Krista Van Laan on Starting Your Tech Writing Career

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm. This is Ryan Weber at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Because I run a tech writing program and teach tech writing at the university, I often get asked by students or friends or friends of friends or acquaintances, “How can I get started with a career in tech comm?” And it’s such an important question that I wanted to bring in an insider to give us some insight.

[Krista Van Laan] I’m Krista Van Laan. I am author of two books on technical writing, one is The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Technical Writing, which is out of print now, and currently The Insider’s Guide to Technical Writing. I have worked in a user experience and documentation field for wow, longer than I care to remember. Currently work in Silicon Valley, where I manage documentation and user experience for a networking company.

[Weber] I’ve invited Van Laan on the podcast today to tell us how aspiring tech writers can get started in the field, how they can prepare their resumes, and what mistakes they should avoid.

[Begin Interview]

[Weber] Welcome to the podcast Krista. I really appreciate you joining us and sharing your insider knowledge. What we want to talk about is kind of secretes for people who want to get into technical writing and this is maybe their first job or their changing careers. I get questions about this quite a bit. So, what do you think that employers are looking for in an entry level technical writer?

[Van Laan] I get asked that question a lot too. A lot of people who are trying to break into technical writing contact me and ask for advice. So, it’s something that I end up talking to people about a lot. I don’t have any magic answers because in my experience employers are really looking for somebody who already you know has the experience, but on the other hand there are plenty of places and plenty of companies that want entry level people, or you know people who are in other words not very expensive.

[Weber] Their workers.

[Van Laan] And their willing to take them on. So, what I discovered is that everybody I’ve ever known who’s tried to get into technical writing has succeeded. It’s really a matter of perseverance more than anything else and to me that perseverance is a really good trait of a technical writer. I have, in the past, hired people who don’t have much experience, but have the characteristics that cause them to come back and try again and try to do an interview that’s right and follow-up with me. You know sometimes one person is the only one who’s called back and wants to find out how the interview went, or you know where I am in the process and that person becomes the person that’s hired. It’s a great characteristic for a technical writer. So, in general I think employers are looking for somebody with some experience and has done something. It’s not enough anymore, it may have been at one time, to just have some ability to write, have good grammar, and good English, that no longer cuts it. I think that even if you are a beginner with the internet, you have a million opportunities to actually do technical documentation. You can go in, you can find products you can write about software you can write about. You can volunteer your time for a nonprofit and do writing for them. Or what I’ve told people a lot is look at your current job and see what you can do there in terms of technical writing. There’s always something at your company. In my past I’ve had two people, at least, maybe more come to me who were admins or had some other job within a company and asked if I would help them break into the field and they both volunteered to do writing on their own time for me if I would help train them and I wound up hiring both of those people.

[Weber] Excellent, so what you’re saying is kind of talking about ways to get experience before you get the job. I’m now wondering if you have any more tips for someone who say they want to break into tech writing? Is there something they can do before they send out those first resumes that would give them something to put on their resume or experience to talk about?

[Van Laan] So as I said, do whatever it takes to get experience. Find open sourced software, there’s plenty of it online and write something for-they’re always looking for people who can provide information on that. As I said, go to a-try a nonprofit, they always have a need for writing. I’ve had people talk to me, even recently, about doing things like-it’s kind of the old peanut butter sandwich problem that people use to talk about, way back in the days where tech writers; kind of the early boom. People would say that there weren’t enough tech writers to fill these jobs so to try and get the experience, they would write about how to make a peanut butter sandwich. I don’t think that’s a good idea anymore and I wouldn’t recommend doing that in an attempt to get a job. But I even recently had somebody ask me about that, ”I’ll write-I’ll write a set of instructions for how to use one of the appliances in my home,” you know there’s­ there are so many opportunities to write about something real and potentially have it used, especially with open source software or at your own company. So, go ahead and write about something real. I think for an employer, your best way to break in and get an edge over somebody with less experience is to give yourself experience.

[Weber] So, what resume advice do you have for aspiring tech writers?

[Van Laan] Resume is a little bit harder if you don’t actually have the experience, but I example. I worked with a woman not long ago who was trying to change careers and wanted to get into technical writing. And we looked at her resume and revised it so that we emphasized the writing in every aspect of her job that we could. And without actually lying about titles, we were able to modify it a little bit, so we could say you, you know whatever she did and writer or something like that, procedures writer, instructional writer, trainer, something. She had had a lot of experience in her job that she wasn’t even aware of that positioned her well for getting into technical writing. So, I would say to emphasize writing and to emphasize anything technical. The important thing for a technical writer, I believe, is the word technical. Yes, writing is a basic, you have to have that you can’t go anywhere without that, but the real thing that puts any technical writer above any other is the ability to be technical. So, if you don’t have computer science or some kind of actual technical IT, high-tech experience in your background, then look at everything you have done and try to figure out a way to emphasize that angle.

[Weber] So find the tech that you do have in your background. Do you recommend that people brush up on any commonly used softwares or anything before they go out on the market?

[Van Laan] Yes, I think so because one thing that interviewers look for is do you know their tools and their software and also what can you bring to the table. So if you can talk about technical writing tools, and I mention a lot of them in my books, but they’re all out of date by now, but the real thing is to go and find out what tech writers are using now. What, you know, what are the tools? What are the-what are the things to focus on? YouTube, for example is something I would talk about ifI were updating the book now. People are more interested in HTML, there are database things that people need to think about; online editors. We’re not so heavily on pdf and book form anymore so just find out what’s new, find out what company’s might be interested in and then target it.

[Weber] That’s great advice. Do you have anything else that you want to leave listeners with, as far as ways that they can be successful, either in trying to get their first jobs or even things they can do on the job to succeed?

[Van Laan] I would say during an interview, prepare as much as you can. I’m-that’s kind of a given, but it’s something that people don’t really think about. Find out what that company does now and what they might like to do and talk to them about that. And then once you’re on the job, I have a-a very recent experience I’m going through, where I’m working with somebody who doesn’t have a lot of experience and I would say, in that case what I needed this person to do is just listen to me and do things the way that you know we ask him to do it. We have procedures, we have processes in place and follow them, there’s a reason for.

[Weber] So again you’ve emphasized both technical skills and just a lot of basic, paying attention, working hard, basic workplace skills that are transferrable from one job to another if you have them.

[Van Laan] Yes, yes. I think if you have some of the buzz words and I hate to say it, but it’s-it’s really the way it is. If you have some of the buzz words, if you have some understanding of what’s current and what’s in use by the company that you are applying to, then you can hold a conversation with them once you get there that they’ll understand, that will make them want you. If a person goes into a company for an interview and they’re not very experienced, well the people they’re talking to know that already, so what you can do is then highlight the experience you do have that shows you’re a go getter. It shows you’ve done something to give yourself an edge over other people at your level. I think it can only help. I mean really that’s type of perseverance, as I’ve said before, is a key quality of a good technical writer and it’s also a quality of a good interviewer and a good employee.

[Weber] Excellent. Well thanks so much. I really appreciate you appearing on the show and giving us some advice. Hopefully people will find this useful in getting their first jobs.

[Van Laan] Thank you. I hope it helps. I am happy to talk to anybody who wants to email me and just bounce ideas off me and I hope to hear from some of the readers of my book.

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Episode 32