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As a heads up, this content is from August of 2020 and is a port from our Wordpress site. I’ve made some slight changes to the phrasing and language and the links below may not correspond to the correct context as of this writing.

Key points from the UX Writer Conference “Advice for New Writers” Session

At the 2020 UX Writers Conference, two newly minted technical writers asked for advice from attendees. Read on for their findings!

For those new to the field of UX and tech writing, the 2020 UX Writers Conference was a wellspring of information and advice from 20+ speakers, while also offering product demos and three-minute “networking roulette” sessions.

The feature that made the conference unique was that attendees could create their own topic session and invite others to join. With more than 300 professionals in attendance, it seemed like a great opportunity for us newbies to gather advice. With that in mind, we started a session called “Give advice to new technical writers” on the first day.

To our surprise, several dozen people joined, and over the next 30 minutes, we got tons of helpful advice. The following is a general synopsis—we give credit where possible and many thanks to all who contributed.

Is this the field for you?

Whenever you think about entering a new field or switching careers, one thought has to be: What are the barriers to entry? Do you need to get a certification or other training? Is any of it required?

Not necessarily.

Anna Korinna Nemeth-Szabo, a junior technical writer at One Identity, observed that “people who eventually ‘end up’ in this field [often] ‘magically’ appear and roll with the punches, learning as they work.” The idea of flexibility is always welcome.

So while training is great, “facility with language and comfort communicating clearly and with empathy is the biggest skill that any tech writer can practice and benefit from,” said Justin Matter, senior technical writer at Thompson-Reuters.

For those interested in training, the UW Certificate in Professional Technical Writing program is available online. The UX Writers Collective and UX Writing Hub also offer online courses. Other great resources include professional organizations, such as the Society for Technical Communication (STC) or Write The Docs.

Image tech writing triangle

Developing an understanding of the relationship between the document and the user is important. Good technical and UX writers see themselves as “the voice of the user,” said Sherri Barksdale, senior technical writer at Maxar Technologies.

The field is perfect for “people who are naturally curious… people who are inclined to ask questions, dig deep, strive to figure things out for themselves,” said Rebecca Edick, technical writer at iCIMS.

Many stressed the importance of a professional portfolio. “I recommend that new writers create their own portfolio by rewriting bad manuals (or parts of them) and/or volunteering for non-profits to help them with proposals and policies,” suggested Alison Butler, senior technical writer/content strategist at Apptio.

Build a portfolio

Other suggestions included building a user guide for a website or application you enjoy using, or rewriting/improving existing documentation for a company where you’d like to work. The key is to tread lightly and keep it professional! If you interview with that company, you may end up speaking with the person whose work you thought needed help.

Image portfolio diagram

What belongs in a portfolio? Professional level work, for starters, that is clean, well organized, and thoughtful. Unless you have nothing else, don’t submit academic papers or creative work. “I look for writing samples that are appropriate for the level of experience needed for the job. I also ask them to explain the decisions that went into their decisions throughout the doc. That tells me whether the doc is their own work and their level of expertise,” said Butler.

How many pieces should you have? “Five samples appropriate for the level of the position. Variety is good, if possible,” thinks Butler.

Brenda Shafer, technical writer at nCino, Inc., agreed. Having “a variety of samples is not a bad idea… so they can see that you can vary your writing style. They can understand that you know how to communicate, not just write up a process.”

“Tech writing is as much how you present content as the text.” Liv Wessel

Your resume is a writing sample that hides in plain sight, noted Liv Wessel, documentation manager at Upland Software. “As someone who hires tech writers—resumes are important. Tech writing is as much how you present content as the text. If the formatting or layout is bad, or it is 10 pages long, I won’t even look at your qualifications or portfolio.”

A number of attendees asked about interviews. “I always look for folks who are assertive, willing to learn, EXCELLENT communicators, adaptable to change,” said Laurel Jones, associate technical writing manager at nCino, Inc.

Be prepared to perform a writing test, but beware of anyone who asks for extensive work. A number of people shared stories about job seekers who did hours of work that the hiring company used without ever offering a job. “You can ask politely when receiving a task if it was for a real task or sample test only. If it’s for a real task you can ask if it is accepted will it be remunerated?” said Samar Abou Elkheir, managing director and founder of ContentME.

Session attendees also echoed the sentiments of conference speakers Joshua Carpentier and Laurah Mwirichia—once you get the job, it is critical to establish yourself within the organization.

Interviewing and getting started

“When you become a human being with a face rather than a job title, it becomes easier to work together more seamlessly.” Rebecca Edick

“Building… personal connection[s] with dev teams is also a HUGE benefit. In many ways, documentation can be an after though to engineering and getting dev notes and whatnot can be a struggle. When you become a human being with a face rather than a job title, it becomes easier to work together more seamlessly,” said Edick.

“So much success is contingent on personal relationships, especially in large orgs,” Matter added, and Jones concurred. “Totally critical to success.”

The beginning may be difficult, but “BE CONFIDENT. People will most probably keep questioning your expertise, or even whether tech writers are even needed (not kiddin’). Grow a thick skin and persevere,” said Nemeth-Szabo. “As you get better and better, they will eventually accept your opinion and value your input.”

With that the session, and day one of the conference, came to a close. We were very glad we took the plunge and tried out the attendee-initiated session feature—it gave us an amazing opportunity to hear some real-world advice.

A special thanks to Jeremiah Telzrow for his work on this article when originally published!

Continuing gratitude for Samar Abou Elkheir, Sherri Barksdale, Alison Butler, Rebecca Edick, Laurel Jones, Katie Jones, Vera Livshin, Justin Matter, Anna Korinna Nemeth-Szabo, Kenta Nishioka, Brenda Shafer, Liv Wessel, Hope Wyss, and everyone else who joined the session. Cheers.