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I'm currently in the process of expanding my company from doing coding & web development to more technical writing and freelance tech journalism. Although my background is mainly in technology, throughout high school and college I put a few AP and advanced writing courses under my belt and I've gotten fairly familiar with business correspondence, and while I've done some basic instruction sets for clients, I've never had a part-time or full-time position just for writing.

At the moment I've been searching career sites and reaching out to my network of contacts, however aside from those measures, is there any thing else I should be doing? For example, although I have a blog containing articles I've done, should I also assemble a portfolio of mock proposals and correspondence to show my knowledge?

Thanks very much in advance for any suggestions,

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It sounds to me as though you're more slanted towards freelance tech journalism than tech writing. I consider them quite different fields, and the path in will not be the same. –  Lynn Beighley Aug 2 '11 at 18:28
    
@Lynn, I rated you a +1 because you read my mind as I also am looking to do a bit of tech journalism, however I decided to keep this question on technical writing because while the journalism side of things interests me, doing more of the documentation writing is aligned with my company and the services I already offer client. –  theonlylos Aug 3 '11 at 0:10
    
"... I put a few AP and advanced writing courses under my belt ..." What is AP? –  martin f Jan 12 at 5:52
    
Advanced Placement - Basically college level courses offered to high school students –  theonlylos Jan 14 at 21:55
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2 Answers 2

up vote 9 down vote accepted

There are different kinds of technical writing, differing in the "technical" part. The logical place for you to start, coming from a programming background like I did, would be with programmer-facing documentation: APIs, SDKs, and the tutorials and guides that go with them.

If any of your current (programming) work could benefit from either external (interface) or internal (design, architecture) documentation, you could start there to build your skills and portfolio (and maybe your first gig). Failing that, instead of doing mock work to show what you can do, why not do real work for the open-source project of your choice? That may also help you with the networking; when you contribute valuable documentation to Project Whatever, then (1) your stuff gets seen and (2) the other people working on Project Whatever might help you find paying gigs.

You can also go the professional-association route. STC (Society for Technical Communicators) is the common one, but it's a broad base -- you'll find some programming writers there, but also a bunch of people documenting UIs, hardware, and -- surprise :-) -- non-software products like medical and engineering devices. So it's a broad group, and how deep it is depends on the folks in your local chapter. I gave a talk on API documentation at a regional STC conference a while back and it was the only programming-related topic on the docket; however, a few years later at the national conference there were more options. It varies. I'm not currently a member of STC so I don't have the current sense of it. I found more value in the documentation SIGs of ACM and IEEE, though I've also let those memberships lapse. (Sorry, just lazy I guess. :-) )

Breaking into any new field has two key parts: demonstrating good skills and finding the right people to demonstrate them to. If you can ease into it in your current position then you have a leg up; you already know the people. If not, you have to build a body of work and do some networking.

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Thanks very much for the answer! Focusing on API's is something I can't believe I didn't think of before because with all the open source software I use for client projects, I can't even count how many times I've dealt with projects with incomplete/limited documentation so I'm defiantly going to pay more attention to open source projects in terms of being a documentation writer since when it comes to code, my plate is already full. –  theonlylos Aug 3 '11 at 0:13
    
I don't like the ACM, and I let my membership lapse as soon as I no longer needed to attend the large ACM conferences. The IEEE is a bit better. I like the look of the STC, although not being a tech writer, so far I only subscribe to their blog, Intercom. –  Charles Stewart Aug 31 '11 at 8:31
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You might find that technical writing has a more limited set of rules than most other areas of writing. Writing has to be extremely minimalistic and simple. There is less room for any kind of verbal creativity than in journalism. Technical writing is not about personal expression, it is about clarity and simplicity.

You could start by reading a technical writing style guide like Read Me First! A Style Guide for the Computer Industry. Then write a little manual that follows the rules described in the style guide. The ability to memorize a style guide is probably the most important skill for a technical writer.

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This answer seems to presuppose that the question author is only familiar with creative writing or fiction, but that in the original question at all. Or am I missing your point? –  Neil Fein Mar 4 '12 at 3:01
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