Those interested in the consulting aspect of technical communication must first consider the amount of competition in the field. Without a reputation or some recognized affiliation, with a university for example, the consultant will get little work. It is difficult for the individual to develop a lucrative consulting business when several large communication consulting firms exist and many highly experienced technical writing instructors offer their services as consultants. Ordinarily we see consulting as an added benefit of college technical writing teaching, but recently we have seen numerous advertisements for consultants to work with national companies. Usually these positions require some teaching background, most require a Ph.D., and all require extensive travel. In such positions, the technical writing consultant would offer intensive short courses for various industries and organizations throughout the country and, possibly, in foreign countries. This is demanding work, is usually high paying, and may represent a career choice for those unable to gain secure university teaching positions.
Freelance technical writing may offer more possibilities for the newer professional. Often small organizations that cannot afford permanent full-time technical writing personnel will hire others on a temporary basis or will have work available for writers to do at home. For several years, one of our students supplemented her income quite nicely by documenting computer programs at home, using a terminal supplied by the company. Another student gained valuable experience writing and editing a study guide for the Certified Public Accountant exam and another for the LSAT. For this work, around twenty hours a week, she was paid $12 an hour. Obviously, more experienced technical writers would charge more. Part of her job was to design reading comprehension tests (for the LSAT). This included selecting relevant passages and making up reading questions that were followed by the correct answers to the questions and explanations of the answers. For students and fledgling technical writers who wish to develop some credentials in the profession, this is a good way to begin; for the experienced professional who prefers on-call work or to work in his or her home on a variety of projects for a variety of clients, freelance technical writing offers worthwhile possibilities.
It should be stated at the outset of this discussion that opportunities for students to obtain summer employment in technical writing vary according to the national economy. But there is a good chance that the well-trained student will be able to get a job. We have already described how some companies offer several kinds of summer jobs, including internships.
A technical communication student who worked during the summer for IBM described his work as follows:
Our first big project was to edit and revise a manual describing the testing process used to warm up a computer for full-on operation.... As it was essential in this writing project to become thoroughly familiar with the equipment, we visited the site where the equipment had been designed and built and was being tested. We talked with the engineers on the project in order to completely understand the equipment. Finally, we took the existing manual, deleted much of the material from it, and added quite a lot of new material.
Students interested in this kind of short-term work must ask themselves a number of questions. Through my educational back-ground, am I equipped to handle the products of science and technology? Am I a good enough writer to handle the communication phases? Am I located in, or is it possible for me to relocate to an area that needs technical writers?
Some people argue that summer employment in technical writing is a waste of time; that in such a specialized job, a major part of the summer may go by before the student really becomes productive. Nevertheless, if you can find a summer job in technical writing, by all means take it. It offers you the chance to get your foot in the door, giving you a decided advantage over other applicants with no experience who must start from scratch after they have graduated.
A summer job with Eastman Kodak, American Cyanamid, or any other company also gives you a chance to see if you are really suited for a technical writing career and whether the working conditions are what you expected them to be. Most employers will give you on-the-job evaluations of the work you have been doing and will let you know whether there will be a permanent job available after you graduate.
No organization, however, is willing to give you a free ride for the summer. You must demonstrate ability to get the work done, enthusiasm, and a desire to learn. Among the principal academic requirements today are a sound science background, competence in writing, and computer skills.