Getting an entry level technical writing job without connections
Sep 04 2021
Disclaimer: this is a highly personal post and take all advice with a grain of salt.
I am neurotypical so I still have things a lot easier than some.
The job search is luck and connections. If you have less luck, you better have more connections. Otherwise, if you have less connections, pray for a lucky streak.
Despite technical writing being considered far-flung from the literary scene, I got my foot in the door through creative—fucking—writing.
I have a “techy” resume and a “literary” resume with mostly the same content. My “literary” resume soon became my main resume, because I got more fucking responses from it.
I should be mad. Yeah, I sunk my time in a bajillion personal GitHub projects and studied a few Computer Science courses as electives. Four years of desperation-fueled hustling. I’m facepalming at myself. So much for
LeArN tO cOdE.
(don’t get me wrong, as a technical writer, you probably want to learn some coding. Enough to be literate, not a master by any stretch)
Classic fallacy of the job seeker: I thought having technical skills would make a technical writer more hireable.
My “literary” resume had more humanity to it. That’s why it caught fire. People want to hire writers who can write. Who woulda thunk?
Most people, including recruiters, don’t know what a technical writer is. First and foremost, they assume it’s some kind of journalist (it’s always a journalist). This means that a technical writing resume needs to be stuffed with keywords from writing industries, not tech (software) industries.
Become a caricature #
Some people give the unhelpful advice of “imagine yourself 5 years in the future.” They say it’ll make you more focused on your goals, and you gotta “fake it 'till you make it,” and to use the Jedi mind trick they call “make a good first impression.”
Yes, but fuck no. They don’t say that to give you permission to exercise creativity. Your next step is to hijack the laziest slobs on the planet: people who don’t want to exercise empathy on you.
Flat out frank, your best bet is to be stereotypically writerly.
Ok, not to the extent of “since I was 4 years old I’ve used my grandmother’s Olympia SM8 Typewriter and I can faintly remember the smell of spooled ink,” because it doesn’t matter if you’ve been writing since highschool or preschool (coincidentally this reeks of “I’ve been programming since I was 8” rhetoric).
A long time ago, I read someone’s blog post about their career as a graphic designer, and he mentioned he didn’t appear like the “typical designer.” He didn’t drink coffee. He dressed as a casual man, instead of the… hipster metro yuppie way. You know, the carries-a-Macbook-and-a-coffee-everywhere image. Whenever he met new clients, he’d get the, “You don’t look like a designer,” sometimes as a joke, but who can really tell? From that point on, he wasn’t sure if they also thought poorly of his qualifications.
Bothered by the frequency of comments, he started adopting beanies, plaid, and kept a coffee mug nearby at all times. Lo and behold, people stopped asking him about his appearance and doubting his qualifications. They just trusted him and his line of work. This is a “halo effect” related to your career.
Unfortunately, I can’t find that blog post, as I never bother to bookmark these things, so this is only a memory of my interpretation.
You need to use the shortcuts. Animators in character design and fashion artists will attest to the power of silhouettes. People latch onto every justification available that confirms they’ve “hired the right person.” If you want a writer’s job, conforming to the writer stereotype is necessary.
Not all places are as ignorant of the field, but most are. Until you’re actually employed and facing a problem, most people don’t know what kind of writer they’re looking for. Part of the process is that you grow into the role and fill the gaps. Remember, they think you’re a journalist, a writer, a living walkie-talkie. Maybe not a crime scene journalist, but just someone who reports on things that are otherwise missed. A vector for insight.
Qualifications of a writer #
What is a “writer?” It might share some aspects with the graphic designer, such as the eternal coffee, a pencil over your ear, and carrying an oversized notebook, but those are the superficial of the superficial. What about being some kind of brilliant teacher-historian who labored during their scant leisure time, until audacity lands them publisher recognition and blockbuster movie deals, becoming a literary giant like J. K. Rowling and G. R. R. Martin? Or on the opposite end of the spectrum, toiling in secret as a tortured, Kafkaesque soul, only to become famous after your grandnephew stumbles upon a trove of brilliance and sends the USB 2.0 for post-mortem publication?
Yes, you need to pretend that you are all of those. The Twitter mob will kill you if you peddle a “mentally-ill tortured artist” meme, but people love caricatures.
It also depends on the type of writing position you want. Maybe a grant writer or copywriter should resemble an extroverted go-getter. I have no advice for copywriting or UX writing, because I don’t want that type of job.
Technical writers deal with NDAs and plenty of confidential sauce. If you are a secretive, tortured soul, try to emphasize the “not overly talktative” and “very careful” part. Be very careful: don’t show that you are just a tortured soul who will only end up adding to the heap of existing tortured souls. You are going to be the thankless savior dealing with the tortured souls at your company who can’t communicate, and it’s not for lack of trying.
Do you have a track record of making rocks bleed? Can you get a tuff-as-tungsten, tight-lipped German to sing? If so, congrats! You might have enough empathy to be a technical writer!
There’s a lot of debate on how to do resumes, like whether to include your photo or not. Those kinds of things rely on your culture of origin. It’s customary in the United States of America to never include profile pictures, so American resumes should take advantage of that extra space. Some people add charts and bars to gamify their skill progress, but the meaning tends to get lost in front of busy recruiters.
In a nutshell:
- Indicate that you read a lot.
- Indicate that you crack people a lot.
- Also have some cool “technical” skills, like photography or cooking or attending jury duty. Just enough to label you as someone who understands the rut that obsessive geeks drive themselves into.
- Use keywords from related industries too.
Yes, tailor to the writerly caricature. You’ve gotta pass through the applicant tracking systems.
The great thing about college is that the professors want to see you grow as a human being. “Techical communication is about media. You get to dabble in video production, create content for learning & development, or engage with web design. You can do anything!”
They shield you from the real world and forget to tell you, “No one cares. Make a portfolio that only has the best 1-2 projects on it, because the rest are garbage and you’re not proud of them. If you don’t know what’s been vetted and what’s trash about your own work, what makes you think anyone else wants to pick through them?”
It’s why people like to know you’re published, because someone has done the vetting already.
If you have 15 portfolio pieces, that’s 14 pieces of amateur hour.
I get it, professionals flaunt a megalist of their accomplishments, and it’s tempting to copy the crowd and provide a link to a megalist of your own. But from the perspective of most normal people, they just want to hear about the latest and greatest. It’s why we read more news and less textbooks.
Think about it. Do you want the people who have no idea of the industry, who think you’re a journalist, to determine what’s good? Or do you want to be the one who makes that judgement?
Hand one thing over. “This is my best work.”
Will they ask for more? Smile and wait, because they probably won’t.
Example “Literary” resume #
I put “literary” in quotes because I call it my literary resume (relative to my former attempts at breaking into engineering, only to get a mental breakdown). But honestly it’s more technically-oriented than actual academic literary resumes.
Names redacted for obvious reasons.
Compared to my “techy” resume:
- I dropped the link to my GitHub account and dropped the words “Web Development.”
- Under Skills, added “Give and take criticism.”
- I added a Fiction section with my beta reading hobby.
- Keyword stuffing from editorial jobs and the traditional publishing industry.