How writing can change your career for the better, even if you don't identify as a writer

How writing can change your career for the better, even if you don't identify as a writer

Learn about the career-changing magic of writing.

How writing can change your career for the better, even if you don't identify as a writer
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Have you read Marie Kondo's book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up? Or did you, like me, buy it and read a little bit and then add it to the pile of clutter next to your bed?

Early in the book, Kondo talks about keeping possessions that "spark joy." In this article, I'll examine ways writing about what we and other people are doing in the open source world can "spark joy," or at least how writing can improve your career in unexpected ways.

Because I'm a community manager and editor on Opensource.com, you might be thinking, "She just wants us to write for Opensource.com." And that is true. But everything I will tell you about why you should write is true, even if you never send a story in to Opensource.com. Writing can change your career for the better, even if you don't identify as a writer. Let me explain.

How I started writing

Early in the first decade of my career, I transitioned from a customer service-related role at a tech publishing company into an editing role on Sys Admin Magazine. I was plugging along, happily laying low in my career, and then that all changed when I started writing about open source technologies and communities, and the people in them. But I did not start writing voluntarily. The tl;dr: of it is that my colleagues at Linux New Media eventually talked me into launching our first blog on the Linux Pro Magazine site. And as it turns out, it was one of the best career decisions I've ever made. I would not be working on Opensource.com today had I not started writing about what other people in open source were doing all those years ago.

When I first started writing, my goal was to raise awareness of the company I worked for and our publications, while also helping raise the visibility of women in tech. But soon after I started writing, I began seeing unexpected results.

My network started growing

When I wrote about a person, an organization, or a project, I got their attention. Suddenly the people I wrote about knew who I was. And because I was sharing knowledge—that is to say, I wasn't being a critic—I'd generally become an ally, and in many cases, a friend. I had a platform and an audience, and I was sharing them with other people in open source.

I was learning

In addition to promoting our website and magazine and growing my network, the research and fact-checking I did when writing articles helped me become more knowledgeable in my field and improve my tech chops.

I started meeting more people IRL

When I went to conferences, I found that my blog posts helped me meet people. I introduced myself to people I'd written about or learned about during my research, and I met new people to interview. People started knowing who I was because they'd read my articles. Sometimes people were even excited to meet me because I'd highlighted them, their projects, or someone or something they were interested in. I had no idea writing could be so exciting and interesting away from the keyboard.

My conference talks improved

I started speaking at events about a year after launching my blog. A few years later, I started writing articles based on my talks prior to speaking at events. The process of writing the articles helps me organize my talks and slides, and it was a great way to provide "notes" for conference attendees, while sharing the topic with a larger international audience that wasn't at the event in person.

What should you write about?

Maybe you're interested in writing, but you struggle with what to write about. You should write about two things: what you know, and what you don't know.

Write about what you know

Writing about what you know can be relatively easy. For example, a script you wrote to help automate part of your daily tasks might be something you don't give any thought to, but it could make for a really exciting article for someone who hates doing that same task every day. That could be a relatively quick, short, and easy article for you to write, and you might not even think about writing it. But it could be a great contribution to the open source community.

Write about what you don't know

Writing about what you don't know can be much harder and more time consuming, but also much more fulfilling and help your career. I've found that writing about what I don't know helps me learn, because I have to research it and understand it well enough to explain it.

"When I write about a technical topic, I usually learn a lot more about it. I want to make sure my article is as good as it can be. So even if I'm writing about something I know well, I'll research the topic a bit more so I can make sure to get everything right." ~Jim Hall, FreeDOS project leader

For example, I wanted to learn about machine learning, and I thought narrowing down the topic would help me get started. My team mate Jason Baker suggested that I write an article on the Top 3 machine learning libraries for Python, which gave me a focus for research.

The process of researching that article inspired another article, 3 cool machine learning projects using TensorFlow and the Raspberry Pi. That article was also one of our most popular last year. I'm not an expert on machine learning now, but researching the topic with writing an article in mind allowed me to give myself a crash course in the topic.

Why people in tech write

Now let's look at a few benefits of writing that other people in tech have found. I emailed the Opensource.com writers' list and asked, and here's what writers told me.

Grow your network or your project community

Xavier Ho wrote for us for the first time last year ("A programmer's cleaning guide for messy sensor data"). He says: "I've been getting Twitter mentions from all over the world, including Spain, US, Australia, Indonesia, the UK, and other European countries. It shows the article is making some impact... This is the kind of reach I normally don't have. Hope it's really helping someone doing similar work!"

Help people

Writing about what other people are working on is a great way to help your fellow community members. Antoine Thomas, who wrote "Linux helped me grow as a musician", says, "I began to use open source years ago, by reading tutorials and documentation. That's why now I share my tips and tricks, experience or knowledge. It helped me to get started, so I feel that it's my turn to help others to get started too."

Give back to the community

Jim Hall, who started the FreeDOS project, says, "I like to write ... because I like to support the open source community by sharing something neat. I don't have time to be a program maintainer anymore, but I still like to do interesting stuff. So when something cool comes along, I like to write about it and share it."

Highlight your community

Emilio Velis wrote an article, "Open hardware groups spread across the globe", about projects in Central and South America. He explains, "I like writing about specific aspects of the open culture that are usually enclosed in my region (Latin America). I feel as if smaller communities and their ideas are hidden from the mainstream, so I think that creating this sense of broadness in participation is what makes some other cultures as valuable."

Gain confidence

Don Watkins is one of our regular writers and a community moderator. He says, "When I first started writing I thought I was an impostor, later I realized that many people feel that way. Writing and contributing to Opensource.com has been therapeutic, too, as it contributed to my self esteem and helped me to overcome feelings of inadequacy. … Writing has given me a renewed sense of purpose and empowered me to help others to write and/or see the valuable contributions that they too can make if they're willing to look at themselves in a different light. Writing has kept me younger and more open to new ideas."

Get feedback

One of our writers described writing as a feedback loop. He said that he started writing as a way to give back to the community, but what he found was that community responses give back to him.

Another writer, Stuart Keroff says, "Writing for Opensource.com about the program I run at school gave me valuable feedback, encouragement, and support that I would not have had otherwise. Thousands upon thousands of people heard about the Asian Penguins because of the articles I wrote for the website."

Exhibit expertise

Writing can help you show that you've got expertise in a subject, and having writing samples on well-known websites can help you move toward better pay at your current job, get a new role at a different organization, or start bringing in writing income.

Jeff Macharyas explains, "There are several ways I've benefitted from writing for Opensource.com. One, is the credibility I can add to my social media sites, resumes, bios, etc., just by saying 'I am a contributing writer to Opensource.com.' … I am hoping that I will be able to line up some freelance writing assignments, using my Opensource.com articles as examples, in the future."

Where should you publish your articles?

That depends. Why are you writing?

You can always post on your personal blog, but if you don't already have a lot of readers, your article might get lost in the noise online.

Your project or company blog is a good option—again, you'll have to think about who will find it. How big is your company's reach? Or will you only get the attention of people who already give you their attention?

Are you trying to reach a new audience? A bigger audience? That's where sites like Opensource.com can help. We attract more than a million page views a month, and more than 700,000 unique visitors. Plus you'll work with editors who will polish and help promote your article.

We aren't the only site interested in your story. What are your favorite sites to read? They might want to help you share your story, and it's ok to pitch to multiple publications. Just be transparent about whether your article has been shared on other sites when working with editors. Occasionally, editors can even help you modify articles so that you can publish variations on multiple sites.

Do you want to get rich by writing? (Don't count on it.)

If your goal is to make money by writing, pitch your article to publications that have author budgets. There aren't many of them, the budgets don't tend to be huge, and you will be competing with experienced professional tech journalists who write seven days a week, 365 days a year, with large social media followings and networks. I'm not saying it can't be done—I've done it—but I am saying don't expect it to be easy or lucrative. It's not. (And frankly, I've found that nothing kills my desire to write much like having to write if I want to eat...)

A couple of people have asked me whether Opensource.com pays for content, or whether I'm asking someone to write "for exposure." Opensource.com does not have an author budget, but I won't tell you to write "for exposure," either. You should write because it meets a need.

If you already have a platform that meets your needs, and you don't need editing or social media and syndication help: Congratulations! You are privileged.

Spark joy!

Most people don't know they have a story to tell, so I'm here to tell you that you probably do, and my team can help, if you just submit a proposal.

Most people—myself included—could use help from other people. Sites like Opensource.com offer one way to get editing and social media services at no cost to the writer, which can be hugely valuable to someone starting out in their career, someone who isn't a native English speaker, someone who wants help with their project or organization, and so on.

If you don't already write, I hope this article helps encourage you to get started. Or, maybe you already write. In that case, I hope this article makes you think about friends, colleagues, or people in your network who have great stories and experiences to share. I'd love to help you help them get started.

I'll conclude with feedback I got from a recent writer, Mario Corchero, a Senior Software Developer at Bloomberg. He says, "I wrote for Opensource because you told me to :)" (For the record, I "invited" him to write for our PyCon speaker series last year.) He added, "And I am extremely happy about it—not only did it help me at my workplace by gaining visibility, but I absolutely loved it! The article appeared in multiple email chains about Python and was really well received, so I am now looking to publish the second :)" Then he wrote for us again.

I hope you find writing to be as fulfilling as we do.

You can connect with Opensource.com editors, community moderators, and writers in our Freenode IRC channel #opensource.com, and you can reach me and the Opensource.com team by email at open@opensource.com.

Thanks to VM (Vicky) Brasseur, Deb Nicholson, and SeaGL for inspiring this article.

About the author

Rikki Endsley - Rikki Endsley is a community architect and editor for Opensource.com. In the past, she worked as the community evangelist on the Open Source and Standards (OSAS) team at Red Hat; a freelance tech journalist; community manager for the USENIX Association; associate publisher of Linux Pro Magazine, ADMIN, and Ubuntu User; and as the managing editor of Sys Admin magazine and UnixReview.com. Follow her on Twitter at: @rikkiends.