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7 Ways for Technical Writers to Re-invent Themselves & Demonstrate their Value

You’ve just been fired. The Technical Writing Dept is closed. What do you do?  This is a fact of life for many people today. Indeed, there is now a real fear that US technical writers will continue to lose their jobs to offshore companies, e.g. India & Poland. And it’s true; it’s the shape of things to come, I’m afraid. But rather than moan about it, let’s look at what you can do to re-invent yourself and find new, lucrative opportunities.

Ivan Walsh page on Linkedin
Ivan Walsh's page on Linkedin

I use LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com/in/ivanwalsh) to keep my finger on the pulse with other tech writers. One of the discussions that keeps coming up (in different threads) is the future role of technical writing, especially how they need to ‘re-invent themselves’ or risk getting left behind.

7 Steps to Reinventing Yourself

The first thing is that you have to change your perception of yourself. You’re not a name tag – stop thinking of yourself as a technical writer.

You’re a person who makes a living by developing technical documentation. Stop looking at your job description. Honest, let it go. What services can you offer that others can’t? If you’ve worked in tech comms for 10 years, you must know something that a graduate doesn’t, right? What is it?

  1. Define your core strengths – what’s the one skill you have about all others that you can really sell. It may not be writing. For me, it’s creating videos with Camtasia.
  2. Develop a social network plan – create base-camps on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other media channels. But work especially hard on LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com/in/ivanwalsh). This is where the real action is, especially if you want to network. I can’t push this enough. You have to be on LinkedIn.
  3. Identify three people you trust – create a small team and go hunting for work. It’s easier to combine your strengths than go alone. This is the single biggest mistakes that people make. Don’t go it alone. Find people that you trust (or can learn to trust) and start a dialogue with them. Baby steps.
  4. Endorsements – use these to build credibility and attract new clients. Remember LinkedIn, well these go a long way here. Use these recommendations to build trust. There are 3 of you so it should be easier to swap/exchange contacts and make things happen.
  5. Differentiate – if everyone is doing social media, you can be sure there is a gap elsewhere. Here are some ideas.
    1. Adobe PageMaker templates development
    2. PDF to Word conversion
    3. Structured Authoring classes (valuable to business analysts)
    4. Visio diagramming (very popular with consultancy firms as they do lots of business process engineering)
  6. Find a project – don’t worry about the money. The key is to get a real live project that you can work together as a team. Use this to land future work.
  7. Start now – even if you are fully employed now, you can start today. Get networking. See who you can work with and how you can work together.

Opportunities I see in Asia today

I was asked recently if technical writers today are ‘no more than a commodity’? I know what the person meant; they felt they were being treated like one.

My response was that (said in a very gentle way…) they need to redefine their position as a technical writer or they will fall further and further down the food chain. Not nice, but true.

I did some consultancy with for a large US home appliance-maker here (fridges etc) in Beijing to help them knock their docs into shape. Most were written by Chinese university graduates, smart kids, but who’d never lived in an English-speaking country. The docs, reports, & (some marketing) material all reflected this. There was a lot of rework involved.

Despite the poor quality of these docs, the company has committed to this strategy and will continue to invest here. In the end, the documentation will improve.

Why?

Because western tech writers are coming here, learning some Chinese and working in the trenches. What they’ve learnt will be passed to the Chinese writers in time.

But, for US writers (and those in wealthy western countries) , they need to find ways to move out of the services/commodity area fast — otherwise their salary will continue to fall/stagnate and the opportunities will continue to dry up.

Takeaways

Don’t follow the crowds. Find an area where you can specialize and then dominate it. If possible, extend this into your social media network but keep some things to yourself as others may try to come in and steal your thunder.

3 often works quite well, e.g. a designer, coder and writer. Of course, you can always scale up later.

For me it’s all down to where and how you can ‘add value’.

If you don’t make daily efforts to push forward, you’ll fall behind.

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14 thoughts on “7 Ways for Technical Writers to Re-invent Themselves & Demonstrate their Value

  1. This is good, timely advice. Thanks, Ivan. I completely agree that technical writing, per se, is fast falling down the food chain. But as you say, we writers still have a lot to offer.

    Can you elaborate a bit on #3? I'm not sure what you mean: should I form a circle of trusted friends to provide feedback and encouragement? Or find 3 other job-seekers to form a support network? Or something else?

  2. Hi Larry,

    I need to expand on this, don’t I? I meant

    < find 3 other job-seekers to form a support network?

    Someone made the point on LinkedIn that they’ve found work by teaming up with 2 other people (dev & designer) as this approach seemed to work better.

    I think the point he was making is that if you're ‘just a tech writer’ it’s easy to get fobbed off – “we don’t need any tech docs written up, thanks.”

    But, as a team, he found work in areas outside his usual network, for example in:

    1. Government contracting, e.g. proposal development. Found this from a ‘non-IT’ person he met in the Chamber of Commerce who needed a helping hand. Now he has a foot in the door, re RFP work.

    2. Direct mail (i.e. copywriting, the type of work he usually wouldn’t have looked at (or got) before)

    3. Medical writing – they need an intranet and he got the job as the content developer. But the job came thru the programmer friend.

    Someone also made the point that technical writers should laser focus on niche areas rather than general IT.

    For example, developing content for mobile devices, developing content for industries, e.g. Energy, and looking at where they can dominate an area rather than being AN Other tech writer.

    I hope that helps.

  3. This is excellent advice to technical writers. I plan to retweet this next week from @WritingTech Docs so we can draw more attention to these tips.

  4. Thanks Catherine,

    I think as the industry changes we need stand back and see where/how we can add value.

    Also, as more docs get converted into video/mobile content there will be opportunities for TWs to extend their skills and hopefully find, new rewarding careers in these areas.

    FWIW we're at http://twitter.com/ihearttechdocs on Twitter

    Bye

    Ivan

  5. “You’ve just being fired” maybe “been”?

  6. Oops!

    i have been/being!

    Thanks for catching that.

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  9. […] Yourself – for example, technical writers with 5+ years experience should/could be looking at re-positioning themselves as Content Strategists, Web Content Consultant… where your ‘knowledge’ in more valued. This is where the real money is. It may take you 12-18 […]

  10. […] Yourself – for example, technical writers with 5+ years experience should/could be looking at re-positioning themselves as Content Strategists, Web Content Consultant… where your ‘knowledge’ in more valued. This is where the real money is. It may take you 12-18 […]

  11. […] Yourself – for example, technical writers with 5+ years experience should/could be looking at re-positioning themselves as Content Strategists, Web Content Consultant… where your ‘knowledge’ in more valued. This is where the real money is. It may take you 12-18 […]

  12. Thanks, Ivan. That does help.

  13. Good advice!

    Cheers!

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