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Kickstart your technical writing career by contributing to an open source project

A man typing on a laptop

I spent well over 20 years in the trenches as a technical writer. And during that time, I can’t recall how many writers approached me and asked how they could break into the profession.

My standard answer was that the person should have some samples to show a prospective employer. Of course, it can be difficult to pull together a portfolio of those samples if you’ve never worked as a technical writer. Difficult, but not impossible.

Nowadays, doing that’s a lot easier. How? By working with an open source software project to help write its documentation. There are dozens upon dozens of projects that need help in that area, and with many of them you don’t need much (if any) in the way of technical skills. You just need some ability as a writer and the drive and enthusiasm to do the work for free. Free work that could pay dividends in the future.

So how do you go about jumping on board an open source project? Here are some thoughts about that.

Before you decide to take the leap

Ask yourself why you want to become a technical writer. If you think it’ll be an easy pay cheque, you’re mistaken. While technical writing can be lucrative, and can help subsidize your other writing, it’s actually hard work. You’ll be spending most of your time — anywhere from 70% to 80% — doing research, interviewing people, learning, planning, and editing and revising. Only a smaller percentage of your time will be spent writing.

On top of that, technical writing requires quite a bit in the way of skills and knowledge. I’m not just talking about taming the tools of the trade, but you also need to know about:

  • Information design
  • Interviewing subject matter experts
  • Writing tightly
  • How to quickly pick up complex information

And much, much more. Having a background in journalism can help, as can some training in technical communication.

So, if that hasn’t put you off let’s continue.

Finding a project

Don’t just pick a project at random. Find one that interests you. If you don’t, you’ll quickly get bored. Your work for that project will suffer. That’s something you don’t want.

Maybe you use some open source software regularly, like that software, and want to give back to the project. Maybe you’ve read about a project that interests you. By all means, give that project a closer look.

If you don’t know where to start, check out these lists:

Get to know the documentation

Before you approach a project about contributing to its documentation, take some time to get familiar with that documentation. That means get reading. Everything.

Most open source projects post their documentation to a dedicated website — two examples are Ubuntu and GNOME. Take your time, go through the documentation, and make notes. Look for:

  • What works
  • What doesn’t work
  • What’s missing
  • What you found most helpful
  • What you didn’t find helpful

Look at the documentation with an open mind and a critical eye. Then, write all that information up into a critique that you can pass on to the folks behind the project if they express interest in bringing you on board.

As well, get to know the project’s style guide (if it has one). The GNOME project (again!) has a good one.

Approach the project

Many open source projects have documentation maintainers. It’s worth sending that person a friendly email introducing yourself. Explain that you’re new to technical writing and want to 1) pitch in with their project because it interests you, and 2) gain some experience as a technical writer. Here, for example, is where you can contact the maintainers of LibreOffice’s documentation.

If you can’t find an email address or contact form, join the project’s forum or jump on to its IRC channel (which is a venerable text chat system) or the project’s forum. Just be sure to check the rules for posting first. You don’t want your first impression to be a bad one by being annoying or asking oft-aksed questions.

You can learn a lot about contributing to an open source project by reading this excellent article by Guy Martin, Director of Open at AutoDesk.

What happens if you can’t find a project or get turned down?

That could happen. There are no guarantees in life. But that doesn’t mean you can’t contribute to an open source project, even if it’s under the radar.

Why not take matters into your own hands? When I was trying to break into technical communication back in the early 1990s, I wrote a set of short manuals for free software I regularly used. And I typeset them myself using a program called TeX. You can do the same thing with a piece of open source software you like and use.

One way to do that, and get some valuable mentorship and feedback, is to contribute to FLOSS Manuals. FLOSS Manuals is a community making great, flexible, user-friendly manuals together. You do all of your work in a powerful online publishing tool, and you can create a new manual or update an existing one. You can learn more about getting involved at the project’s website.

Writing for open source projects can be a great way to kickstart your career as a technical writer. It’s definitely a great learning opportunity and you’ll gain some valuable experience.

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