At my first job out of college, I created internal process documentation to help myself remember my responsibilities and how to perform them. When the company was audited months later, the auditors asked me to walk them through my process and were impressed when I handed them my written procedures.
That was my first unwitting taste of technical writing, and I enjoyed it so much that I made time for it at all my jobs since then — and dreamed about doing it for a living.
I didn’t realize until 10 years later that what I had been doing all that time was technical writing and yes, I could build a career in it.
But breaking into a new field is no easy feat. Even though I’d made multiple career transitions before (receptionist to HR to accounting to veterinary medicine to marketing to fundraising), I felt intimidated by the thought of trying to get a job that focused completely on writing rather than writing as only one part of a role.
Still, I knew technical writing was what I wanted to do, so worked hard to make it happen. I took classes, completely revamped my resume, and built a solid portfolio. It all paid off: I landed my first technical writing role at a great company without ever having the technical writer title before.
Here are the ways I made my job application stand out when I was applying for jobs in the technical writing field.
Take technical writing classes
I took the Technical Writer HQ certification course in March 2021 and highly recommend it. I was surprised by the quality of the curriculum for such an affordable class, and although I have been writing for decades, I learned a lot.
The course also helped me realize just how much technical writing I’d already done. I thought I was trying to break into technical writing with little to no experience, but in reality, I had a great foundation. With my new knowledge of what qualified as technical writing, I was able to piece together a solid portfolio from work I’d already written. This saved me time and effort in having to write new pieces from scratch that were appropriate for a technical writer’s portfolio. With my samples assembled, I had much more confidence in my experience and skill as a technical writer. I also received individual feedback on my capstone project from the TWHQ instructor, which helped build my confidence and improve my writing.
I was also able to connect with people in the technical communications field through this class, and they were instrumental in helping me prepare for job applications and interviews.
If you’re interested in doing a specific type of technical writing, look for training programs in the field you’re interested in. I knew I wanted to write for either a developer or end-user audience, so I sought out additional classes on Udemy to learn more about how to write for developers and Docs As Code. I highly recommend the Coding For Writers classes by SDK Bridge. I haven’t completed all of them yet, but the ones I have done are excellent.
Once complete, these classes can be displayed on your LinkedIn profile for recruiters and hiring managers to see when they skim your profile. It shows that you’re dedicated to your work, especially if you lack experience otherwise.
Build your portfolio
What gave me the most confidence when I was applying for jobs was my portfolio. I created a dedicated page for samples on my personal website and used that link on my resume and in job applications. If you’re able to create UTM codes or other ways to track where the visitors are coming from, that would be even more informative (or anxiety-inducing) for your job search.
Your portfolio should include your best work. When I was preparing my portfolio, I made sure that I chose articles that were my best quality, showed the greatest variety in subject matter and writing style, and related to the type of writing I wanted to do. Most of the samples I included were written before I completed the TWHQ course, so I took the extra time to go back through my samples and update most of them with the best practices I learned in the class.
As I mentioned, I was most interested in writing tutorials and how-to articles for knowledge bases and other customer-facing documentation, so those were the samples I chose to display. I also included a section to show an editing sample since that’s a valuable skill for writers as well.
If you’re interested in applying for different types of writing positions, you could create a different page for each position. When I first started my search, I was open to content writing, so I had one page for my content writing portfolio and a separate page for my technical writing portfolio. (I eventually decided I didn’t want to do content writing, but that’s another story.)
For my portfolio, I had a good variety of samples presented in a way that was easily accessible to recruiters, who needed to see the type and variety at quick glance, and hiring managers, who would go into more depth and evaluate the quality of the material.
If you have other content posted publicly on your website, be prepared for recruiters and hiring managers to explore even if it’s not specifically on your portfolio page. If you have any content that you wouldn’t want a potential employer to see, be sure to remove it or password protect it before providing links to your portfolio.
Once the portfolio is set up on your site, it’s not set in stone. When you’re applying to a job, make sure the samples you have posted illustrate the same kind of work that the hiring manager needs, or if you don’t have an exact match, make sure to include writing that’s most closely related. Consider creating something new if you have the time and energy.
Like I mentioned before, if you’re applying for vastly different writing jobs, you may need more than one portfolio page.
Don’t panic if clicks are low
If you’re able to see the number of views and clicks on your portfolio, try not to worry too much if you get a lot of views but no clicks into the actual samples. When I was applying to jobs, I obsessively checked my website views and visitors (I don’t recommend doing this) and noticed that visitors would get to my portfolio page but not look at any of the actual samples. I was worried about this and wondered if it was an indication that something was wrong with my portfolio. Before I made any changes, I spoke to a senior technical writer, who assuaged my concerns:
“It’s important to remember that [the recruiter’s] objective is to quickly find people who match as many of the [requirements] for the role as possible. [Y]our portfolio does need to have easy access to your writing for the hiring manager, who has the knowledge to evaluate your work and is far more likely to read your samples. Your portfolio makes this easy for them, which is appealing to the recruiter as it gives them more to offer the hiring manager.”Senior technical writer
This prevented me from completely changing my portfolio in a way that would have made it less user-friendly and more scroll-heavy, which is not what we generally want for the readers. After hearing this, I decided to stop watching my website visits so closely and that helped decrease my overall anxiety about my job search.
Revise your resume
When you’re moving to technical writing (or any new field) from an unrelated field, connect the dots from your previous experience to your desired position. This will make the recruiter’s job easier and potentially help you get through the algorithms and applicant tracking systems (ATS).
As I mentioned, I have a lot of varied experience, but technical writing was the common thread in all my jobs. For example, when I was a registered veterinary technician, I wrote internal process documentation and educational client handouts, both of which fall under the technical writing umbrella. Rather than deleting the veterinary experience from my resume, I emphasized what was applicable to technical writing and removed all the other responsibilities. This was beneficial by showing more years of experience in technical writing, more variety in the kind of technical writing I have done, and proved that I’m adaptable. Focusing on relevant experience also made my resume easier to read with less text.
Focus on quality over quantity
Updating your resume for each job takes a lot of time and energy, but I found that it was much better to take the extra time only for jobs I really wanted rather than blasting my resume to every job posting with the title I wanted.
I sometimes had difficulty not applying for a job that at least somewhat fit my criteria. When I was searching, I would sometimes apply just to feel like I was doing something. Ultimately, though, I realized that applying for the jobs I wasn’t excited about was a waste of time for me and the company.
I was in the fortunate position to be able to be choosy with my job search, but I recognize not everyone has this luxury. If your search is more time-sensitive, quality is even more important to make sure your application gets the attention it deserves.
Speaking of quality over quantity, patience plays into this process in multiple ways.
If you’re still doing major work on your portfolio and resume, don’t apply to a job you really want until you’re done with your materials. Some exceptions apply, like if they have a deadline, but I operated under the assumption that I’d only get one chance to apply. So I waited until I felt good about my materials before I applied to jobs I really wanted. Waiting was difficult because it was contrary to what a lot of advice says (recruiters pay more attention to earlier applicants), but I would rather send my best a little later than send subpar work right away.
The job application process takes a while, and especially at first, nothing happened as quickly as I wanted. Companies have all sorts of internal processes that might slow down the recruiting process. Even if you know a company has viewed your application or portfolio, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll hear back from them right away. It depends on the company — some move faster than others — but it’ll probably take a couple weeks.
Don’t be shy with your network
I avoid social media most of the time, but when I was searching for a job, I was active on LinkedIn. I set my profile to “open to work” for recruiters on LinkedIn and submitted my resume to ZipRecruiter. I only submitted to one recruiting site because I didn’t want to be inundated by recruiters sending me job postings for unrelated positions.
Considering joining the following LinkedIn groups:
I lurked in these groups without creating any posts myself, but they are fairly active and supportive. People do post jobs they’re looking to fill or volunteer opportunities, which could help build out your portfolio. I particularly enjoyed the discussions about best practices or how to solve certain roadblocks a tech writer might experience.
Recruiters can also be an excellent resource — a recruiter changed my life in 2018, and it was not by getting me a new job. If you can work with a recruiter, they’re motivated to find you a job almost as much as you are, and you don’t have to pay them anything.
Once your resume and portfolio are ready, consider asking a few people to review them. Feedback from people in HR, recruiting, and your target job would be most useful, but anyone who can check for spelling error and typos would be better than nothing.
A fresh start was important in my circumstances, but if I had preferred to stay at my company or couldn’t leave, my first step towards becoming a technical writer would have been to explore technical writing within the organization where I was currently employed, starting with a discussion with my manager. I would have indicated my desire to move to technical writing and then asked for their in creating opportunities to make that happen. If a transfer wasn’t possible, I would have volunteered for projects that involved technical writing for the experience and to build a portfolio.
I did everything I could to make this happen, taking classes, working on my portfolio, and updating my resume, but I also recognized that a lot of the job search is about timing. Especially now, the job market is competitive, and getting through the ATS can feel like an impossible task.
Companies seem to be getting better about at least sending an automated email to let you know you didn’t get the job. Although I was glad to hear from companies rather than having to just assume I didn’t get it, those rejection emails are no joke. I even got four rejection emails in one day.
I had faith that I would find what I was looking for, but that didn’t make it any easier to be ignored or get rejected from jobs that looked like they were written just for me. I kept at it, and when I started feeling burned out, I took a break.
Stopping was rough because I needed to leave my job at the time, but it was always worth taking a break when I was tired or feeling discouraged. I came back feeling refreshed and ready to dedicate the time and energy needed to submit a quality application.
What helped me move forward was remembering that it was all part of the process. We’ll always get a bunch of “no” before the “yes.”