Effective resume variations that get technical writers a job

Brace yourself… you are going to need multiple variations of your resume.

I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work with resumes. As a technical communicator, my job is to know audiences and I’ve come up with at least 5 different resume variations to appeal to targeted stakeholders during the hiring process. While it’s cumbersome to maintain multiple variations of a resume, you’ll have more success in getting the job you want. The primary hurdle, though, is that a successful resume will be seen by different people with different needs. While it’s impossible to write one perfect document for such a wide variety of audiences, it is my hope that I can give you information to make good decisions.

Master resume

Audience: Broad range of employers

Primary need: List everything you’ve ever accomplished in previous roles

The master resume is one written for you that will act as a source for your resume variations later. You will need to list all of your accomplishments and there is no length limit since this version wont be seen by others. However, don’t list anything earlier than around 10 to 15 years ago. Marketing writing is key, even when marketing rules conflict with technical writing rules (such as, avoid listing precise details). This will make it easy to create an appropriate variation later without spending a lot of time reinventing the wheel each time.

Resume variations for submitting to employers

Using information from your master resume, you’ll need to create variations for your audience. This can be tricky, but makes the difference between getting an interview or being ignored. These are not hard and fast rules, but observations of what has worked and what hasn’t worked.

Recruiting variation

Audience: HR recruiter

Primary need: Matching your resume to the job description

Imagine for a moment that you are in the middle of writing about a key feature for a product, then someone hands you 300 resumes and tells you to pick three for consideration. You’re probably just wanting to finish what you were working on, right? Well, that’s what it can be like for HR recruiters. You have about 3 seconds to stand out and make a good impression. I study the eyes and body language of recruiters closely. They skim resumes, not read every word–with the exception of your introduction paragraph (your elevator pitch). I’ve come to the conclusion that only information above the fold is examined (the top half of page 1). However, some recruiters will flip that resume over and read the bottom. Most people put volunteer work there, but it could be an opportunity for you that’s yet undiscovered!

ATS variation

Audience: computers

Primary needs: Match tools and keywords

With the number of tracking systems out there, it’s impossible to generalize responsibly about what to do. However, it’s widely believed that a text version of your resume (no formatting) will be more effective. Include the tools you used at least once under each position so the ATS can calculate your experience (such as, “used MadCap Flare to solve world hunger”). You might even consider matching sentence structure, as this will increase your match rate. However, job postings use a lot of repetitive language (“experienced with…”) and that might not work at all when a human clicks “View resume”. Remember, though, 85% of jobs come from networking, not computers.

Hiring manager variation: technical communicator managers

Audience: Your future reporting manager of the technical writer team

Primary needs: Problem-solving, process improvement, grammar; command of the English language

You resume will be evaluated on an entirely different level and the marketing writing that got you past the recruiter may not serve as a good example of your technical writing skills. English skills are highly valued, especially if the manager is a grammarian or English major. But the fact is, you won’t have the option to swap out your resume mid-process. Just one typo will cost you an opportunity, so have a non-writer friend edit your resume before submitting it.

Hiring manager variation: non-technical communicator managers

Audience: Your future reporting manager

Primary needs: Problem-solving, process improvement, initiative, self-managing, and collaborative

This person will have many other responsibilities and may not fully understand the technical writing skillset. He or she will be looking for indicators of your behaviors, such as collaborative, persuasive, and ability to problem solving effectively. They are seeking a good fit and know personality types quite well. Make sure you highlight your soft skills in your accomplishments. They need to get a feel for who you are from one very-limiting medium, your resume.

LinkedIn variation

Audience: Recruiters, hiring managers, potential co-workers, colleagues

Primary needs: Engaging, being relatable, interesting

Do not just copy and paste your resume! This is your opportunity to talk about your experience and accomplishments in a storytelling format. This type of writing is more creative than technical, but should resemble an in-person conversation. Don’t forget to include your volunteer work, it says more about you than you might think!


Unlike many other positions, technical writer resumes are often evaluated on more than one level. By targeting your resume to a specific audience, you will achieve success in your job search. Remember, though, your resume is a marketing tool – you need to learn how to recognize your successes and document them in an appealing manner. If you have a particular method that has found success, please share it here!


Blood from a turnip – Extracting information from the unwilling

I recently commented on another technical writer’s blog about this subject, but I couldn’t put the issue to rest over night. One of the most serious problems for a technical writer is trying to extract critical information from a non-responsive stakeholder or subject matter expert. You know the one, who’s always “busy,” never responds to email, IMs, or voicemail, and won’t answer questions when cornered in the break room.

While there are numerous techniques that technical writers use to get people to talk, I’m talking about the most extreme cases. Notably, in organizations where knowledge is viewed as a source of power. Sharing information is the quickest way to dilute that power.

The problem, though, is that technical writers often have to rely on others for information in order to write content. While we’d love to spend all day chasing people around, that’s just not feasible – deadlines are always tight. Besides, in some instances, the non-responder is your manager, so you don’t have any escalation options. But, I have a solution – a desperate measure for desperate times.

First, it helps to remember who your Number One is… your customer. They are counting on you to give them the information they need.

Second, become a subject matter expert on the topic. Talk to everyone else because the “powerless” are often more than willing to help in order to learn more about the topic themselves.

Third, write your content in a logical and reasonable manner. Yeah, I’m talking about making it up, of sorts. Yet, it should be based on your learnings and logic, not literally made up. It helps to think about how you think it should be done (when documenting a process or task). Be the voice of the customer in this instance.

Fourth, and the most controversial, send the non-responding stakeholder an email with your content, tell him or her that you’ve published it (it’s “live”), and that you are holding him or her responsible for its accuracy. Culminating with “let me know if it’s wrong.” <mic drop>. You could even seal it with a happy face 🙂 You may not actually publish it, but the stakeholder doesn’t need to know that.  When it comes to rationalizing your behavior to management, you’ll probably win this case anyway.

I cannot stress enough that this technique should be used with absolute discretion and only when you’ve exhausted all other means. Yet, in my experience, only about 10% of the time I got a “it’s wrong!” email response. Not a bad record if I say so myself.

This technique won’t make you popular with that stakeholder, but your customers will love you. Ultimately, that’s what counts.

What about you? What techniques do you use to extract information from the unwilling?

What is a technical writer?

The definition of a technical writer has changed a lot since its inception, so how is the role defined now?

First the earth cooled…

In the beginning, the role of a technical writer typically was to write documentation for a hardware of software product. This was the stuff that came in a physically-printed manual or one of those shrink-wrapped training binders. Back in the day, Microsoft Word came in a big box with many installation diskettes and a printed manual. One could curl up at night with the manual and drift off to sleep peacefully while learning things you’d probably forget later. This documentation often explained how the product worked or provided a step-by-step tutorial of a process or procedure.

Later, online help systems replaced printed manuals and emptied bookshelves across the nation. Technical writers switched from telling users how the product works to telling users how to use the product. Simply said, they became masters of meeting needs of end users.

The technical writers of today…

Fast forward to 2018 and the role of a technical writer is barely visible to its humble beginnings. While that type of position is still available, technical writers now have multiple paths to take. Although each company defines the following roles differently, I’ve provided a generalized definition.

  • “Classic” Technical Writer – Learn how the product works, then document it for others. Key tools are FrameMaker, RoboHelp, MadCap Flare, and others. Your knowledge of tools will greatly expand your options.
  • Business Analyst – With all that research and analyzing, technical writers make excellent business analysts. One could describe him or herself as a writer first, then quick-learner of anything second. But in a business analyst role, the priorities are reversed. First you research a business need, then you write about it for others. Finally, influencing solution design and implementation to fit that need. That is, instead of telling others how a finished product works, you define how the product will work. Easy transition to this role and if you like research, you’ll love being a business analyst.
  • Information Architect – This role is fairly new and banks on a technical writer’s expertise in managing documentation. There is so much information flowing out there that companies need people to oversee the flow and provide a vision for development. This role is more like a product manager and requires persuasion and persistence. You’ll spend a lot of time in meetings with stakeholders.
  • Content Strategist – Another fairly new role, companies need help determining what documentation is required for their products. As companies decrease time-to-market, documentation will often be written by development teams or others, and your role will be to figure out what can be done and reconcile that to end-user needs. This is another managerial-type role that will engage you at all levels of the organization. Plus, you have to be especially strong at organizing solutions.
  • API Technical Writer – This one is more difficult to generalize as every company is different. Essentially, you’ll be managing the inflow of APIs, putting them together, then making them legible to the end user. Having a basic knowledge of software code is essential in this role. Some software engineers will give you code samples, but others will expect you to write them yourself. Nevertheless, managing people and editing are key skills. Some API writers have said that day-to-day activities can be repetitive.
  • Content Writer – Content writers are more of the classic definition of a technical writer. You research stuff and write about it for others. Content writers often populate blogs or wikis. This can also extend into copywriting, especially if you have a knack for talking something up. Plus, content writers are often in-demand on a project basis while working at home. You might use WordPress or Confluence in this role.
  • Documentation Manager – This particular role has a number of definitions, so it’s also difficult to generalize. However, it usually relies more on project management skills and less on writing, although you’ll still be expected to write on occasion. Similar to a content strategist or information architect, you’ll be expected to manage the flow of documentation. The actual technical writing might be outsourced and you’ll manage that process, too. And, in some cases, you might even manage the localization of documentation into multiple languages. You’ll have many projects occurring simultaneously and need to be stellar at time management.
  • Techie Technical Writer – I’ve only seen this role titled “technical writer,” but I call it a “techie technical writer.” This is a technical writer that is expected to code software. Sounds a lot like software engineering/developer, but the opportunity is still available. If code is your thing, you’ll like this job.
  • SOP Writer – I see more and more of these positions available, and it’s an easy transition for a classic technical writer. Companies need policies and procedures written and updated… often. The key difference in this role is in the product you’ll use to write: Microsoft Word being the most frequent choice. In some cases, you’ll assemble teams to figure out these policies and procedures, in other cases, that work has been done and you’ll just use the notes. In either case, you’ll work quite a bit with people and need strong interpersonal skills to succeed.
  • Markup Technical Writer – As the tools to write have increased in complexity, technical writers are often hired by skillset. The move to DITA and markup for content reuse surged in popularity, not only from technical writers themselves, but also from development teams dictating tools for writers to use.  This has resulted in a need for people who know how to use these tools, such as MadCap Flare. If you are strong at a particular tool, you’ll find a role for you.
  • Instructional Designer – I might be going out on a limb, but I believe technical writers make great instruction designers. That advantage here is that you often get to move into video. Large companies are finding great success in certifications and short learning courses, and a technical writer will be right at home developing those solutions. Think Trailhead by Salesforce. If you describe yourself as creative, you’ll be right at home as an instructional designer.

In conclusion…

As I was writing this list, I’ve come up with half a dozen more roles that would fit a classic technical writer. But, heck, it could be outdated by the end of the year. The point is, however, that there are numerous options out there for a technical writer. Furthermore, you can develop your own competitive edge by developing a career plan for yourself. Get involved and start getting the training you need to be a sought-after writer.

Tom Johnson’s predictions of 2018 technical writing trends

I’ve been following Tom Johnson, a notable and influential technical writer in the Silicon Valley, for some time. For the past few years, he’s posted a list of technical writing trends for the year, and he’s posted 2018 trends.

I’m not going to try to summarize his words, but I do have a few thoughts on one very impactful prediction – the trend towards becoming generalists.

Yes, after all these years of the industry pushing specialists, we may run the opposite direction and become a jack of all trades. Is this a bad thing?

Complex technologies seem to be the driving factor. I’ve heard managers say that their product is entirely too complicated for a technical writer to learn, so the writing will be done by developers and the technical writer will assemble their notes and make them human readable. This sentiment was expressed exactly by Tom and now that he’s mentioned it, I think he’s right. I have first hand experience in this area and, well, I do believe it diminishes the value of a technical writer. My previous posts have touched on this subject because we do much more than make documents look good. However, as Tom mentioned and my own experience has shown, this allows us to develop our content strategy skills. There is so much information floating around in organizations, there is now a demand for someone to tame the beast. If you’ve ever put together a manual, you can develop a content strategy (overly simplified comparison, but you get the point).

However, I’ve noticed that those using complex writing tools are more interested in developing specialists. I have sat through a number of “DITA isn’t so bad” or “DITA – Taking the pain out of it..” presentations. I’ve also seen a number of job postings that want a DITA specialist to assist the teams struggling with it. Those DITA teams seem to have an increased need for specialists to own a particular set of tasks within an overall process.

Either way, you’re likely now to have the choice of pursuing a generalist or specialist route. Start thinking now which direction to go.

Outside of the generalist trend, Tom has made more predictions that are a must-read. Be sure and check it out here.

Powering your job search for technical writers

I recently attended a local job fair and networked with a number of hiring managers, resume reviewers, and candidates. I wanted to share some of my learnings to help guide your next job search, if you are in the market.

Failure of online job sites – My biggest takeaway was a fact shared by multiple career services professionals: Only 2-3% of hiring came from online job submissions. What I heard was that job sites like Indeed, Glassdoor, and LinkedIn essentially aren’t worth much time and energy for job applications. While I have not researched the validity of this “fact,” my personal experience would provide evidence to support it. If you see a job posted online, instead of applying there, use your time to find a professional connection to the hiring organization (such as, in LinkedIn). Upwards of 60% of people hired were referrals (again, another “fact” shared, but I have not verified). As one particular hiring manager told me, “referred candidates are already trusted by a colleague.” Ditch online and go for the personal touch, and don’t be shy about asking someone to pass your resume along. As a conversation opener, ask if they get a referral bonus.

Pessimism reigns – With a particularly pessimistic and jaded view, a number of candidates believed some online job postings were fake, simple meant to shore up interest in a company and provide a cheap marketing solution. A sign of the times?

Applicant tracking systems (ATS) – Unanimously hated by everyone. There wasn’t a single person who didn’t express frustration and disregard for these systems. Notably, the hiring managers.

Resumes – I’m going to make this simple, just hire someone to write your resume. Unless your core competency is resume writing, it’s worth the $100 bucks to leave it to a professional resume writer. Just because you are a technical writer, it doesn’t mean you are a good resume writer. There are some contrasting skillsets; clarity and conciseness won’t bode well in the hiring arena. While this is one audience you can get to know through extensive research and footwork, it’s a temporary space and will change dramatic between job searches. Save your time to practice interviewing skills and market yourself effectively.

If people don’t believe online is working, then it won’t. Instead, attend job fairs to get yourself out there and obtain some face time with hiring managers, As these fairs are typically hosted by organizations serving job seekers, you’ll also find a variety of services to power your job search. The future is in your hands!



Why instructions suck

In a discussion I was having with a group of talented technical writers seeking work, there was a significant amount of time spent on hard skills. Keep in mind that a hard skill is anything that can be learned (as opposed to a soft skill, which represents an ingrained behavior or mindset).

Technical writing spans many areas and each writer had a different set of experiences with a variety of products. However, the pace of technology moves at a breakneck speed. What one person used yesterday isn’t what’s being used today, and that, in their view, is a barrier to hiring. When you consider that applicant tracking systems (ATS) filter out candidates who don’t meet the inputted hard skills (which makes hard skills the initial primary factor), their argument gains credibility.

As our conversation continued, a neutral third-party (non-writer), stated very bluntly “is that why instructions always suck?

<crickets chirping>

Asked what was meant by the statement, he clarified with “why wouldn’t they [employers] want someone who could write?” As in, hard skills should be a secondary factor instead of the primary factor.

He may be on to something. For example, having experience with JIRA would give the illusion that the candidate was also good at writing. But, the very best writers, without experience with JIRA, would be filtered out by the ATS. What are we left with? Writers with strong issue tracking skills. 

Finding a solution isn’t going to be easy. But it reminded me of Gary Vaynerchuk, author of Crushing It and other successful books. In his talk about the 2 characteristics of successful people, he aptly stated:

“Don’t hire for skill… train for mindset.” 

What is user experience and why does it matter to technical writers?

With today’s ease of sharing, absolutely anyone can quickly broadcast their positive or negative experience with a product, business, or service. This experience, called user experience (or UX), is key to business’s reputation and continuity.

While there are many fantastic definitions of user experience, I’ll try to sum them all up and say it’s the emotional impact of an interaction.

Think about your last positive experience with a product or at a store. What emotions come to mind? Did you want to tell others how great it was? Now think about your last negative experience with a product or a store. Did you feel frustration, anger, or worse? Did you write a scathing review on Yelp? Those two examples are at the very core of user experience and it’s powerful.

The cornerstone to user experience is a soft skill: empathy. That is, you can understand the feelings of others. For some, this is a natural skill. For others, it just doesn’t make sense.

Some companies actually hire UX writers, not only because they know how important user experience is but also want to foster a culture of positive customer experiences.

Yet, if you have empathy and are a technical writer, you play an integral role in defining the overall user experience. That is, you have a full understanding of end user’s needs, such as:

  • What end-users want
  • What end-users can do
  • What end-users can’t do

Especially important to Help system authors, what emotional state the end-user might be in when turning to your words. These are questions to ask when planning your next set of documentation. When you have those answers, your documentation will shine!

As a technical writer with empathy, you can really add value to an organization. Some companies value it more than others, but with user experience knowledge, you’ll hold the competitive edge.