you really don’t want to introduce liars to your organization, as they will make whatever existing CYA problems your company has much much worse.

    1. LW*

      I can’t lie in applications. Not even to stretch the truth. At my previous job, I met or exceeded all of the requirements the job description listed. I know I need to figure out a way to show that I can do this other job, using past experiences and not made-up stuff to do so.

    2. JM in England*

      You’ve hit the nail on the head, Milton!

      One thing that I’ll always be wondering is when will employers wake up to the fact that, experience-wise, that everybody coming into the working world has to start somewhere?

  24. AdAgencyChick*

    I feel for you, OP. I’m in a pretty specialized area of advertising, and it was really rough breaking in. I ended up doing a lot of freelancing at low rates while holding down a full-time job in an unrelated field, hoping that I could build up a portfolio with my freelance work. This ended up being an AWFUL lot of work and I’m not sure how well it paid off.

    What did end up working for me was taking a job for a nonprofit doing closely related work in a city that has a much smaller talent pool than NYC, where I am now. I did this for personal reasons, not on purpose to help my career, but after only six months at the nonprofit, I was able to land the job I’d been trying and failing to get for so long.

    Not sure the specifics of my case would work for you, but I think the general principle — try looking in undesirable locations, or be willing to take a job whose salary significantly limits the talent pool (I did both; the combo of nonprofit and small city meant I got paid peanuts!), if you can swing it, just to get enough experience to apply to what you really want.

      1. AdAgencyChick*

        At least in my niche, there are lots of opportunities, but also a LOT of people who want each one.

  25. Bad Candidate*

    I had similar problems. I went back to school as an adult and got a degree in what is “eMarketing” but I had zero professional experience in anything even remotely close to marketing. I have personal experience in it, but nothing that was remotely successful and I’d put on a resume or even bring up. (Getting 30 likes on a Facebook page is not impressive.) Every internship I saw was unpaid or part time and I couldn’t afford to do either. Three years later and my husband makes enough that I could do a part time job for the experience, but my degree is three years old now and I don’t even think I want to work in that field any more. So, yeah, sucks. I hope OP has better luck.

    1. LW*

      I know about affiliate marketing; is that similar? If it is, affiliate marketing seems to be pretty big and to not require any particular education. You should check out working for a market research company. A lot of market research is done online now.

  26. Former Invoice Girl*

    I have a question that may seem to be a bit silly, but I have to ask – do technical writers necessarily have to be STEM graduates or work in that sort of field, in general? (The LW mentions that she has an education in English and writing, and I recall reading about more people in a similar situation, but I don’t know if they are the exception rather than it being something that happens a lot.) Or do you learn a lot “on the fly”, so to speak?

    (I’m going to read this thread through now – I’ve been interested in technical writing for some time, and it seems like a good opportunity to learn more about it.)

    1. Technical Editor*

      No, most get into technical writing via an English, Communications, or teaching degree. I know some who went into Engineering or Computer Science and changed careers later on. For many companies, most valued skill is writing well, not industry or technical knowledge. However, some are absolutely looking for trained engineers over technical writers, but, in my area at least, that is the exception rather than the rule.

    2. Photoshop Til I Drop*

      I have a BA in English and an MS in IT, if that helps.

      In my personal experience, people who excel in tech writing are not hard-core language enthusiasts or die-hard math brains, but people who straddle those labels comfortably.

    3. jjw*

      I think many smaller companies initially find a tech writer from their existing specialist staff. For example, a Teapot Engineer who wants to work flexible hours. Then they think that they can replace that person by advertising for a “technical writer with five years of teapot engineering experience”.

      A couple of things I noticed back when I was hiring tech writers:

      – Many, many people apply who clearly do not want to be technical writers. They’ll usually implied that they were great programmers who wanted to join my wonderful company and that they were willing to do a bit of dull technical writing until something more fitting turned up. To differentiate these people from genuine career-changers I would look for something that demonstrated actual interest in the field such as coursework, writing examples or involvement in open source projects.
      – Many people apply who have writing experience but no technical skills. Sometimes this can be remedied, but sometimes it’s because they are never going to grok technology. You don’t necessarily need a serious technical background (many good tech writers come from the arts or education), but you need to demonstrate some comfort with technical subjects.

    4. Turtle Candle*

      I came in with a history degree, so no. STEM people are often considered a bonus, I won’t lie, but it’s very far from a requirement; 3 out of 5 members of my tech writing department have liberal arts degrees.

      They do, however, need to be able to demonstrate that they can pick up technical skills quickly; our highest proportions of washouts are people who are like “well I’m a good writer so of course I can write these silly manuals” and then can’t keep up with complex and rapidly-changing software products.

      1. Former Invoice Girl*

        Thank you for your answers! So it seems like it’s not a requirement, but some comfortability with technology and picking up on technical skills fast are good things to have.

      2. yasmara*

        YES. Especially within my span of time in the field (15 years) it’s gone from needing to be somewhat tech savvy, but mostly plugging words into the right spot to requiring a very high level of technical skills, especially if you work in online help/hover help.

  27. Gadfly*

    If you don’t have it, having some basic graphics skills is also is a big plus. If you can do more parts of creating and formatting the entire document that needs to be created and not just the text blocks, you are more useful. If you can rough out a whole manual on your own, without needing others to make the charts and label the parts in the photographs and draw arrows to where they go, you are more valuable.

    1. LW*

      Hmm, this makes sense. The company would get more bang for their buck if their technical writer could also make technical charts/graphs explaining the text.

      I’m so glad all this chart-making I currently do will come in handy for creating some portfolio materials!

  28. Venus Supreme*

    Hey, LW, I’d like to give my $0.02 as to how I started to tackle job applications.

    Backstory: Through some connections at school, I landed a full-time internship at a well-known company in my field after graduating undergrad. Prior to this internship my work experience was all retail and babysitting.

    My then-boss/mentor really broke down how to look at job applications: First, ignore the “3 years’ experience” part. Next, I’d highlight specific adjectives in the posting (“ability to manage multiple projects,” “detail-oriented,” etc.) and connect those adjectives to what I’ve achieved in my professional work. In the beginning I used my experience at Retail Job and Internship in my cover letters (took a bit of creativity but I managed it!), and I actually completed my internship with a full-time job offer at another organization. Now, two years after finishing undergrad, I’m on my second full-time job in my desired field.

    Clearly you have experience. I would say it’s a matter of dissecting the job posting without being intimidated by the years of experience. I know at least in my case, my current employer hired me despite my lack of 3 years’ experience so that I can learn and grow in the field within their company.

    LW, I wish you the best!

    1. LW*

      Thank you! I will work on drawing those parallels. I think it helps that I now work for a technology-adjacent company, so I have a little more understanding of tech things now.

      I also started college as a CS major, before switching to English. I wish someone had told me that real-world CS involves learning and using languages, not math.

  29. James*

    This is something where you may want to check why the number is listed. I know that for some jobs there is a required number of years of experience listed in regulations or the criteria for acceptance by regulatory bodies. The best example I know of this is the position of Paleontological Resources Specialist according to the California Energy Commission: a PRS is required to have 3 years experience in California according to the CEC. (You get that, by the way, by being a paleo monitor, and in fact that process is built into the requirements). To be a certified geologist in the state of Alabama requires a certain number of years of experience as well, working under a Certified Professional Geologist.

    Ideally you’d be aware of that going into such a job, but after talking with people in my work and reading this site, I no longer assume that applicants universally are intelligent enough to figure such things out. Congratulations, you’ve made me become more jaded than nearly ten years in environmental remediation did! :P

    1. LW*

      I think a lot of contracts have the specific requirements they have due to being for government contractors. I live in a military-focused area.

  30. Hodie-Hi*

    Subscribe to techwr-l. Their archive is a treasure trove. This issue has been discussed there many times. Much of the advice for sliding/breaking in to technical writing that I’ve seen there has also been provided here.

  31. Christopher Tracy*

    And it really helps to excel at things that aren’t central to the job description but that people still find compelling — like being great at communicating, or obviously really smart or driven, or particularly personable. (And if this weren’t already a writing job, I would put great writing on that list too.)

    Late to the party on this one, but agree with this wholeheartedly now that I’ve seen it work for me. When I was switching jobs last year and jumping industries (but still staying within the same company), I was promoted and given a raise to take the position I’m currently in where I had only a couple weeks direct experience (I had tangentially related experience). I was told I was given this job and bump regardless of my lack of experience because of all the main industry designations and certifications I have – the hiring manager and his boss both said that told them I was driven. They also knew I was a strong writer, and have relationships with higher-ups in various divisions throughout the company, which they can leverage in various ways. When I decide to switch jobs and niche industries again (possibly staying within my current company), I’ll have to remember these things and play them up so that my lack of experience won’t be the only factor hiring managers consider.

  32. Trig*

    Another tech writer here.

    My local college offers a 1-year tech writing course culminating in an internship. The internship is usually paid (though some candidates having trouble getting hired take an unpaid one to fulfill the program requirements), which basically completely offsets the tuition AND gets you some experience. The program has a great relationship with companies in town, so interns often get great experience in software, government, and healthcare industries.

    For someone with academic writing experience, the program itself was mostly common sense and not too challenging, but definitely helped narrow the focus of my writing, and gave a glimpse into freelancing and project management stuff. The opening of doors from the internship was the really invaluable thing though. I got hired by the company where I did my internship and am still there four years later.

    FWIW, though my cohort was mostly post-undergrad folks, there were a smattering of later-career people looking for a change.

    LW, if you still have trouble even after taking all the advice here, and you have time, inclination, and such a convenient program near you, I recommend it. My school also offered an online course so those already working full time could still get the certificate, though I think it was without the internship component.

    1. Trig*

      Edit: Oh, I see above that you have a certificate already! Sorry, shoulda read the comments first. Ah well, maybe this can help someone else in a similar boat!

      1. LW*

        Yes, I thought the certificate program (which was online) was helpful in terms of learning about project budgets and timelines, and about how to design a document with text and graphics. These are things you don’t learn in your run-of-the-mill English program.

  33. justsomeone*

    LW and Alison, thank you so much for this question and thread. I’ve been unhappy in my position and not sure where to take my next step to because I just don’t feel like I want to keep doing what I’m doing now. I hadn’t really considered Technical Writing, but this thread has helped me realize that it might be an excellent fit for me!

    For the first time in over a year, I’m excited about the next step!

  34. DJ*

    Thank you for answering this question Alison!

    I’m hoping to get my PhD (in biology) within 12 mons. Looking at local job postings is rather disheartening when you see every entry level (for a PhD) require 2-3 years of experience.

  35. Kapikui*

    Sometimes the person writing the requirements is just a moron. Years ago I remember a job ad wanting a Linux (computer operating system) administrator. I believe they wanted 10 years experince, but it was published about a week or so before the 10th anniversary of the first runnable version of Linux being posted online. In other words, they were requiring an amount of experience for a job that exactly one person on earth had.

    That went rather viral (before going viral was a thing) in IT circles, and that particular company was a laughingstock because they failed to even to do even minor research.

    1. Clair*

      This is still happening today in many computer fields. Seems as if HR depts are using on-boarding services more and more to find tech talent, because of the exact problem you mentioned above. Last interview I had with HR was a flop. Everything I told her just went clear over her head. I could tell she was struggling to keep up with her note taking.

  36. Kraig*

    This is why they have a skill shortage nobody can get the skills.
    In this instance their are dozens of open source projects that could use a good write up. Offer documentation to them for a reference

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