Ah, the glamorous life of the tech author. Get the first glimpse of new software shimmering on the horizon. Hobnob with high-profile bloggers. Attend great industry conferences — and bring home lots of swag. If you have a knack for technology, or a specific area of technology, and can write about it in a clear, no-nonsense fashion (or even with a little nonsense that your readers will enjoy), there may be a place for you in tech publishing. Here are a few tips to get you started making the rounds.
1: Write about what fascinates you (or at least what you know)
I think the best things to write about (and the most fun) are topics within the area that fascinates you so much that you want to spend as much time as possible — whether you get paid for it or not — learning about the technology. If you're obsessed with developing custom tools for SharePoint, writing how-to's about Joomla, or programming in some arcane language most of us have never heard of, that's a good place to start. The second-best gig — and still a good way to build your writing credits — is to write about what you know. Are you the one everyone comes to when they have trouble with Excel macros? Are you the one who always figures out mail merge problems? If you have a knack or a specialty, chances are there are people out there who need what you can do.
2: Start where you are
This is a great time to be a tech writer because there is so much technology to cover in so many different channels. When I first started out as a tech writer (think IBM PC XT), I wrote content for books. There were three or four magazines around at the time, but books were really the focus. Today, you've got blogs, sites like TechRepublic, discussion boards, wikis, intranets, online learning modules, the Web, magazines galore, and — oh yes, books. Add podcasts and Webcasts to the mix, along with PowerPoint presentations and ebooks, and you've got just about as many outlets for your work as you can dream up.
When you're first starting out, look around your own backyard. Start a blog. Take a look at the sites you visit often. Leave comments on their posts. Pitch them an idea you have about a new slant on an existing application. Solve a problem for them. Once you get a "yes" or two from an editor, you're on your way to making a go of it. But be prepared to do some work up-front for less-than-pizza money, and start building your writing experience. Over time, that can turn into something editors are looking for, because they can see your track record and know they can rely on you.
3: Use your real voice
There are all sorts of tech writers in this space enjoying varying levels of success. And they have all kinds of voices. Some are snarky; some are funny; some drone on and on (but for some strange reason we like them anyway). Some solve our problems; some encourage us to dream up new things to do with our software. Most are teachers in one form or another. Often, new writers try to sound like someone they admire who has been successful. Sometimes that works, but mostly it doesn't. Why? Because your voice really is important when you're expressing your own thoughts. Imagine your reader as a friend you'd like to help with a technical problem. Explain a direct route to the solution. Keep it friendly. Be yourself. That being said, though, especially in the tech realm, make sure you're offering something readers can really use. Cute and funny won't go far if there's nothing of substance in your writing.
4: Ask, ask, ask
Whether it's through blogging, serving as a technical editor on a project, or volunteering to write an IT article for your company newsletter, building some publishing experience does give you something to show editors. However, it's not the be-all, end-all for getting published. Regardless of how much writing experience you have, if you think of a piece you'd like to write for a specific publication, ask the editor if they'd be interested. Resist the temptation to believe that editors hold the key to some kind of golden domain that very few writers get entrance to. In fact, it's almost the opposite. Editors need your content. If you have a good idea and can show that you have the enthusiasm and expertise they need, you might get a green light on your piece. In some realms, editors might ask you to write something on spec (short for speculation, which means they won't promise to pay you until they see the finished article and know whether they want it), but that's not a bad way to break in. Your foot is in the door, and with any luck (and good writing), you'll have a credit you can show other editors when you're pitching more ideas.
5: Build up to a book
The last few years have been dragging us toward a new day in publishing. Electronic publishing is no longer a "someday" kind of thing. The Kindle, the Nook, and other eReaders on all kinds of devices make it easy to purchase and download content — forget the paper products — right now.
The question What will happen to books? has been on every savvy publisher's mind for a good long while, and the jury is still out. Electronic content is mushrooming; book publishing is getting smarter.
There's still a market for your book. I think there will always be a market for a good book. But you'll need to choose your topic well. (Is this an idea that can't be presented easier and cheaper electronically?) Do your homework. (Know your competition, your audience, and your market.). Build a relationship with your publisher. (I think the best books are collaborative efforts). And be prepared to support the marketing of your book with workshops, podcasts, Webinars, and more. While you're putting together that amazingly detailed proposal, remember to daydream about (and make a list of) all the articles, blog posts, discussions, and videos you can create along the way.
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Katherine Murray is a technology writer and the author of more than 60 books on a variety of topics, ranging from small business technology to green computing to blogging to Microsoft Office 2010. Her most recent books include Microsoft Office 2010 Plain & Simple (Microsoft Press, 2010), Microsoft Word 2010 Plain & Simple (Microsoft Press, 2010), and Microsoft Word 2010 Inside Out (Microsoft Press, 2010).