Tips for job hunting as a technical writer

Sep. 16, 2023

I’ve been working as a writer in tech for more than 15 years now. During this time I’ve been at five different companies. I’ve done tons of interviews and got more than a dozen offers, some of which I ended up accepting. It didn’t always start with clicking “Apply”; it didn’t always go as expected. Whatever the outcome, though, I learned a thing or two which I’d like to share.

What follows are recommendations I’d give to anyone wanting to get hired as a technical writer by a tech company in the current job market. They’re based on my experience, so they’re not guaranteed to work or even make sense in your situation. As always, the intent is to generate a helpful exchange.

Forget Word: Your resume is a mix of LinkedIn and GitHub

At some point in my career I had to browse dozens of resumes as I was trying to hire writers for my team. I’ve seen all kinds of formats and layouts. Let me tell you, standardization through LinkedIn is good. Don’t waste your time producing elaborate CVs or setting up a resume on your personal website: Most job offers these days run on LinkedIn. Even when they don’t, a LinkedIn profile speeds up the task of introducing data into third-party hiring platforms and human resources management systems. Plus, you can get a printable PDF with a click.

Instead of coming up with a fancy new Microsoft Word template, curate your LinkedIn profile. Fill out all the sections, request recommendations (got a job thanks to one once), and do some skill tests. It doesn’t matter that you aren’t an expert: LinkedIn tests are not there to certify you’re an expert, but to signal familiarity with an area. In the case of technical writers, programming languages, databases, and development tools are skills you’ll want to show. Don’t aim to become a developer, aim to become a devling.

Speaking of code, the same goes for GitHub. Treat it as if it was your secondary CV, because it is. Add a profile README, set up social network links, and pin your most interesting projects or code snippets. No, they don’t have to be perfect, nor exemplary; as long as you know their fundamental flaws and can explain that in an interview, you’re already showing valuable technical skills.

Use referrals whenever you can (and be generous with referrals)

According to various statistics, referrals account for between 30 to 50% of all hires. I got three out of five of my previous jobs through referrals. I got those referrals from people who either worked with me in the past or knew me through my social media and blogging activity (yes, we should all blog more about tech writing). Being visible in a network is important as it makes you more likely to get a referral. Keep your network in a healthy state and work at your current job as if it had an impact on your future networking.

Even a referral can fail, though (one day I’ll tell you of how many times a FAANG rejected me despite getting referrals). That’s why you should actively ask for referrals after finding out who’s working at a company. I’ve known writers who’re reluctant to ask for referrals, as if they were spending some kind of precious social coin. Don’t: Referrals are good for the person referring you as much as for the person being referred, as they get to earn extra money. Your contact can always say no, but in most cases it won’t have any repercussions.

My last advice on referrals is that you should refer people as much as possible if you’re in a position to do so. It’s one of those things that keeps your network solid and generate positive quid pro quo capital. Of course, you don’t want to refer at random, but you can refer when you see there might be a match. It’s not so much about the money you get as the beneficial effect referrals have on your network. Go help fellow writers.

Interview as if you were already part of the team

I could write an entire blog post about how to best conduct a job interview, but what I want to tell you here is that job interviews are not only a great opportunity to practice your interviewing skills for free, but also a window over different systems and workflows and tools. There’s much you can learn just by asking questions and listening. If you exit the interview having learned something new, it’s already a success.

Make it a goal to make the people on the other side of the call feel at ease and engaged, because interviews are also great for networking; people whom I met during interview processes that failed later became friends and valuable contacts. A good way of achieving this is to behave as if you were doing an onboarding call, working together in shaping goals, so that all can get a feeling of how the future could look like.

Interviews are hard, but the more you interview, the less you’ll feel nervous about them. One thing that always helped me before entering interviews was thinking about interviews as coffee time, so that I could create an environment amenable to small talk. I’ve been in interviews where I’d notice the person in front of me wanting to be somewhere else – in such situations, making a conscious effort to make it an enjoyable chat between colleagues always paid back.

Challenge the company’s assumptions if needed

Technical writing still isn’t a widely known profession, especially among startups and outside of the US. That’s why I penned a letter to software developers a while ago, and why I advocate so strongly for our craft. The lack of knowledge might result in job offers that often pay below market or include excessive or absurd requirements. If treated as a cost center (“We need someone to write articles for the KB”) instead of a strategic ingredient of the product offering, job offers for documentarians can be painful to read.

This is actually a golden opportunity. All technical writers can be ambassadors of tech comms and explain to prospective employers what it is that they really need and how they’d execute their content strategy. Have they thought of tooling? What about the interaction with customer support and marketing? As I recently told someone on Twitter: Employers are out fishing, often not knowing what they want themselves. Go grab their hook and drag. If that requires entering a consultant mindset, then do it, it’s good practice for your future freelancing self.

Be kind to recruiters, always, with no exception

Every time I read a tweet or a LinkedIn message ranting about recruiters, I let out a sad sigh. As a technical writer, you should be grateful when recruiters come knocking at your door, even if they’re being rash or mistaken. The recruiter thought you’re a developer? Tell them you aren’t and explain that you create documentation–they might have an offer for you later on. The recruiter is offering a position you’re not interested in? Thank them and add them as contacts.

Even when you reject a job offer, being friendly with a recruiter pays off. It’s not uncommon for recruiters to come back asking about other profiles, which is a great time for recommending friends and people in your network. Other times, recruiters remember about your experience and what you’re looking for and won’t hesitate to match you with whatever position they’re handling that might be relevant to you. Explain what technical writing is if they don’t know and you’ll help the entire community.

Define your experience, don’t let the experience define you

I’d like to finish with what I think is the most important point of all: There’s a story behind your experience and you should find it and develop it. I started as a software reviewer, then moved to content strategy and technical writing. The overall theme of my career has been writing and technology, not technical writing nor content strategy. The job titles I’ve had, some of which I invented on the job, are nothing but communication tools, labels that help people understand what it is that you may be doing at a company. So, don’t limit yourself to job titles. Instead, weave your experience and self-presentation into something that resonates with what you do, like writing or connecting people.

This is especially relevant in the field of technical communication, which involves working with ever-changing technologies, and with people. For all I know, what we call technical writers today might be AI editors tomorrow, and it won’t be the end of what we describe as technical writing, because what makes us valuable is our humanity and ability to build bridges.

Have more questions? Ping me on Twitter or Mastodon!