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Marketing the Wily Technical Writer
by Michael Knowles

Return to Business & Technical Writing · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

If the world really is run by C students, then you have to ask yourself a question: How do I market myself in an ocean of average? Today's competitive job market can be a hard nut to crack. How do you stand out in that crowd?

One of the several reasons that I publish a newsletter is as a way to make myself stand out. There have been a few newsletters out there over the years, but only a couple are kept current and feature useful information. I believe that mine is one of those few. But good newsletters don't get you the good jobs. There is only one word for the business of standing out. Some call it marketing.

I call it hustle.

What Every Writer Has To Know

If you are going to find the interesting, fun work, the kind of work that leaves you feeling pumped, then you must know:

  1. The types of work that you do well;

  2. Which of that work makes you feel the best; and

  3. How those map into what needs to be done in the business world.

You must know what your special skills are so you can (a) hone them and (b) market them. Most of the time it's the work I do well that leaves me feeling the most satisfied. Getting the first two items straight in your mind will focus you for doing the third.

Marketing in the Corporate World

There is a certain amount of ego required to market yourself in the corporate world. Not, "Hey, I'm magnificent, look-at-me" arrogance, but the kind that comprises personal confidence and self-knowledge. You must have the chutzpah to look for opportunities, otherwise you'll find yourself in the backwaters of technical writing.

Of course, if that's where you want to be... There are many good places to scare up interesting work. Here are three:

  • Product Marketing: If your company has a product marketing group, get to know the product managers. Engage them in conversation about the products. Much of the time, these people have a pile of papers that need to be written with little time to do them. Offer your services. Keep offering your services. Hustle. That's how I got my first white paper, and probably how you'll get yours. It's also a great opportunity to help put product specifications together. Most of the good jobs are taken by those who just happen to be around. Why not you?

  • Customer Services: If there was ever a group in desperate need of your skills, the Customer Services group is it. These folks are beyond busy. They're solving problems and, most of the time, writing them up quickly for their own personal databases. I walk into CS groups and ask them about their biggest problems, the most aggravating phone calls, and why they get them. The response? "Well, it's hard to find this information," or, "It isn't covered in the documentation." Voila -- work that needs to be done. I've helped many CS groups get a handle on their information needs. This is called knowledge management, by the way. Bet you didn't know it was a person, did you?

  • Engineering: You know about engineers. These are the people who know so much that they don't know what they don't know. But one thing they do know is that they hate to write specifications. In every company I've ever worked for, engineering managers loved it when I came in and said, "Hey, would you like some help writing your specs?" If you are technical enough to handle this one, and like diving into the depths of a product, then you'll find work that'll keep you busy for the duration.

Marketing for the Independent

As an independent, you have two things working for you: your reputation and your desire to hustle. Reputation is based on job experience and personal competence. Hustle consists of marketing your skills and services in a variety of ways. There's that word again...

The single most powerful way to market yourself is face-to-face. Always carry a business card with you, and when someone asks you what you do, be able to tell them exactly in 25 words or less. I use several different pitches, depending on the audience. I use this one a lot:

I create technical materials that help companies promote and support their products.

I also maintain a personal Web site that I populate with my resume and samples that always represent my latest work. As an independent, having a personal Web site is more than a convenience. It's a necessity.

As an independent, you must always have your eyes open for potential work. For instance, I recently happened upon a set of course notes created by a CEO who used to teach sales seminars for a living. I realized that these were the makings of a book that would probably sell pretty well. I talked to him about it, and what do you know -- we're writing a book together.

The top ways to get work as an independent:

  • Establish partnerships with other independents, such as graphic artists and other writers. When you have more than you can handle, share the load and they'll share with you.

  • Stay in touch with your customers. Successes are short-lived, so help them remember you by remembering them.

  • Subscribe to sites like Guru.com and Workaholics4hire.com. They're great resources for shorter gigs, if you're persistent.

In the end, it's about personal competence, persistence, and relationships. Being a writer is about human interaction. The relationships you establish and maintain will enrich your work life and ensure that you get to do as much of what you love as you can handle.

Find Out More...

Succeeding as a Technical Writer - Michael Knowles

Copyright © 2001 Michael Knowles
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Michael Knowles creates technical materials that help companies market and support their products and services. He also writes nonfiction, and poetry, publishes the weekly WriteThinking newsletter, and is working on the third draft of his first novel. He lives in North Carolina, with his wife, two sons, and six cats. And he laughs. A lot.


Copyright © 2018 by Moira Allen. All rights reserved.
All materials on this site are the property of their authors and may not be reprinted
without the author's written permission, unless otherwise indicated.
For more information please contact Moira Allen, Editor

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