Most careers in professional writing are entry level, which is to say you can qualify for them with little or no professional experience. Don’t misunderstand . . . I am not saying you can commonly jump into one of these jobs with no qualifications. I am saying that if you have the right writing skills and are prepared to put in the effort to learn the necessary technical skills, you can become qualified to work in this industry.
Typically, employers will look for someone with a technical communication degree, but all of the TC programs in the country can’t produce enough graduates to satisfy the industry. Moreover, it is the rare TC program that actually teaches the technologies the writers will need to use.
As a consequence, most job posters will cover their bases by asking for degrees in technical communication, journalism, English, or comparable. If you have the “comparable” degree (i.e., a degree that required a lot of writing), you meet that first requirement. For example, degrees in philosophy, political science, history, and psychology often generate excellent writers, and a degree in any of these areas may give you the writing skills to meet that degree requirement.
About the three years of experience?
These advertisers will also often ask for three or more years of professional experience. Again, they cover their bases. Using the phrase, “. . . three or more years’ experience preferred,” allows potential employers to interview you even if you come up a bit short. They can look at internships and volunteer work you might have done. You can often get one of these jobs if you can demonstrate you have the right skills and some relevant experience. Maybe you are proficient with Photoshop and Dreamweaver or InDesign and can demonstrate that you write well (even fiction and/or poetry can be used as a part of your portfolio).
The key is to get prepared
If you plan ahead, you can keep your day job and freelance or contract jobs on the side while you develop the skills and experience for that one job you really want to do. Think of it as an investment of time and effort.
To create the air of professionalism, you can give yourself a company name and put together some business cards. The first thing you know, you have built the skills and experience you need to move into the new profession of your choice.
What experience do the employers really want?
Where do I find the jobs?
During that time in Purgatory, you should do professional writing projects, even if you have to do them for free. You need to be able to show that you have done professional quality work by showing a portfolio of work, so you want to build up a portfolio. That means if you have a friend who needs a new brochure, you should help him with it so you can put it into your portfolio. You can also assign yourself projects. Finally, if you are claiming to do professional work in the 21st century, you should have a professional website, along with one or more Facebook pages, LinkedIn page, and twitter account.
Fake it till ya’ Make it
Many of you will be afraid of cheating (claiming more than you can do). Well, you don’t want to cheat when applying for a job, but nobody begins difficult tasks by being good at them. If you work at it, at some point, you move from wishing you could do something complicated to knowing you can do it. Consider the figure skater who performs at the Olympics. She was once the goofy looking kid who couldn’t keep her feet under her on the ice. Or consider the pianist at Carnage Hall. He began by playing chopsticks somewhere. Every good writer was once a bad writer. Everybody who is good at something difficult was once bad at it. They all have to go through that transitional part and keep trying until one day they discover they are pretty danged good. The rule all these people follow, whether they know it or not is, “Fake it ‘till ya’ make it!”
It just takes courage and self-confidence
More important than experience is the willingness (courage) to attack a demanding learning curve and push on until you have topped it. Constantly updating technologies has become an important part of the job. I have often heard the following claim: “When a person is courageous enough to believe he or she can learn anything, and persuades me they want this job because they have researched the workplace and really want to work for us . . . that is often enough to get them hired.”
Look for a local, professional organization. The Society for Technical Communication (STC) has local chapters that often meet monthly. There may be one in your city. If there is, and they have meetings, you can get a lot of support. Most of the people who attend meetings regularly are among those who recommend or even hire new people. It is good to know them.
On line, LinkedIn has professional discussion forums, including forums on professional writing and freelance writing. People beginning in the field, often ask questions about getting started in the profession. Longtime professionals will usually answer their questions. You will need connections.
Finally, there are forums set up by unaffiliated groups. They are worth checking out, but I must confess they tend to be dominated by opinionated bullies who tend to dominate the conversations. After a while, these forums can become really tiresome.
Talents and Skills the Professions Demand
As you think about attacking a learning curve, consider which learning curve you want to attack. You only need to attack the ones that enhance your talents. Knowledge of some skills naturally leads you into jobs you might not want to do. Understanding who you are, makes it easier to understand what you want to know.
No matter how hard they might try, not every ice skater is going to make it to the Olympics. Skill comes from practice, but talent is a part of who you are. Understanding your talents is a critical part of deciding who you might want to be in one of these careers. For example, some people love new problems. They will attack it with relish, but having solved the problem, they have little interest in pursuing it further, and even less interest in repeating the process with the same problem time and again. For example, a writer might be asked to document a software application (describe how to use the software) in a guide. The first time, the writer might relish the process, putting in lots of extra hours learning how to configure the text in an appropriate pattern while carefully describing all of the important processes. But once having done that, the writer might find doing it again and again and again and yet again (for the rest of her life) with similar applications is more than just tedious. This person might do a good job as a software documentation specialist, but would probably never love the job. The person who loves that job will be comfortable with repetition.
In contrast, copywriting demands the writer attack a different problem every time. A person comfortable with repetition would probably hate the copywriter career.
So what is a talent?
A talent is a natural tendency that enhances your efforts. It’s a part of your personality—part of how you like to do things. The drive to solve puzzles is a talent. Interest in emerging technologies is a talent. The love of reading is a talent. Always striving for perfection, while knowing you can never achieve it, is a talent. That said, it might be clear that a talent for one kind of job can be a detriment for a different kind of job. Striving for perfection is not a talent when the need is for speed. So a natural love of experimenting with and learning new technologies would enhance the career of an information architect, but might do nothing for a proofreader. With a sense of your talents, you can better identify the list of careers where you will most likely thrive – they require a variety of talents.
How do you identify your talents?
The Gallup organization spent decades interviewing millions of employees in an effort to discover what talents make us excellent employees. What they found is that we all have natural characteristics that we cannot change. They are just a part of what we are. Some of us happily thrive in chaos (e.g., copywriter). Some of us are risk takers (e.g., indi-book publishers). Some of us thrive in an environment where snap decisions are the norm (e.g., managing editors). In contrast, some of us are naturally comfortable in consistency (e.g., proofreaders). Some of us thrive in carefully considered strategies and are reluctant to make changes once the strategies are established (e.g., documentation specialist).
Gallup published their results in three books. One of the books is devoted to presenting hiring and management suggestions, but two of them are relevant for helping us identify our most important professional talents: Now Discover Your Strengths (Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton, $19,89 on Amazon.com) and Strengths Finder 2.0 (Tom Rath, $15.44 on Amazon.com). The books provide access to tests that permit you to identify your top five talents, but by reading their list of 34 talents, you can see others that could apply to you and even others that clearly cannot apply to you.
An important point to take away from this segment is that no matter what talents you may exhibit, there are careers in professional writing that have your name (with your talents) written all over them.
. . . and what is a skill?
A skill is something you have to learn how to do. The drive to solve puzzles is a talent, but the ability to solve them is a skill. The need to produce a perfect product is a talent, but the ability to reach near perfection demands skill. You use your understanding of your talents to decide what career you want to pursue, and then you go and get the skills to do that.
It is likely that right now you do not have those skills. How do you publish a magazine or and eBook? How do you manage the metadata in a website or integrate content into code? These are the skills you need to bring to the interview.
So where do you get the skills
There is a huge inventory of learning options for you. Some of them may cost a bit, and some may cost a lot. But consider this: in the end, the best tech comm. jobs pay well over $100K. That is worth investing in. A writer with network certification is a valuable person, indeed. You can get network certified with no particular experience or education.
Many of your options, however, are free. You can find many inexpensive courses or workshops online or at local colleges. Formal instruction often comes with some kind of certification, which improves your credentials. You could get a degree in professional and technical communication — we once had an opera singer come through our online master’s in technical communication program — but you really don’t need it. If you have a degree that demanded a lot of writing or a lot of technology (and you are a good writer), you are probably in good shape from an educational point of view.
If you are an excellent writer, there is a very good chance that you are involved in other arts as well. It is common for writers to work in painting, photography, video, Web design, or theatre. It is just as common for writers to be interested in various computer technologies or the sciences. These are all skills you can combine with your writing to make it richer and more marketable. Work on enhancing the additional skills.
Resources for enhancing your skills
To improve your credentials may just require you to browse YouTube and similar sites. I have seen educators point to a student and say, “she could get an education at Barnes and Nobel.” The point is that driven people can self-educate.
YouTube is filled with useful tutorials. There are also learning sites such as http://Lynda.com that offer exceptionally high quality tutorials. Finally, you can practice on your own or with others. The thing is this: there are more options than you will have time to explore.
If you are a good writer, you are almost certainly also an avid reader. These characteristics go hand in hand. Moreover, If you are really interested in becoming a professional writer, you will be a person who is attracted to research. If that is the case, finding the skills you need for a professional writing position will be a part of what you like to do anyway.
List and description of the 50 most available career opportunities in professional communication.
Over the next weeks, I will describe 50 of the careers I have identified that you can consider if you find a career in professional communication interesting.