9 Common Mistakes When Seeking Your First Technical Writing Job

About a decade ago, companies found the antidote to hiring the wrong person: Temp to Perm positions. These are contract positions that convert to full-time positions if everyone is on board (the companies have agreements in place with staffing companies to smooth the transition).

A Great Model for a Technical Writing Job

A temp-to-perm (also called “try before you buy”) technical writing job is a way for both you and a company to try each other on for size. Companies vary so much in culture, pay, benefits, and overall health that it takes a while to understand whether it’s worth investing years of your life to working there. And companies avoid the risks and costs of getting it wrong, which can be immense. After some months, managers understand what you offer and what your trajectory in the company might look like.

This is not knowledge you can gain over a few hour-long interviews. When I started in 2000, the world was split between full-time employees and contractors. We would interact knowing that in nine months, or a year, we’d have to say goodbye. Now a good contractor, even when not engaged formally as a temp-to-perm hire, is often evaluated as a fit and sometimes offered a position. I advise anyone looking for their first technical writing role today to prioritize their search by:

  • Contract positions
  • Freelance (piece) work
  • Full-time positions

1) Focusing on a Full-Time Position

We all know the ideal partner doesn’t exist, that life does not follow a Disney script, but many of us persist in the illusion that a perfect partner-for-life is out there somewhere. Likewise, we often persist in believing that a perfect full-time position awaits us that will nourish our amazing talents and gently lift us up to successively responsible positions in the organization. BUNK! Idealizing employment from ANY company today is a fool’s game. Unless your name is Mark Zuckerberg. Then you can say the company treats you like royalty.

2) Ignoring the Elephant in the Room

Imagine Al Pacino interviewing you. He leans across the small table, about a foot away from your face, and asks:

You have ZERO experience. Why on earth should my company hire you?

You take a deep breath – this IS Al Pacino – and you say “Because my cumulative experience matches what you’re looking for.” Companies are NOT SEARCHING FOR BEGINNERS. And if you’ve graduated college and/or have worked a few years in a professional capacity, YOU ARE NOT A BEGINNER. Most companies looking for 1-2 years’ experience will consider you as long as your prior “cumulative” experience matches their requirements. It’s spinning, it’s putting your best foot forward, placing yourself in the best light, or shameless self-promotion, but you must be able to do this if you’re going to win that first technical writing position.

True Story about Finding a Technical Writing Job

I had a woman enroll in my course (https://becometechnicalwriter.com) and begin to interview. She had a background as a marketing writer, so she had to “spin” her experience for a technical writing role. She got the role long before she finished the course!

3) Blended Portfolios

If you send me a link to your portfolio, I want a clean site (showing you grasp the basics of UX design) with technical writing samples. Add a brief bio and contact form.

The Formula:

Polished Samples + Brief Bio + Contact Form = perfection. I don’t want to be distracted by your hobbies or whatever other skills/talents you may have. If you need a basic introduction to design, see Steve Krug’s book “Don’t Make Me Think.” You may LOVE skiing, so you add it to your portfolio. But what if I broke a leg skiing and hate it? Do I really want to sit around listening to you talk about your recent trip as I relive my snow-encrusted misery? Likewise, personal pursuits like Tarot Cards and your cats. I may think Tarot Cards cool as heck, but what does it mean when you’ve included this in your bio information (“hobbies”)? Are you a witch or warlock too? And a good witch/warlock
or bad? ? Please do not list:

  • Personal stuff (Tarot Cards/cats)
  • Other professional pursuits (e.g., graphic design/producing videos)

4) Mediocre Samples in a Portfolio

Your portfolio is for showing off. I never had “perfect” samples in my portfolio, because they were extracts of documents I “anonymized” to conceal privileged information. Whether it was a technical diagram or the contents page to a user guide: it showed I knew what I was doing. If you have complete control of your samples – if you’re creating them for the portfolio, try to make them as perfect as possible. Anything irregular, whether typos or formatting issues, will not be a good look. You can usually find people on Write the Docs’ Slack forum (channel: #doc-reviews) to review your samples.

5) Unfocused LinkedIn Profile

Like “Blended Portfolios,” this is a common issue. Keep it professional. Keep it focused on your role: Technical Writing. If your LinkedIn title says “Copywriter” or “Professional Writer,” you might be passed over for an interview. Companies shopping for you might Google your name, for sure, but they’re not likely to dig for what you put up in Pinterest five years ago. Nobody has the time for that. What’s their #1 destination? LinkedIn.

Make LinkedIn Sparkle

Write the intro, show it to your friends, clean up your resume, show it to your friends. If you have a little money, spend it on a writer who specializes in LinkedIn (look on Upwork or Fiverr). PS: My LinkedIn profile is lousy, because I’m not currently open to new offers for work as a technical writer.

6) Not Scrubbing Social Profiles

Open an Incognito tab (Chrome) or Private window (Firefox) and Google your name. If your name is unique and you’re a “Twitter Thunderer,” clean up that profile (remove your photo, your real name, etc….). No companies want to dig up dirt, but if it’s out there in the open – if you’ve got shirtless pics on a balcony in the French Quarter during Mardi gras, then congratulations on a social life. But don’t pin it to the top of your profile. Same with posts expressing strong opinions. It’s a free country, right? Companies are also free not to hire someone who tweets or posts divisive material.

7) Failure to Prep for Interviews

I recently hired two technical writers. I met about ten candidates. Of the ten, at least six were woefully under-prepared to interview. These were senior technical writers. You need to know the following:

  • Every job has its typical questions. You’ve got to know what they ask so you can be prepared and not “wing it.”
  • You need to know about the company. Spend at least ten minutes on the company website. (How can you say you want the job if you haven’t done a minimal amount of research on the company?)
  • You need to understand the requirements or be ready to ask clarifying questions about those you don’t understand.

8) Lousy Interviewing Skills

A good interview for a technical writing job is like a chat at a coffee table. It’s not like a professor at a lectern quizzing a student below. Assuming you’re prepared (see previous item), treat it like you care. Especially now, when nearly every interview is a remote video call. It seems silly to say this, but don’t become overly relaxed because you’re at home on video.

  • Wear a nice top.
  • Make sure your background is not distracting (or use a fake background).
  • Avoid interviewing on your phone. If you must use your phone, keep it stationary.
  • Don’t wait till the end to ask questions. If you see a need for clarification, ask. A good interviewer will appreciate your question.
  • Want the job? Tell the interviewer at the end: “I think I’d be a great fit for this position and can really help you out. I definitely want this job.”

9) Undisciplined, Disorganized Job Search

It’s a tired old cliche. But it’s true. Looking for a technical writing job is a “numbers game.” It’s also a job – you’re hiring you to help yourself. So hold yourself accountable. My course (https://becometechnicalwriter.com) has a job search checklist, because it’s so important to hold ourselves accountable. PS: If you have an undisciplined, disorganized job search and you’re hanging around the wrong people, they’ll listen to you complain about “how hard the job search” is. This will have NOTHING to do with the actual market in the real world. The right people will tell you it’s a numbers game and a job in itself. And to get more disciplined and organized.