Transitioning to a different writing field

After you’ve been writing about one thing for a while–software, in my case–you may come to a point where you’re not getting the work you want in that venue. Or you may just be ready for a change. How do you jump from writing about software (with a specialty in my case in accounting software) to something else? The solution is not that you need to go to school to get more skills each time, but you just need to sell yourself a little differently.

What I suggest (and do, for that matter) is package myself differently. For example, I don’t treat being an accounting software writer (one of my recurring writing themes) as an indivisible unit; instead, I sell myself as a writer who has a specialty in accounting. The difference is that I break my skills up into pieces, so instead of a writer who only writes about accounting, I show them that I:

  • write procedures
  • write about software
  • write about finance
  • write about the underlying programming
  • write about hardware
  • write about installation requirements
  • write about APIs
  • write spec sheets
  • write and test online help
  • design documents
  • do documentation project management
  • do Word, Excel, and FrameMaker macro programming
  • train writers in writing and tools
  • hire and manage writers

… and on and on. When you start breaking your experience into separate skills, it can become quite an impressive list, even if you’ve only been writing professionally for a few years.

I tend to think of this as covering up a big circle. (There’s no deep significance to this image; I just do.) If I think of the circle as being something I can only cover with exactly the shape they’re looking for, I’m out of luck. But if I think of being able to cover portions of it with chunks of my experience and skills, I’m looking to make the area that’s not covered as small as possible, with as many fuzzy edges to it as I can get. I can then sell myself by saying “Okay, I may not know a lot about [whatever the new topic is] yet, but I have every other skill you’ll need and then some.” And where possible, I show that there is already some overlap from a personal interest or skill that can help fill in the experiential or knowledge gaps between what I’ve done and what they’re looking for.

Another great job site

I’m on the fly here, madly dashing hither and thither getting my book cover designed and finalized for the new book, while simultaneously trying to write it.

But I found a lovely place to look at for technical writing jobs, something that probably 95% of the people reading this blog can do. Not surprisingly, the site is named Get Technical Writing Jobs (thank you, Captain Obvious!) and it’s a fabulous site with information for all kinds of tech writing jobs all over the place. I recommend it. You can also follow @GetTechWritiJobs on Twitter, which I recommend you do.

Some places to find jobs

A person could write about this forever, and many do. It’s a subject that many of us never get tired of reading or writing about because we are always, always, always looking for new/additional/more work for ourselves, for friends, or just because you can’t really have too many clients.

I’m not even going to try to be canonical in this post. This, instead, is some notes from an online conversation with a friend who asked where to find some additional writing/editing work.

First, I’m going to assume that your desire to find work is going to be fairly immediate. You’re more likely to be looking for work because you need money coming in now, or at least soon. I’m going to throw out a few places to look and some ideas that may be of assistance for finding work if you’re a writer/editor/what-have-you.

  • Mashable has a jobs page that’s very interesting for all kinds of jobs in the social media and networking venues.
  • I really love my agency, Studio B. They’re honorable, likable, and dazzlingly competent. I’m honored to be one of their authors. They’ve a jobs page that you should check out.
  • Considered writing magazine articles? Magazine articles are kinda like cocktail peanuts of writing. The thing about them is that they can generate a truly impressive amount of money for the time you spend on them. (Books can frequently net you as little as a few cents a word, but magazine articles can easily generate $25-$75/hour for your time.) Magazine articles also generate lots of publicity for you and anything else you’re doing. Everything you need to know about getting into the magazine game (and probably a lot more besides) can be found in “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Magazine Articles.” Apart from an egregious copyediting error in an early edition that referred to Citizen Cane (I shuddered, too), it’s exceptionally detailed. I wish I’d had this book 20 years ago. Thanks to me telling you about it, you can have it now.
  • LinkedIn has any number of job listings. There are also hundreds of groups focused on every aspect of writing that let you network directly with other writers. My last book happened because I saw someone’s post on LinkedIn looking for a co-author. There’s work to be found and money to be had.
  • Even if you don’t already know me, you’ve probably figured out that I’m a big supporter of the Society for Technical Communication. The biggest reason among many is that I’ve made the best part of a million dollars being part of the STC over the last 25 years, or roughly 300x the amount I paid in dues. I got dozens of contracts and jobs both as the result of networking, job announcements, and just knowing people. In the short term, you can find jobs through your local STC chapter, through STC listserves (notably the STC’s Consultants and Independent Contractors SIG), and the STC’s job announcements themselves. There are many venues for hearing about job listings in the STC.
  • Speaking of listserves, I’d also suggest hanging out on listserves like TechWr-L (which regularly lists jobs), TechComm Pros, HATT for online help writers, Writing That Works, and many more.

That’s all the suggestions I’ve got right off the top of my head. I’m going back to working on my taxes. Have a great day!

Addendum, April 3: You can also check out Tweet My Jobs, which will tweet you with information about jobs.

It’s always feast or famine

Suppose you’re writing a book, any book. That’s wonderful, but remember that unless you have a really fat advance, you’re not going to be making money while you write the book. If you can spit a book out in 3-4 months, you’ll probably not deplete your savings too badly, but you’re going to want to have something lined up you can leap on when you’re done.

Let’s further suppose that another writing contract heaves into view. It doesn’t matter what, but it represents real money that you can use to refill the savings and pay off the miscellaneous expenses that you’ve ~a-hem~ been putting on a credit card. And that’s really good, too.

The only problem is getting the timing to work out right. Can you predict accurately to the day, or even the week, when the book is going to be done? No, probably not. You can certainly set yourself deadlines and push yourself to achieve them and you may, but writing a book is not the easiest thing in the world to estimate. Even more so, you may be picking things up as you go (as Bill Zinsser describes it, “writing to learn“), making it that much harder to identify parts of your process. You’ll be enriched and enlightened by what you discover, but the chances are very good that you’ll see at least one delay as a result of your educational process.

Or even worse for your schedule, what if the new gig comes in so that it overlaps the last few weeks of your book writing schedule? The new gig may be another great book, a long-term writing contract at $60/hour, or a magazine article you promised to do, but the problem is still that you have to squeeze out twice as many writing hours/day as there probably are. And the worst part is that the overlap is hitting you at the very worst part of your writing madness on the book.

What do you do? First, try to get as much slack in the new schedule as you can. If you don’t really need to start the new project immediately and have some time for delivery, you may have all the wiggle room you need. You’ll drink a lot of coffee, bang the keyboard that much harder, and finish the book… then you’ll drink a lot more coffee, bang the keyboard, and meet your first deadlines on the new project. (See, I told you: writing is fun!)

Another possibility is subcontracting: if there’s some way to quietly farm out a small piece of whatever you’re doing on one project or another, consider doing it. You’ll make a little less money than you would’ve, but you’ll still make more money than if you’d said “No” to the new project.

Most of the time, the answer is to scream a little in your office, and just blaze away as hard and fast as you can. Authors and freelance writers all recognize that “burning the candle at all three ends” feeling that happens regularly. The life of an author is always feast or famine. It’s always better to have too much than too little, but you’re still going to work hard for it at times. You may console yourself with the thought that this is a job with no heavy lifting and keep typing.

Agents: a brief thought and a recommendation

After I wrote my first book, I started wondering if I needed an agent. You hear a lot about that kinda thing, you know, so I shopped around. I signed up with an agency that was, shall we say, less than desirable. I ended up firing them for reasons that (comparing notes with other authors years later) are reasons other authors have fired them. I then went without an agent for the next 15 books. I learned a lot about negotiating contracts from Richard Curtis’s essential book, “How to Be Your Own Literary Agent.”

But after 17 books over a little more than a decade, I decided that maybe I really did want to get an agent. It was getting to be a lot of work finding books, negotiating the contracts, and managing things. I knew I could do it really well; I was just tired of it. So I started talking to Studio B, an agency specializing in computer books out of Indianapolis. It took me a long time to decide to sign with them, as I’d really felt burned by my previous experience a decade before, but sign I did and I have never been sorry I did. They’re great people and they do an excellent and very personal job of representation. The key question I needed to answer with them was this: “Will you bring in more business than I can do on my own, even when you figure in the agency percentage?” The answer has been an unqualified “Yes!”

I’m really happy having an agency and this agency in particular. Not every agency works for everyone. For example, I’ve heard of people happy with the agency I won’t name and who’ve been there for years and good for them. You don’t need an agency. You may not want an agency. But if you are doing high tech books and you do want an agency, then you could do far worse than checking out Studio B.

What to do when you’re running out of money (tips #10 and #11)

Tip #10. Don’t spend every waking minute looking for work; you’ll burn out.

Job hunting is exhausting, particularly if you’re feeling a lot of pressure to do so. Take breaks from the process during the day and the week. If you’re totally unemployed at the moment, use the off-time to do something constructive. Want to get the garage cleaned out at last? Break ground for a garden? Pick a project and set goals. (Have a structure to your time or it’ll all trickle through your fingers. I’m not kidding.)

Tip #11. Volunteer.

One of the things you should do while you’re out of work is volunteer. There are a lot of good reasons to volunteer. First, it’s going to get you out of the house. This alone may be something worthwhile, because you’re less likely to curl up in a depressive ball in front of the TV. Second, you’re going to meet new people, which is always a good idea when you’re looking for work. Third, and most importantly, you have a chance to do something for a cause you feel connected to. You can work to end world hunger, help out in a homeless shelter, donate time at your church, whatever you like. All of these add to the overall communitas. It primes the pump in the community, peoples’ lives are improved a little because of this… and it frequently leads to new jobs and job opportunities.

What to do when you’re running out of money (tips #8 and #9)

Tip #8. Market yourself heavily.

Go to STC and other professional meetings. (Bring your updated resume and your portfolio; you never know.) Sign up with several of the networking websites. My favorite is (check out my profile if you like) but there are many others. Think outside the box, too: come up with non-traditional, off-the-beaten-path places to market yourself.

Tip #9. Use job websites.

Register on as many of the free job websites as you can. Post your resume and then update it slightly every couple of weeks: when you update your resume, it shows up again in the “new/updated resume” listings and you’ll repeatedly bring yourself to the attention of companies and recruiters. (Hint: An “updated” resume can be one that has an extra space after the end of a sentence.)

What to do when you’re running out of money (tips #6 and #7)

Tips #1 through #5 were all about identifying just how bad things may be. As Magid’s Law says, “It doesn’t matter how you get there if you don’t know where you’re going.” Armed with the information about how much money you really need, you’re ready to start looking for ways to get it.

Tip #6. Don’t panic!

Panic leads to desperation, which can be the kiss of death to an otherwise successful job search.

Tip #7. Update your resume.

Whether you’re freelance or captive, looking for a little work on the side or a whole new job, your resume should always be updated so you can give it out at a moment’s notice to anyone. If you’re not good at resume writing, enlist the help of colleagues who are. (For all you writer types, the Society for Technical Communication is a great place for people who can help you do this. Also put together a portfolio if you don’t have one. A portfolio is a powerful tool for selling you as a candidate to an employer. The STC‘s a good place for that, too.)

What to do when you’re running out of money

It doesn’t matter if you’re a contractor or a captive, the economy sucks right now. There’s a very real chance that you may find yourself out of work or underemployed. Maybe it’s only a sub-prime mortgage that’s nailed your finances, maybe your property taxes have gone up, maybe your car’s died. Maybe you aren’t actually in debt but you don’t have any savings and you feel like you’re riding on the edge of disaster. No matter, you’re suddenly looking at a lot of debts and not enough money to cover them.

Almost everyone I know has been there. I’ve been there. It’s no fun. But I am fortunate enough to have survived this and I want to pass on a few tips to you about things you can do to weather the storm with your stomach lining intact.

How to be immortal

A prefatory comment here: This is a speech I gave to a group of writers and technical communicators in the Society for Technical Communication. While some of the examples in this speech are pitched to writing, it doesn’t really matter. You can be immortal anywhere. And while I don’t normally worry too much about saying this, I want to make it darned clear that this piece is copyright 2000 by me, John Hedtke. I’m proud of this one and I don’t want it passing into the public domain. So there.

I’m going to tell you how to be immortal.

There are several ways.

The first is to live forever. (So far, so good for the lot of us, eh?) The next, which is pretty similar, is to avoid dying. (I think we’re all aces on that one, too.) Inasmuch as both of these methods take time — forever is going to take a while, after all — I have a method that may be a little faster. It’ll still take a while, but when you’re immortal, you can afford to take the long view.

(By the way, one of the nice things about immortality is that the opportunity to be immortal is open to everyone. Everyone can be immortal if they want to. This is not a zero-sum game. Everyone can win.)

I’d like to add that, as I present my method to you, there will be several references to concepts developed in Roman times. This proves two things: one, the Romans had a great deal of the way life works figured out several thousand years ago, and two, the time I spent in college wasn’t for nothing… it cost thousands of dollars.

The basis for the third method of being immortal is doing your part of the Great Work. If you haven’t heard that term before, the Great Work is a mystic thing—you’re never absolutely sure that this is The Thing you should be doing, but it’ll usually fall into the categories of “I think so” and “It’ll do until something better comes along.” The difference between our jobs and the Great Work is the difference between vocation and avocation: what we do to keep the cats in canned cat food and what we do to make the world a better place.

There’s more to it than this as well: If each person makes their contribution to the Great Work, it brings us to the Roman concept of communitas, the health and well-being of the community. Communitas is not a zero-sum game, either; the greater the communitas, the better the members of the community will be. In fact, communitas is the antithesis of a zero-sum game: if one person wins, then everyone wins! Not only does the Great Work make everyone’s life that much better, but it’s something outside yourself, a vital element of immortality.

My contribution to the Great Work seems to be helping people get jobs. (As a way to participate in the Great Work, it’s not bad; I encourage you to give it a try yourself.) Someone comes to you in need, sometimes rather desperate need, and they need to find a job. The people who most frequently ask me about finding jobs are new folks. We’ve all heard (and all asked at some point in our careers, so we should remember what this feels like) “How do I get started?” and “Where can I get experience?” We’ve got some stock answers for this: training, certificate programs, and so on, but we’re not usually very good about this: we, after all, are looking for folks with 2+ years experience, some Word and/or FrameMaker experience, a technical background, but surely someone down the road might be able to, uh….? The people who have that 2+ years of experience don’t usually need our help a tenth as much as the new kids. The new kids are the ones who need us the most.

I’ve always felt that helping someone get a job was the best thing you could do for them. Lots of things go into this: coaching them on interview skills, helping them structure their resumes to sell themselves more effectively, getting them up to speed on a new software package that’s The Hot Thing, providing internship opportunities, even teaching them basic “Dress-for-Success” skills. You can also give them the hand up that they need by putting them in contact with the person who needs someone with precisely their skill set. They take your advice, they get the job they’re after, and voila! They’re no longer in need. They feel good and so do you. All of this takes a lot of time and energy, but that’s okay; this is my personal contribution to the Great Work and I like doing it.

Keep in mind that nobody ever got where they were in life without someone, somewhere giving ‘em a break they didn’t rightly deserve. We need to ask ourselves “How do we pass on what we know and what we believe and what we think should be done?” We’re award-winning writers and editors and artists; now that we’re so cool, we need to pass it on and complete the cycle.

There are a lot of different ways to extend your energy in the STC to help people get a leg up, including:

  • Being the local job coordinator
  • Volunteering to be hospitality officer or a hospitality deputy
  • Hosting a picnic for the new people in your chapter at your house
  • Posting job information to the chapter job line and the newsletter
  • Sponsoring an internship at your company
  • Teaching a mini-seminar on a special skill
  • Teaching people to write good resumes
  • Helping someone assemble a portfolio
  • Hiring someone for a very small contract assignment for which their experience is a large part of the pay

What you do doesn’t have to be done in the STC; it can be in almost any venue. (I know, that’s nigh unto blasphemy with this group, but it’s true.) Go talk to a class of wannabe writers — I’ve talked to English and writing classes in high schools about the joys and wonders of being a freelancer and a non-fiction author. Even Creative Writing classes will be interested. You can be the treasured memory of some high school student’s junior year. Volunteer to be a job contact for your college through their alumni office: Lots of people who are in college are interested in asking questions of people who are working in a field that they’re interested in.

Helping people get jobs has an immediate payoff: both of you get a good feeling right away. Suppose you’ve been doing this for a while and helping people get started, move up, and move on to new jobs and experiences. Three, four, five years later, you’ll be looking for a job yourself. And the people that you’ve helped find a job are out in the community working, possibly not at the same job, but they’re launched on their own careers and moving ahead. The people you helped in the past can tell you about jobs that they now have to offer or positions they’ve heard about from peers. And if nothing else, they can provide references about what you’ve done for them and others in the past. You get to network a lot and meet a lot of great people. That’ll feel good, too.

When you’re immortal, it brings a lot of other things into perspective and we’re able to identify what’s important and what isn’t. Our jobs aren’t the important stuff. Here’s a case in point: At one point some years ago, I’d added 5 books to my bibliography in about 15 months and I was talking to my agent about the difficulties I was having juggling my rather pressing book schedule and the need to spend time in my relationship. My agent clarified things for me by saying “You know, when they’re lowering you into the ground, nobody’s going to be saying ‘Wow, that Hedtke! He got all his chapters in by May 31!'” The stuff we pump out during the day is what we do and how we pay the bills, but it’s not the really important stuff.

As a matter of fact, the things we do in our jobs tend to be of extremely limited value. We’re in a profession that makes what we do transient and even ephemeral. The things we write and draw usually have a lifespan of maybe a year or two; sometimes even less—a mere moment to someone who’s immortal. For example, when I was starting out in this business many years ago, I did documentation for tax preparation software. I knew that my writing was of finite value: after tax day on the 15th of April (an annual tax day being another Roman concept, by the way, for those of you taking notes), none of it would be of interest to any but a handful of late filers. (I see a few of you here tonight.) The value in this regard of the things we do in this regard is building a corpus of work and experience, but the value of individual old pieces is pretty small. At this point, I’ve got nearly 8 million words published, in the form of 26 books and close to 200 magazine articles and heaven alone knows how many manuals and online help systems since 1984, and, like the chambered nautilus, all but the most recent simply serve to show how much I’ve grown.

What is important is what we do when we’re immortal. We have an idea that the future is something we can see, sort of. If we just squinch our eyes up enough and peer into the sunset, we’ll be able to see what’s going to be happening. The Romans, you see, believed that the future creeps up on you from behind. No matter how much you looked over your shoulder, you could never see it. Anything you see in front of you is just going to be a pale shimmery reflection of what’s coming at you, sorta like trying to navigate when you’re driving at high speed by watching road haze on a hot day. And that’s why we’re so frequently surprised by the future: we can’t see it. So it’s a good idea to start working on being immortal now because no matter how much you may want to, you cannot start being immortal if you’re dead.

20, 30, 40 years from now, I hope that you all will have careers full of satisfactions, awards, and recognition. This will be wonderful, but your true measure of fame, your success in life, your immortality, is measured in how much you have helped other people and are kept alive for it in their memories and hearts.

And that brings me at last to the real secret of becoming immortal: decades from now, you’re going to be remembered by dozens, hundreds, possibly even thousands of people who you’ve been able to help get a new job, break into a new career, or publish their first book, and thereby start the cycle all over again. They’ll remember you fondly for the help you provided without strings, the energy you added to their lives, and the opportunities you gave them. You made a difference.

That’s immortality.

And it doesn’t get any better than that.