Finding Opportunities as an Entry Level Technical Writer
I’ve enjoyed writing since my college days, when I lived with a bunch of English majors. In the 10 years I spent as a software engineer, I maintained a blog as a hobby. When clients came knocking to offer me paid writing opportunities, I was unsure.
Do I really know what I’m talking about? What if I write something that’s factually incorrect? How vulnerable should I be?
I figured that the risk was low, and now having written over 100 blog posts in the past two years, I can say confidently that my doubts were misplaced.
Of course, my self-doubt is not unique. “I have never considered myself expressive or eloquent, so I used to doubt that I would make a good technical writer,” frontend developer and writer Linda Ikechukwu told me. “However, the truth is that writing, like every other skill, can be learned and developed through practice.
What is Technical Writing?
Software engineer and writer Hrittik Roy defines technical writing as writing that is “all about communicating complex engineering topics in a way that is easy for the reader to understand, follow and execute without complicated language.” A technical writer’s job is to deliver technical information to another party clearly and efficiently.
Technical writing does not need to be flashy. Actually, it should rarely be flashy at all! “People who read technical documents are usually looking for answers,” Ikechukwu told me.“ It’s our jobs as technical writers to help them find those answers as quickly as possible, so they can get back to their own lives.” In order to do that, you need technical aptitude, clarity of thought, and knowledge of your reader base.
Skills You Need
When you first begin technical writing, focus on topics of which you have deep knowledge. “You need to know the intricacies of how things work internally and externally,” full stack developer and technical writer Ravgeet Dhillon told me.“ Only then you would be able to explain a topic to a complete beginner.
When you’re beginning, choosing familiar technical topics will allow you to focus on the craft of writing, instead of research. When I wrote about this topic for Stackoverflow, developer, consultant and author Adam Duvander advised that new writers should “pick a fun technical challenge you faced and share how you fixed it. If you do this every month or two, you’ll have more technical posts than almost any other working engineer.”
As you develop your technical writing skills, you can easily branch out into topics that require more research. “Pick a certain area of technology and start writing about it,” Dhillon suggested. “Only after that, learn the skills that are complementary to the main skill and start writing about them.” In this way, technical writing can be a method by which you improve as a developer. It acts as an in-road to on-the-job learning. The more you write, the more you will develop confidence in your communicative skills.
Clarity of Thought
Technical writing focuses primarily on communicating information. You’re not trying to entertain or persuade readers of anything. You’re trying to deliver knowledge in the clearest, most coherent, and simplest way possible. “The flow of the article is very important in a technical piece,” Roy told me. “For example, you don’t want to jump steps or miss important details, making it hard for readers to follow.”
At the same time, remember that readers of technical writing are looking for answers. Ikechukwu suggests following the military acronym BLUF: bottom line up front. This means putting the most important information at beginning of each section and providing details afterward.
Technical writing is different from other genres in that, sometimes, the clearest way to express a concept is with the aid of a screenshot or diagram. Don’t hesitate to use illustrations when necessary. “Adding more illustrations to your writing is better than adding more paragraphs,” Roy told me.
Knowledge of Your Audience
Your work should be useful to your reader, and those readers can vary. “Matching your article’s voice and technical depth to the intended readership will help you make the most impact,” Tyler Charbeoneau wrote on the Draft.dev blog. “While a manager might care about delivering business value, a developer might prioritize efficiency and ease of use.” Keeping your target reader in mind in the early stages of writing will help you structure your writing.
Consider where you might publish your work. If you’re writing technical documentation, your audience will likely be other technical workers in your field so you can write with a higher level of assumed knowledge. On a personal blog, you might want to reach a wider audience, so might want to write at a more widely accessible level.
Developing Your Technical Writing Skills
Writing is a practice, and like any practicable skill, the more you do it, the easier it gets.
Reading and Courses
Reading technical writing is one of the best ways to get a feel for the style. Write the Docs provides a thorough documentation guide, as well as many other resources to better understand technical documentation. If you write code, consider using the guide as a tool to document your own code.
Beginning can be intimidating, and your work will never be perfect on the first draft. Choose a topic you understand deeply, or a problem you recently solved. Write about the topic, or narrate how you solved the problem. Once the words are on-page, it’s much easier to go through and revise your work to ensure it’s as clear, correct, and coherent. Bake time into your schedule for writing at least a few times a week. You’ll be amazed at what you can produce when you dedicate time to the practice.
Writing technical content for your personal blog is a great way to build a portfolio, which will help you land technical writing gigs. Blogging regularly shows clients you can reliably adhere to a schedule, while simultaneously providing examples of your work. As you write regularly, you’ll grow more comfortable with the format, and maybe even develop a readership that can turn into a client base. A consistent blog also acts as a “historical record,” as Head of Developer Relations at FusionAuth Dan Moore told me. If you write consistently about technical challenges that interest you, you may uncover new topics or angles that can lead to new opportunities. A personal blog shows potential employers you are engaged, curious, and creative—all great qualities for a technical thinker to have.
If you’d like to start your own blog, Medium, Dev.to, and Hashnode are all popular options for developers. For an even easier beginning, start with LinkedIn posts or Twitter threads to see what topics engage your audience. Then, expand on those topics.
Once you have built up work on a personal blog, consider reaching out to open-source projects or friends in your network. Ask to provide documentation or blog content for their projects. Though this work is unpaid, it’s an invaluable experience for learning about how to work with clients, and a great addition to your portfolio. Ikechukwu began writing on her blog, then for FreeCodeCamp. “Working with the editors at FreeCodeCamp helped me improve my writing and gave me the confidence to apply for my first paid writing gig,” she told me.
Landing your First Paid Gig
I started writing for my blog, and that led to a company reaching out to me to write for them. Small opportunities are a great way to test the waters and see if technical writing is a good fit for you. To find them, cast a wide net.
“I came across an article that listed about 7 technical websites that pay you for writing for them,” full-stack developer Raveet Dhillion told me. “I sent my portfolio to all 7 of them.” The more people see your portfolio, the more you have a chance that one will bite.
Look for freelance opportunities at places like Upwork and the Community Writing Programs list. Reach out per those opportunities and pitch yourself. The pitch process varies by publication and is best learned by doing. Some will have specific application processes, while others may simply want to see a portfolio or a few short pitches for potential articles you would write for them. Remember you’re selling yourself, so be confident in your skills and portfolio.
Cold outreach is also a viable strategy. If a company that interests you has technical writers on their roster, consider emailing cold and asking if they work with freelancers. Even if you are turned down, you’ve shown initiative and potentially made a new connection for future work.
For a new technical writer, rejection or lack of response can be intimidating or may cause self-doubt. But that’s how freelancing works. Be persistent!
Draft.dev is always keeping an eye out for new technical writers, so be sure to learn more and apply here.
LinkedIn is an underutilized resource for new technical writers. “A random chat on LinkedIn with a German consultancy firm CEO helped me jump on the technical writing wagon,” Roy told me. He began technical writing, and as his career developed, he shared his articles on LinkedIn regularly. “Posting these posts on LinkedIn helped me get more clients, and the cycle continued.”
Sharing your blog posts, freelance work, or volunteer work on LinkedIn is an excellent way to let your network know you are doing this work consistently. As your work appears in regularly in the feed, you will be “top of mind” for your network if anyone is seeking out writers.
For Roy, a random LinkedIn chat started him on the path to technical writing. If someone in your LinkedIn network is doing something cool that interests you, consider interviewing them for a blog post or a volunteer post. Building relationships with clients you admire is often a gateway to future paid work.
Write the Docs Job Board
If you find you love technical writing, consider pursuing it full-time. Write the Docs has a job board specifically for full-time technical writing careers.
Leverage Your Network
Your professional network is also a great tool to find new work. No one will consider you for writing opportunities if they don’t know you’re looking for them. Don’t be afraid to mention your writing endeavors to colleagues. Post about it online, and mention it in in-person conversations. You never know who might be looking for someone to fill your particular niche.
Developers and engineers have deep knowledge that companies need. Technical writing is a unique and in-demand skill engineers can develop to further their careers and find new opportunities. Learning a new skill like technical writing can be intimidating, but if you trust your technical aptitude, develop clarity of thought, keep your knowledge base in mind, and practice, you will find technical writing is a skill that can be developed like any other. With confidence in your skill, you can embark on capturing paid technical writing gigs successfully.