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getting started in tech comm

Getting Started in Technical Communication, Part 1: FAQs

March 4, 2014

Day 4 of the 31-Day Blogging Challenge (#31dbc)

I do a lot of mentoring in my roles as a small business owner and as a Fellow and Board member in the Society for Technical Communication (STC). I love it because I always learn something new, get to meet some really bright and engaging people, and I like to help people achieve their dreams.

Here are 3 questions I get asked frequently and my responses. Feel free to chime in with your own experiences, or to ask other questions.

My degree is in X, but I’ve always loved to write. What skills do I need to get a job in technical communication?

It’s great that you are interested in technical communicaton! It’s a fun career with a lot of opportunity to grow in the direction of your interests. Having technical domain knowledge in X field and writings skills are important, but not sufficient for being a good technical communicator (TC). Certain personality traits and skills lend themselves well to being a good TC.


  • Curiosity
  • Desire and ability to understand how things work
  • Flexibility (in thinking and in attitude)
  • Penchant for asking impertinent questions
  • Exploratory, can-do attitude (most TCs I know have myriad interests and are really interesting people)
  • Somewhat geeky mindset
  • Ability to play well with others
  • Ability to see both the forest and the trees (most people tend toward one or the other; the ability to bridge the gap is valuable)
  • Honesty and integrity
  • Desire to know the story and to tell it
  • Ability to see patterns and relationships
  • Ability to learn and take constructive feedback (you need a thick skin)

Skills (besides the obvious writing and editing):

In the beginning of your career, focus on the basics. Look for opportunities to try new techniques and learn new tools. (I once moved to Fargo, ND so that I could work with a really good online help development team.)

  • Good organizational skills (it helps to like organizing and categorizing things)
  • Topic-based writing/structured authoring techniques
  • Working knowledge of at least 1 authoring tool, 1 DTP tool, 1 graphics tool (once you know how one of each type works, it’s fairly easy to figure out the others in the genre)
  • Working knowledge of the jargon used in technical communication (e.g., content strategy, usability, localization, UX, etc.)
  • Understanding of visual design
  • Understanding of audience analysis
  • Familiarity with XML and content management
  • Familiarity with metadata and with indexing techniques
  • Familiarity with writing for a global audience

There are other skills as well (depending on your focus), but this list is a start. You can get information and access to educational sessions from STC and other associations, or from many universities.

I’ve been looking for a TC job, but there aren’t any advertised. How do I break into the field?

Technical Communication touches every product, process, and service on this planet (and off of it—ala the Space Station). We are everywhere, but we are often well-hidden in the companies, governments, and non-profits that we serve, and sometimes called something else, like publications specialist, graphic designer, content manager, etc. Jobs are often not advertised.

First, pick an industry. Make it something you are interested in. Have a degree in biology? or nutrition? or engineering? or music? or economics?  Narrow your search by focusing on your area of technical expertise and interest.

Start networking. Join STC and other professional organizations (you can see the job bank and make connections). Volunteer for your associations or another non-profit that attracts people in your chosen industry. Join your alumni association (or at least the online communities). Ask people about their jobs and, if it’s something that sounds interesting, dig deeper. Ask for informational interviews. (People love being asked about themselves and generally like helping newbies.) Research the top companies in your selected industry.

Establish your online presence. Most TCs are fairly tech-savvy, so connect with them on LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. Subscribe to TC blogs and forums that interest you. Be diligent about presenting a professional persona. (Make sure that your profiles are grammatically correct and typo-free. We check, and TCs can be a bit anal-retentive about that sort of thing).

A word about LinkedIn etiquette, if you ask to connect with someone you’ve only met once or twice or (only have met virtually), say a bit about who you are and why you want to connect. Most people won’t connect with you if they don’t know anything about you.

Be polite, follow up, and follow through. If someone has taken time out of their day to talk to you, be sure to thank them in writing (email is OK most of the time, but if they really went out of their way, a personal note is better).

I’m changing careers. What should I do about my résumé?

I generally recommend a functional, skills-based résumé for most people. When I’m hiring, I want to know what you know, and really couldn’t care less about where you have worked (except when it comes to checking references, or out of curiosity to see if I know anyone there).

I start with a “kitchen-sink” résumé, where I put in everything that is relevant to what I do. Then, I adjust it for each job (change the order, level of detail, emphasis as appropriate). If you are just out of university, you will probably put almost everything in. Until you’ve been working for several years, keep it to 1 page and to the most relevant information.

The skills-based résumé has the following sections:

  • Related Skills: List 3-5 skills that you have and want to highlight, such as Project Management, Training, Writing/Editing, Content Strategy, Usability Research, etc. Under each skill, put 3-5 bullet points that specifically show your skill in that area (e.g., “Managed 15 content management projects to implement DITA” is better than “Responsibility for a bunch of content management projects.” )
  • Related Positions: In reverse chronological order (most recent first), just list titles, companies, dates, and locations here. All the important stuff is under the skills.
  • Education: In reverse chronological order, list your degrees and certifications. If you are a new graduate, you might want to include some of the coursework you’ve taken, if it’s relevant.
  • Related Technical Skills: List the software packages you know, special knowledge (if it’s relevant).Caution: if you list something here, you need to have a working knowledge of it. For example, if you list MS Office, I will expect you to know how to use templates and styles in Word, pivot tables and basic functions in Excel, and do snazzy presentations in PowerPoint. If you don’t use styles and format things properly in your résumé, I will know that you don’t know Word…

If there’s room, you can include a list of volunteer work and awards (again, only those things that are directly relevant to the job you are applying for. In the US, employers are not allowed to ask about gender preferences, marital status, religion, etc., so don’t include those volunteer activities on your résumé.

Always be truthful in your résumé.

When you are responding to a particular job ad, I recommend using a T-letter. TECHWHIR-L had a great article about these letters. Try it out and see how it works.

I will post periodically on “Getting Started” topics. Let me know if you have a burning question, or need advice.