Breaking into Technical Writing

Lead Writer: Amanda Butler | Peer Reviewer/s: Felicity Brand, Kieran Morgan | Expert Reviewer/s: Saul Carliner | Managing Editor: Kieran Morgan

Breaking into the technical writing profession offers attractive benefits, such as lucrative pay and remote work options. Entering the competitive field of technical writing doesn’t require a fixed educational path, making it an ideal second career for many. This chapter guides you through the journey from leveraging your existing skills to navigating job applications and interviews. Highlighting real-life stories and practical tips, this chapter is a must-read for anyone considering or transitioning into a career in technical writing.

Audience Icon Who Should Read This
• Aspiring Technical Writers
• Beginner Technical Writers
• Cross-Domain Professionals
Table of Contents: Technical Writing Process
Previous: Chapter 3: Essential Skills for Technical WritersNext: Chapter 5: Career Growth and Survival for Technical Writers

1. Introduction

With attractive salaries, great freelance rates, and benefits such as the ability to work fully or partly remotely, technical writing is a profession that many folks want to break into. Understandably, it’s becoming ever more difficult to do so as the competition heats up and word gets out.

Technical writing isn’t yet a mature profession in the way accounting, medicine, and law are. Those fields have a well-defined (but narrow) path from university through to professional practice. On the plus side, that means that technical writing can be a great second-career choice for folks who’ve built up their technical or writing expertise over the years in a different role.

As long as you can communicate effectively, have the aptitude and curiosity to learn new technologies, and can explain new concepts to others (especially through writing), you have the potential to be a technical writer. As a lifelong learner, you can become a great one!

Here are some of the diverse entry paths that writers have followed to get into technical writing:

Breaking into the profession is the hardest part, but once you have a few years of experience under your belt and you’ve established a reputation for yourself, you’ll never look back. Technical writing is a highly in-demand profession, and the more experience you have, the more employable you’ll be.

Voice of Practitioner Icon Voice of Practitioner
Role: Senior Technical Writer with 25-plus years’ experience in technical writing, technical documentation management, and information architecture
Location: Quebec, Canada
Expertise: Software, process and procedure, hardware documentation

“You’re not going to get hired unless you have really strong technical skills now. I was lucky to get hired without them back in the old days, but I don’t think I’d get a job like that these days with the skills I had. To get your foot in the door, learn some basic skills that prove you’re technical—even if you’re not super technical! For example, how to document APIs, Postman, Open API spec, a little bit of Python or Java, C-sharp, and so on. The way the market is now, unless you have twenty years of experience behind you, you’ll need those skills. This is what the recruiters are looking for and a lot of hiring managers in my field.”

2. Getting Qualified as a Technical Writer

Unlike many professions, technical writing doesn’t require a specific university degree. If you’re not a member of a professional technical writing association (it’s not mandatory), you won’t need to get recertified by doing professional development courses that earn you credit points. However, unless you already have a very strong background in tech and writing, a technical writing qualification may be the single barrier to entry that your résumé is missing.

There are several benefits to gaining a technical writing certification:

  • To signal to potential employers that you’re serious about a career in technical writing because you’ve invested your own time and money gaining a qualification.
  • To formally recognize your technical writing skillset. Even if you know you have the right skills, getting a qualification is an easy way to prove to potential employers that you have what it takes.
  • To broaden your skillset so you can hit the ground running when you land your first technical writing gig. This will make your first years as a technical writer much less stressful.
  • To prepare yourself for the future when you’re an older tech writer—and the industry matures to the point where formal qualifications become the norm.
  • To establish your brand as a qualified professional with credibility in the technical writing community and allow you to build your reputation as an expert, if that’s your path.

2.1. How to Choose the Right Technical Writing Course

If you’re considering investing in a technical writing course, there are a variety of options available to suit your budget and time commitments.

  • Universities and Colleges: These institutions often offer courses that provide an extensive grounding in both the theory and practice of technical writing. These accredited programs are globally recognized but may require a significant investment of both time and money.
  • Professional Associations: Courses offered by associations like the Society for Technical Communication (STC) are less time-intensive and usually more affordably priced. However, they may not offer the depth of content found in university courses.
  • Private Education Providers: Private providers, such as Boffin Education, offer highly practical courses to equip you with the practical skills and theoretical knowledge to become an expert. These courses range from affordable, self-paced micro-learning courses to hands-on, instructor-led sessions.

Each type of course has its own pros and cons, so weigh your options carefully. For more information on Boffin Education’s technical writing courses—which are based on the same well-researched information as our books—visit our website at today and take the first step toward advancing your skills!

2.2. Do I Need to Join a Professional Organization?

Unlike more mature professions, such as accounting, medicine, and law, it’s not mandatory to be a member of a professional technical writing association to work as a technical writer. Nor do you need to pass an examination set by a professional association before you can practice. This may change one day, but for most technical writing roles, it’s still optional at present.

So why join? Professional organizations provide job and networking opportunities, access to articles and training, and significant discounts on training, lectures, books, and conferences. Perhaps the most valuable part of membership is access to a network of professionals, which provides the opportunity for you to tap into their experience.

Here are some of the larger technical writing associations (check for local branches in your country):

The world of technical writing has many lively online communities. These provide great opportunities for beginners to ask more experienced members for their advice on everything from technical questions about writing, to career advice. Here are some of the more popular ones:

3. Continuing Professional Development

Technical writing is a rapidly evolving industry. That’s partly what makes it such an exciting field. It also means that it’s important to stay up-to-date with tools and technology in your industry so that you remain employable over the long-term. You should devote time to continuing to develop your skills, both soft and hard. Consider it an investment in yourself. Writing in particular is a skill that can always be honed and improved, even after many years of practice.

Like many other jobs, opportunities in technical writing often arise from who you know, not what you know. Spend time building your network. Do this by joining technical writing meetups, attending conferences, and being active in online communities. If you’re looking to move into management or move on to a role in a new organization, you can lean on your network for friendly advice.

4. The Application Process

To apply for a technical writing job—particularly if it’s your first role—you’ll need a few essentials, just like most other “white collar” jobs:

  • A résumé
  • A cover letter
  • A LinkedIn profile

One thing that sets technical writing apart is the ability to showcase your excellent work. This is a great way to prove your skills—and employers often request it in an interview. So you’ll need one other essential:

  • A portfolio of your own writing samples.

To help make this process less daunting for you, we’ve broken down each of these essentials below, giving you tips plus dos and don’ts to give you the best chance of landing a new role—and understanding what’s expected of you.

4.1. Resume

You must have a résumé or CV to apply for just about any technical writing job.

What Does That Mean Icon What Does That Mean?
Résumé or Curriculum Vitae (CV)
A résumé (also known as a CV, or curriculum vitae) is a summary of your skills, responsibilities and achievements (work experience), and qualifications. Its purpose is to snag you an interview by proving to a prospective employer that you have what it takes to do the job. Think of it as a foot in the door to get you through to the interview stage.

Here’s a list of dos and don’ts for writing your résumé.

Be concise, and put the most relevant information on page 1. No hiring manager wants to wade through an essay-length résumé—in fact, many resumes aren’t even read beyond the first page. However, expectations vary between countries. In the United States, the norm for résumés is generally one to two pages. However, in some jurisdictions (such as the UK, Canada, and Australia) a longer résumé or CV can be acceptable. Talk to a recruiter in your industry if you’re unsure.Don’t include irrelevant experience. Leave trivial details off your résumé. Employers want to read about your technical writing accomplishments, not that you were responsible for minute-taking in your high school debating club. Additionally, if you have strong experience in something but you no longer want to go down that path, minimize or remove it from your résumé, or it will keep getting picked up in keyword searches by recruiters.
Be professional. Include a professional-sounding (or at the very least, inoffensive) email address, not the risqué or jokey one you had in high school or college.Don’t give a potential employer reason to discriminate (even unconsciously) based on irrelevant factors such as your: Marital statusReligious affiliationPhysical appearance (age, race, gender, disability) Although profile pictures are the norm on professional networking sites such as LinkedIn, you don’t have to include them in your technical writing résumé.
Be specific and focus on results when describing your accomplishments. Write “Wrote 11 successful grant applications” instead of “worked on grants.” If you’re coming from another industry, frame your transferable skills so that recruiters and hiring managers can easily understand how they apply to technical writing.Don’t lie or overstate your experience. If an organization needs a senior writer with specific skills that you don’t have and you somehow land the role, you won’t be successful or happy, and that will be bad for everyone—and most of all, your reputation.
Follow a standard résumé format. The most common formats are chronological or functional, which is sometimes used when switching careers. Whichever one you choose, be consistent and ensure it makes sense. A chronological résumé lists your experience in descending order of most to least recent.A functional résumé lists your experience under topical headings, such as “technical writing experience,” “business analysis experience,” and so on.
Follow good technical writing design principles when you’re formatting your résumé. If you’re using Microsoft Word, make sure you use consistent heading styles, and don’t introduce any ad hoc formatting. For more information on styling documents, see Chapter 16: Design Stylesheet.
Edit your résumé for typos and errors. Your résumé doesn’t need to be a work of art, but it does need to be free of typos, grammatical errors, and other mistakes. Particularly if you’re applying for technical writer roles, attention to detail is a key soft skill that employers will be looking for.
Include keywords from job ads. Many résumés are scanned automatically by software that looks for keywords that match the job ad before they’re ever seen by a human. So if the job requires a key credential, skill, or experience with a particular technology, make sure it’s mentioned in your résumé! Provided you do have that experience, of course. 
Send it to a friend or family member to review. When you’re crafting your résumé, you’ll probably redo it so many times that you’ll lose perspective on it. Having a fresh pair of eyes can find mistakes you missed, suggest better ways of phrasing your responsibilities and accomplishments, and give you a better idea of how it might land with employers.
Dos and Don’ts for Technical Writer Resumes

4.2. LinkedIn Profile

LinkedIn has become the default place to express your professional identity worldwide. Having a LinkedIn profile is essential for job seekers as it allows recruiters to find you using keyword searches and easily contact you. It also makes it easier to network with other technical writers and even apply for jobs using your LinkedIn profile (though it’s a good idea to still have a résumé).

Here’s a list of dos and don’ts to help you craft a strong LinkedIn profile.

Add a photo of yourself. Unlike on a résumé, photos are the norm on LinkedIn. Add a professional-looking photo of yourself, cropped to show only your head and shoulders, against a simple or plain background. Make sure you’re the only one visible in the photo.Don’t give a potential employer any reason to turn you down. This includes anything potentially contentious, such as liking a politician’s LinkedIn post, even if you’re not intentionally being partisan. Savvy employers will scour your LinkedIn profile and anything you’ve posted or liked to see if there’s anything in there that might cause scandal or simply be against their personal beliefs.
Be mindful of posts you’re tagged in, particularly where they’re accompanied by pictures. Check your settings on your personal social media as well (Instagram, TikTok, YouTube). Are your personal photos visible to anyone? If so, do they portray you in a professional light? Even something as innocuous as enjoying a glass of wine might seem unprofessional to some employers if it clashes with their strongly held beliefs.Don’t post “jokey” or sarcastic responses to other people’s LinkedIn posts, however tempting that might seem. Keep it professional, even if that means being a little bland. Just like anything politically controversial, it’s best to keep it vanilla on LinkedIn. Save your snarkiest commentary for your alter ego on Reddit or somewhere a potential employer won’t link it back to you and find offense.
Add a concise headline that briefly describes what your key strengths are and how those relate to the career you’re aspiring to. Here’s an example; “Wordsmith with Technical Acumen | Self-Made Coder | Customer Service Professional | Aspiring Technical Communicator.”Don’t be excessively negative in your posts. Some folks can’t seem to help posting very negative comments, particularly about recruiters and the hiring process. Whatever your personal thoughts or experiences (and we’re not saying that people haven’t have bad experiences!), keep your diatribes for another forum. If potential employers see you posting negatively, they may think you have a chip on your shoulder that could express itself in a negative, morale-eroding attitude at work.
Tell a concise story about yourself in the about section. This will be an example of your writing style and abilities, so take your time to make it shine. Be authentic so you sound like yourself (first person, and not too “salesy” or “corporatey”). Something like: “I’m Lee Anne. For the past two years, I’ve been writing tech support content. I love learning from my amazing SMEs and am looking for a role that values collaboration over competition.”
Complete all sections in your profile.LinkedIn seems to prioritize complete profiles over incomplete ones in search results. Add any skills, education, work experience, awards, languages, certifications, and licenses you may have.
Engage with posts from companies you want to work for by liking them, share interesting articles about technical writing, join industry groups, and react to and comment on other people’s posts. LinkedIn seems to rank active users more heavily in recruiter search results.
Ask for recommendations from former managers, colleagues, or mentors. Even if you were in a completely different role from the one you’re aiming for, having a glowing review of your communication skills on your profile will emphasize to a prospective employer that you have the right attitude to be a technical writer.
Dos and Don’ts for Technical Writer LinkedIn Profiles
Tip Icon Tip
Customize Your LinkedIn URL for Your Résumé
You can customize your LinkedIn profile URL so it doesn’t have a mess of letters and numbers at the end. This will look better when you include it in your résumé.

4.3. Cover Letter

When applying for a technical writing position, you’ll often need to include a cover letter. In a few paragraphs, a cover letter gives you the opportunity to explain why you’re interested in the role and the company, and the value you’ll bring to the role through your unique combination of hard and soft skills, experience, and accomplishments.

In a writing-heavy field such as technical writing, a cover letter carries extra weight. It’s a great opportunity to showcase your writing skills. On the flipside, poor writing or grammatical errors will reflect badly on you and be glaringly obvious to a potential employer. Because writing is a core part of the job, recruiters and hiring managers will scrutinize any writing you provide during the application process, so make sure it reflects your talent.

Table: Dos and Don’ts for Technical Writer Cover Letters

Tailor your cover letter for the role. This goes for your résumé as well. Look at the sort of qualifications, skills, and experience the job ad is asking for, then see if you can find examples in your career where you’ve already done those sorts of things. Highlight these in your cover letter by summarizing them in bullet points.Don’t use generic copy-and-paste letters that are the same for every role. At the very least, make sure you address the hiring manager or recruiter by name, rather than “Dear Sir / Madam.”
Keep cover letters to less than one page. They should be brief and to the point, highlighting only your most relevant skills and accomplishments.
Try to put yourself in the shoes of the hiring manager or recruiter. The more directly and obviously your cover letter answers the question “How does the candidate meet my requirements for [key qualifications / skills / experience],” the easier it is to say yes to that candidate.
Reference the job title and job ID (if there is one) in your cover letter. Remember that hiring managers and recruiters often recruit for multiple roles at once, and sometimes they lose track of things.
If time permits, ask friends or family members to review your cover letter—along with your résumé—before you send it to get a fresh perspective.
Dos and Don’ts for Technical Writer LinkedIn Profiles
Tip Icon Tip
Don’t Have Much Tech Writing Experience?
Cover letters are especially useful when you’re new to the industry. If you’re transferring into technical writing from another field, you can use your cover letter to explain how your previous experience and skills are relevant and transferable. If you’re a recent graduate from a school, bootcamp, or certification course, you can use your cover letter to explain why you chose technical writing and what skills you can offer the organization.

4.4. Portfolio

Portfolios are excellent tools for showcasing your ability to clearly communicate technical concepts. In fact, many technical writing roles require at least several writing samples with your application. Portfolios can be especially valuable to aspiring technical writers, as they’re an easy way of proving to a potential employer that you can do technical writing, even if you don’t have much formal technical writing experience. For experienced writers, portfolios are an excellent way to showcase to potential employers your amazing writing and presentation skills, which their team will benefit from.

Portfolios can take many forms, varying wildly depending on the time and financial investment you’re prepared to put into them. What matters is that your writing samples are high quality—well written, structured, and formatted—demonstrate your understanding of technical writing concepts, and are easy for potential employers to access.

Technical writers often use a variety of different formats for their portfolios:

  • A personal website with a custom URL
  • A content management system such as WordPress
  • A code hosting platform such as GitHub
  • A document hosted online (such as a Google doc) that contains summaries of work samples or links to them

Be careful when you’re preparing your portfolio that you don’t disclose any sensitive intellectual property you don’t have permission to share.

What Does That Mean Icon What Does That Mean?
A portfolio is a collection of your own work samples from organizations you’ve worked for and that you have permission to showcase to prospective employers.

Good prompts for writing sample portfolio pieces include:

  • How to write an email (use the device/program/browser of your choice).
  • How to download images from a device.
  • How to download an app to your phone and use it.
  • How to order groceries online.
  • How to send images through a social media platform.
  • Compare and contrast the use of a laptop/desktop with that of a tablet/phone to complete a task.
  • Compare and contrast the use of two different programs to complete the same task.
  • A troubleshooting guide for something in your home/daily life that sometimes malfunctions.
  • Table or graphic comparing two programs/products.
  • Define terms (app, program, HTML, CSS).

For more advice about choosing writing samples, we recommend you read Sue Arkin’s post, The Dos and Don’ts of Writing Samples1 in her blog, Tested Writing.

Tip Icon Tip
How Do I Build a Portfolio if I’ve Never Done Any Technical Writing? If you’re an aspiring technical writer and don’t have any published samples from a previous job, that’s okay. Many aspiring technical writers find themselves in the same position. Consider creating some documentation using the principles outlined in this guide. If your samples showcase your technical skills as well—for example, some amateur coding projects you’ve done—even better.
Writing samples should be long enough to provide context and showcase your communication and or technical abilities but short enough that a hiring team can review them easily. Keep each sample to less than a page. If possible, use pieces that are most relevant to the role you’re applying to.Avoid weak samples that don’t showcase your best abilities, or samples that aren’t tech-docs specific. For example, some folks include a broad range of writing projects, such as short stories, screenplays, poetry, and so on. This is best left for your personal website rather than your professional portfolio.
Include sufficient context alongside your samples so that employers can understand them: the organization (or industry if you’re not allowed to mention the organization by name), audience, tools or techniques you used to write the samples, any challenges you had to overcome, the positive impact your pieces had (e.g., reduced support calls, or were described in glowing terms by a customer in an online forum).Avoid highly idiosyncratic portfolio sites that may make you seem just a little too quirky. Once you’re in the workforce and your teammates get to know you, you can judge whether it’s safe to let your hair down and show your true self. It’s all too easy for a potential employer to turn you down based on an impression from a website before they get a chance to know you—and appreciate your unique strengths.
Include a link to your portfolio in your LinkedIn profile and at the top of your résumé.
Try and make your portfolio links public if you can. It’s no good having a portfolio if a recruiter can’t see your work!
Ensure that you have permission to share any proprietary work that you have done for a former employer—and that it isn’t behind a paywall or nondisclosure clause in your contract.
Dos and Don’ts for Technical Writer Portfolios
Voice of Practitioner Icon Voice of Practitioner
Role: Technical Writer with 4-plus years’ experience and 10-plus years’ language and writing tutoring
Location: Washington, United States
Expertise: Software documentation

“My portfolio has been one of the strongest things to qualify me for roles. If you don’t have any experience in tech writing, it is entirely up to your portfolio. People didn’t even look at my résumé until I had a strong portfolio. To get my first tech writing role, I volunteered for open-source work and landed a gig at the Google Season of Docs project. I worked with the Madplotlib Project,2 and they enjoyed my proposal. I developed a lean style guide, some docs, and documented an entry path for someone who was entirely new to programming, noting there were loads of online resources such as YouTube available. I noticed gaps that needed to be in the entry path that weren’t in the docs and highlighted that to them. I like to say ‘open-source opens doors.’ However, open-source projects is developers doing it out of passion, it’s a labor of love, so there can be a high barrier to entry there. It’s a tight-knit, closed community.”

5. The Interview Process

Many folks dread interviews. It may surprise you to learn that most hiring managers don’t exactly love them either. From the hiring manager’s point of view, interviews can be draining ordeals that require high levels of concentration. They may be conducting many interviews in a single day—and not just for a single role. Managers know they’ve got an hour or less to understand how well you can write, empathize with your audience, work well with others, and stay consistent in your editing. As a candidate, they’re a great opportunity for you to showcase not just your accomplishments and technical skills, but also your soft skills.

So how does it work? Technical writer interviews usually consist of at least one interview (phone, video, or in person) and often include a writing test as well. A short, more informal interview process, which may happen if you’ve been personally recommended by a trusted colleague, usually involves a single interview with the hiring manager.

A longer, more formal interview process may involve an initial interview with a recruiter, an interview with the hiring manager or a panel of multiple interviewers, and a chance to meet the rest of the team you’d be working with. This also gives them a chance to meet you and provide feedback to your manager on whether they think you’re a good fit for the team.

Interviews for technical writers focus on both soft skills and hard skills. Common questions include:

  • What does a successful technical document look like?
  • How would you keep your audience engaged?
  • Imagine you’re about to document a new product or feature. What does that process look like?
  • Tell me about a time you handled conflict in a school, work, or other group setting.
  • What is the purpose of a style guide?

Following a successful interview process and a job offer, you and the organization will have to agree on employment terms. Salaries can vary widely depending on the industry, your technical skills, and your level of experience. If you’re a newbie, you may not have much bargaining power. Location also matters. For example, even within the United States, the cost of labor in Silicon Valley is not the cost of labor in Kansas City. For more information about salary, see the Write the Docs Salary Surveys.3

Tip Icon Tip
Build Confidence by Rehearsing Your Answers
It’s very easy to get flustered during an interview, particularly if the interviewer throws a curveball question at you that you weren’t expecting. The last thing you want to do is dissolve into a puddle of “uhms” and “ahhs” in the middle of a session. To avoid this, grab a list of potential interview questions and rehearse your answers to them until you’re confident that you can respond to them. You don’t need to recite the answers verbatim in the interview, so repeat them just enough times that the key points readily spring to your mind.
Voice of Practitioner Icon Voice of Practitioner
Role: Senior Technical Writer with 25-plus years’ experience in technical writing, technical documentation management, and information architecture
Location: Quebec, Canada
Expertise: Software, process and procedure, hardware documentation

“What I look for when I interview someone for a tech writing role is extreme curiosity: someone who’s not going to give up when the SME says ‘That’s not important.’ I’m looking for someone who truly cares. I’ve hired support people because I’ve seen the amazing documentation they’ve written for themselves. They’ve used no tools, but they have this desire to figure out a solution to save the user some time. You can teach a person who’s smart and motivated and willing to learn anything, but you have to have this thing in your head that won’t rest until you have an answer to your problem. It’s the people who stay up at night trying to solve a problem that I hire in a heartbeat because they’re always going to be improving, always getting better. That’s an innate skill that you can’t teach. You can be great technically, but if you don’t care figuring out how to get something, you’re always going to be ‘just ok.’”

5.1. Writing Tests During the Interview Process

So, you’ve gotten an interview for that coveted technical writing role…and they’ve told you that you’ll have to do a test. Don’t panic! Try and think of the writing test as an opportunity for you to showcase your excellent skills and in doing so stand out from the competition, rather than as an ordeal to be endured.

It helps to understand why hiring managers and recruiters use writing tests. Here are the key reasons:

  • A writing test shows how you actually work under pressure vs. your writing samples, which showcase your best work that you’ve had the opportunity to finesse at your leisure. The writing test will demonstrate the typical volume and quality of work you can be expected to produce within a certain time.
  • It tends to weed out the pretenders pretty quickly. These are the folks that lie on their résumé about having extensive experience or skills that they don’t—or those who didn’t create their own portfolio samples themselves.
  • Finally, writing tests show how well you can follow instructions. Your potential employers will be assessing not just your communication ability, but also how well you listened to them. The ability to listen to stakeholders (including your boss) and pay close attention is an absolutely essential technical writer skill.

A typical writing test takes between one and two hours and tests your writing and editing skills. The hiring manager is looking for consistent, error-free work that demonstrates an understanding of technical writing principles.

Tip Icon Tip
Sample Writing and Editing Test
Our forthcoming book, Technical Documentation Management—available online at—contains a sample writing and editing test for technical writers, which you may wish to use to help prepare for an interview.
  1. Arkin, S. (2022, April 2). The dos and don’ts of writing samples. Tested Writing. ↩︎
  2. Matplotlib project. (n.d.). Google for Developers. ↩︎
  3. Salary surveys. (n.d.). Write the Docs. ↩︎
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