Technical Writing Portfolio Ideas

Dec 25 2021

You’re new and shiny and have no credentials. You’d like to become a technical communicator. What to do?

Generally, teams hiring a technical writer want to know:

  1. Are you allergic to technology?
  2. Can you use clear, precise and simple vocabulary? And when you have to use complex terms, are you able to give context?
  3. How well can you organize and present information?
  4. Most people don’t know what metrics or KPIs define good writing. Can you assert and define standards?
  5. How much of a science can you bring to an art (or visa versa)?

I will shortcode these traits as: 🔍 Curiosity, ♿ Accommodation, 📰 Rhetoric, and 📈 Negotiation. The final thing called 🍦 Flavor is a subjective trait that is more emotional and “let live” but important anyway.

While every project will highlight shades of these 5 traits, some are more focused on a particular purpose than others. When you’re starting out, you probably won’t know exactly what are your strengths and weaknesses. Or maybe you do know. I don’t know, only you can figure this out.

University classes develop these areas with a guided program. If self-studying, your own discipline is the limit. Shoot for variety to learn about yourself. I’d suggest having enough projects to cover all 5 bases, and pick 1-2 focus areas. You might produce 10+ pieces, but your final portfolio only needs about 2-3. When being interviewed, you can probably feel out which projects pique your interviewer’s interest. Armed with self knowledge, you can steer the narrative and emphasize advantages you bring to the table.

Your mind will have your favorite pieces, but what appeals to others will be totally surprising. Still, knowing whether the other party expects you to produce more of your favorites, or your weaker pieces, is telling.

General #

Be on the lookout for technical documentation in the wild. Recreating a TV/cable programming brochure (if you still subscribe to those), kitchen appliance guide, or book club newsletter can be potential projects. If you see something that catches your eye, snap a picture for reference and dissect what works or doesn’t.

  1. Become aware of a type of documentation
  2. Find an example
  3. Study and copy the structure/template for educational purposes
  4. Make an original work
  5. Get feedback, revise, rinse and repeat

Most importantly, show people your work. You may or may not get actionable feedback. Non-fiction tasks are easier to think objectively about, and getting criticism won’t ruin your friendships (hopefully) compared to exchanging creative writing.

Revise and Edit #

Pick an existing work, like an original essay, and revise it for clarity. If you don’t have an essay, well… it’s time to do some introspection. Whip out the reading glasses and identify your favorite op-eds, journal articles, essayists, then write up your own.

I DO NOT recommend taking the work of a random stranger and editing it. Unless you’re familiar with the context or you have the author’s permission and work collaboratively, you’ll probably screw things up. You can do it for fun, but one-sided changes are not worth making into a portfolio piece. Better to stick with being somewhat original.

Demonstrates: ♿ Accommodation, 📰 Rhetoric

Instructional Design #

Create a DIY guide, like an instructable with extra polish. Preferably don’t plagiarize. If you’re going to be borrowing material for practice, be very explicit about crediting authors. Use Microsoft Word or any software of choice.

You can also make guides for obscure functions in a software program.

Demonstrates: 📰 Rhetoric, 🔍 Curiosity

Checklist #

Simpler is better. If you noticed little inefficiencies in your day-to-day, now is a good time to toot your horn about how you hold up the fort. Are you a cosmetology graduate who works at a salon? Did you make a checklist—where none existed before—which streamlined or raised the quality of work? Were you able to get others to adopt a checklist?

Demonstrates: 📈 Negotiation, 🍦 Flavor

Gaming Guide #

Design or redesign manuals for board games, video games, niche sports, trading cards, anything that would require an explanation of rules. Understanding the limitations of print, color, and paper types is a bonus.

Demonstrates: 📰 Rhetoric, 🍦 Flavor

Product Analysis #

Write a report comparing features in similar but different products. I.e. InDesign versus Madcap Flare. What are their strengths and weaknesses? If you can’t afford these products, then pick free or open-source alternatives. Also, charts. Lots of charts. People love charts.

Demonstrates: 🔍 Curiosity, 📰 Rhetoric

Accessibility Audit #

Take a look at a manual or a website and gauge its accessibility. Take on the perspective of a colorblind, deaf, or legally blind user and identify metrics which pass or fail.

Demonstrates: ♿ Accommodation, 📈 Negotiation

Interviews & Journalism #

Whether it’s a script for film or radio, a blog post, etc. your ability to interview experts will cast you as a flexible and engaging candidate. If you’ve directed your own video and podcasts, have proficiency working with digital mediums, or take stock in addressing accessibility concerns, that’s a bonus.

  • Script for film/podcast
  • Magazine/journal post
  • Video production reel
  • Conducting interviews

Demonstrates: 🔍 Curiosity, ♿ Accommodation

Proposals & Bidding #

If you’ve worked as a ghostwriter, freelancer, or had to help an organization acquire resources, mention these process documents—with sensitive details redacted. You can make up a proposal if you’ve never done contract work before. Deliverables: LOI, RFP, grants, feasibility reports.

If you plan to use Upwork and other job boards, this is a helpful skill to practice. It’s basically the same process, whether you’re a 1-person or 5000-person business.

Demonstrates: 📈 Negotiation, 📰 Rhetoric

Translation & Interpretation #

While your English skills are going to be tested the most due to the nature of English dominating the business world in this era, multi-lingualism is received positively. This includes any kind of sign language.

Demonstrates: ♿ Accommodation, 🍦 Flavor

Niches #

This section is for stuff which is impressive just based on being a “specialized generalist.” Becoming a T-shaped person is the fate of writers. Your specialization will be communication, composition and synthesis, and your side skills are the 🍦 Flavors which are unique to you.

An arrow-like tree pointing down to "Write Gooder." The surrounding leaf vanes say, "stuff talkyness??? SMEs hate love me. productive? walking wikipedia"

Visual Development & Graphic Design #

Wordless Instructions #

Create an IKEA-style, wordless instruction set for an international audience. If you have drawing and composing skills, this is a great way to show rather than tell. You’ll need a vector drawing program (like Adobe Illustrator or Inkscape) and a 3D models to create diagrams from (CAD programs like Solidworks, Autodesk, or modeling programs like Blender and Zbrush).

Demonstrates: ♿ Accommodation, 🍦 Flavor

Product Marketing #

Create a procedure, pamphlet, or other promotional material for a technical or highly specialized product and service. Examples include medical access pamphlets, car mechanic upgrades, whitepapers.

Demonstrates: 🍦 Flavor, 🔍 Curiosity

Software & IT #

Host a Website or Blog #

Creating a GitHub Pages site is great for the software industry, and there’s many more static host providers: Netlify, Vercel, Heroku or Surge which all have generous free tiers, more than enough for personal blogs. Conversely, setting up a Wordpress instance and consistenly posting on a blog shows a drive for writing (I’m biased, but also I don’t mention this blog to prospecive employers since I’d rather keep my stuff anonymous).

Starting a blog with a CMS like Wordpress is often already covered in many college/online classes. I’ve posted next steps for writers who want to dip their toes into web programming.

Besides the usual I’d Rather Be Writing: API doc course, here are other ideas:

  • Press F12 in Chrome or Edge browser to open the Dev Console. Go to the Network tab and browse a social media site like Instagram. Take a look at what gets returned and see if you recognize anything.
  • Install WordPress on your computer and call APIs from your localhost.
  • Get RapiDoc running with the sample petstore OpenAPI.
  • Find a project on GitHub, GitLab, or CodeBerg with an OpenAPI schema that isn’t well documented. Compare them to docs from Google, Microsoft, or any technology company.

from a previous post, What is API Documentation?

Demonstrates: 🔍 Curiosity, 🍦 Flavor

Learning & Development #

Coaching is a valuable skill. It’s easier to teach a teacher the skill they’re supposed to teach than to teach someone to be a teacher (hah). Typically educators use an LMS to organize their material. ESL has a lot of overlap with technical communication.

Demonstrates: ♿ Accommodation, 📈 Negotiation

Product Management #

Market Analysis #

This is venturing into business analyst territory, but if you’ve been following a market or industry for a long time, why not write up your opinions on the future of an industry? If your hobby is consuming literature and fiction, write up about fiction markets, trends and concerns. What’s gotten easier for authors, what’s gotten harder, etc. It’s better if you’ve actually worked in publishing and have those credentials, but if you’re a youngin’ without credentials, better start now.

Also makes for excellent cover letter material. Take a look at samples from consulting and think-tank companies:

Demonstrates: 📰 Rhetoric, 📈 Negotiation

Extraordinary Retrospectives and Meeting Notes #

Put your accomplishments together into a colorful, one-page PDF. In this case, presentation and document design is everything. If you’re also proud of your management skills, you can showcase a willingness to grind. While a glimpse into your mindset and how you prioritize is always appreciated, you need to spice it up. Admin work is mundane, but you can glamorize it for fun. Charts, timelines and eye-catching snippet are a great way to bring positivity to the table. Also makes excellent cover letter material.

Demonstrates: 🍦 Flavor, 📈 Negotiation

Tools needed #

Check the list of Technical Writing Software. Most stuff only needs a basic word processor, but it’ll give you an idea of hybrid roles.

Don’t learn everything. Pick a tool which accomplishes the task at hand.

I’ll leave it to you to find educational discounts or whatever you need. The tools really aren’t as important as the attempt, as you can accomplish necessary tasks with free programs.

Formal Education #

Here’s some keywords you can Google because I don’t know you as a person on a deep enough level to make course suggestions. This is regarding academia, not certifcations.

rhetoric linguistics philology jurisprudence

philosophy anthropology sociology

Gestalt principles cognitive psychology human computer interaction (HCI) neurology (UX research positions typical require a master’s degree)

Or learn another language and forget all this mumbley jumbley theory stuff.

Additional Resources #

More practical stuff I put onto my Tech Comm List.