Technical Writing

Suite101 is closing and removing their ecourses from SuiteU. I’ve copied some of them here so they will not be lost and future/ current writers can still learn and benefit from the ecourse.

Technical Writing

By Thomas Martin

Introduction

 

Technical writers have been around for a long time. In some ways, you can even look upon the illuminated manuscripts from medieval times as early technical writing! I mean, they do instruct the faithful in the mysteries of establishing the Kingdom of Heaven on earth or failing that, how to find enough salvation to convince St. Peter let you past the “Pearly Gates.”

However, the job title of technical writer has only existed since the late ’70s or early ’80s. Until then, the programmers who coded the software or the engineers who designed the products wrote most of the documentation.

As technology has become more complex and abundant, the need for people who can understand and explain the operation of software, hardware or other equipment has grown explosively also. Today, the employment outlook for technical writers continues to be excellent in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Japan and in other countries experiencing industrial and technological growth.

If you are a writer and have an interest in technology, you may want to take a look at this rapidly expanding field. The reverse is also true. A technical background and a flair for writing are still good attributes for those seeking to gain entry to technical communication. Hey, there is even a shortage of good technical writers!

One of the attractions of this exciting field is that you can actually make a good living as a writer while you exercise and hone your talents in preparation to writing your literary masterpiece or million-dollar bestseller. Technical writing—like journalism and advertising or marketing copy writing keeps you writing. After all, a writer must somehow write!

Becoming a Technical Writer is a course about how to become a technical writer. It is not a course designed to teach you how to write like a technical communicator. You should take college courses in technical writing or study books on this type of writing if you wish to learn more about the mechanics of style and syntax used in technical writing. Some staffing agencies also offer classes in writing development for aspiring technical communicators.

While not a course in the “nuts and bolts” of writing, you will take a look at some documents produced by technical writers which are compared to the original engineering specifications. You also have a hands-on writing exercise where you rewrite the engineering specifications, “techspeak,” into coherent, standard English.

Some time is also spent studying what technical writers actually do on the job and how they do those jobs. This wealth of helpful, practical information will help you to decide if tech writing is the field for you.

The course also gives advice on how to build up a “portfolio” of writing samples even if you have never worked as a tech writer. You will find out the skills and knowledge that managers are looking for from aspiring technical writers. Tips on writing a resume and handling an interview are also part of the course.

After taking the course, you will have acquired greater understanding of the field of technical writing, awareness of the skills and aptitudes required to work as a technical writer, and if you are suited to the occupation.

 

 

Lesson 1: Introduction to Becoming a Technical Writer

This lesson describes the field of technical writing and delves into some of the job tasks of such writing. Along the way we take a look at some of the skills needed to for success in the field and the reasons why you may wish to enter this writing occupation.

 

What is Technical Writing, Anyway?

A technical writer is someone who communicates information about a technical subject, directed at a specific audience for a specific purpose. The challenge for a good technical writer is to convey the information clearly, succinctly and in language that is understandable yet is suited to the requirements of the audience.

That audience can be anyone from an engineer working on cutting-edge software application to a novice computer user trying to find out how to set up a new computer.

Though the computer field employs many technical writers, fields as diverse as telecommunications, semiconductors, science, medicine, government, the military and manufacturing also need technical communicators.

It may help you to understand what technical writers do if we break the field down into three categories:

End-User Documentation is writing about technology for mostly non-technical audiences. Much of this writing concerns how to use a consumer product. Examples of this type of writing include:

  • Hardware and software user manuals,
  • Windows Help files
  • Quick-start cards and quick reference guides
  • Administrator guides
  • scientific or technical articles intended for a lay or semi-technical audience

While the tech writer must master the product or process, you only need to have as much technical background as a typical reader will possess. However, you must understand the needs of your audience and be able to write clearly, use publishing software, work with technical people, and of course, it helps to be a fast learner.

Essentially, this job requires you to learn something and then teach it to others through a printed document or displayed on the Web or both. More and more of this kind of writing is now being published on the worldwide Web or sometimes on company intranets.

Traditional Technical Writing is writing for a technical audience. Examples of this type of writing include

  • Repair and maintenance manuals
  • Scientific papers and reports
  • Software tool kit (programmer) manuals,
  • Technical specifications, white papers, etc.

Usually, but certainly not always, you need to have a technical background in the relevant field, be familiar with technical jargon and understand the needs of a highly sophisticated audience. While a college degree or equivalent in the technical field is often required, experience writing in the subject matter will usually substitute for the formal education. For example, many technical writers now write documentation for programmers and engineers even though they do not have a degree in the field, but have taken courses in the relevant technology or have learned some programming concepts through working on various product development teams.

Technological Marketing Communication(also known as Marcom) includes writing to provide customers with information about the company and their products and/or services. The purpose of this type of writing is to make the public aware of what is available and to help to sell the products. “Marcom” includes:

  • Promotional brochures and flyers
  • Press releases and promotional articles
  • Specification sheets and reports
  • Advertisements, catalogs, and other pre-sale literature

While print was the medium of choice in the past, more and more material and catalogs are now distributed by CD-ROM or on the Internet. Most companies now have a web site.

While much marketing material is still produced by marketing specialists and advertising copywriters, much online documentation and Web material are now being written by technical communicators. In general, for this type of writing, you need only have as much technical background as the audience you are writing for. A background in sales or advertising is sometimes helpful in finding employment but is not considered essential.

In addition to high-tech companies, banks and financial services, insurance companies, and other large businesses utilize technical communicators to prepare hardware and software manuals, online help and instructions (e.g., technical scripts) for employees.
Recommended ReadingThe Complete Idiot’s Guide To Technical Writing, Foreword and pages 1-5

 

Lesson 1: Introduction to Becoming a Technical Writer

Who Should Become a Technical Writer?

Technical writers come in all shapes and sizes and with varying talents and interests. While an ability to write a decent sentence is certainly an important skill, an interest in technology is probably just as critical since you will be writing mostly about technology.

As a matter of fact, prior to the computer revolution that began in the 1980s most technical writers were scientists or engineers who also, had a flair for writing. Usually they wrote strictly for a technical audience. There are still many writing jobs available for those with a “techie” background, especially in writing for a highly technical audience, such as programmers, engineers or scientists.

With the computer and technical revolution of the past two decades, technical writers now come from many diverse backgrounds though the majority of them have degrees in English, journalism or (as is occurring more often) technical communication. However, I know tech writers who were bank tellers or employment counselors, and even one who worked for the IRS in a past “incarnation.”

Of course, you must be able to write more than just a “decent” sentence. Being able to write concisely and accurately are two of the most important traits for a technical communicator. You are not writing a novel or short story where you must set the mood and generate character. You are writing to help the user of your documentation. That user must be able to find the answer to his question or concern easily, and that answer needs to be written as succinctly as possible.

Moreover, it helps if you are “quick study.” Technical communicators are expected to learn quite rapidly new software, new industrial processes, or the operation of the latest equipment. Often times, you simply do not have time to master completely the new technological innovation and must “ramp up” as quickly as possible and learn as you write, often experimenting with that new technology along the way.

Additionally, please do not think that you are going to be able to sit in a corner cubicle somewhere, simply study new technology, and write your magnificent prose. Unfortunately or fortunately–depending on whether you are more introverted or extroverted–you will find that you cannot successfully function without attending project team meetings and interviewing the designers, engineers, programmers and others intimately involved in the production of the new product. Additionally, you will need to attend staff meetings where you must report your progress on the documentation to other team members as well as your writing colleagues and supervisors.

An eye for detail is also critical to any type of writing, and is particularly important for technical communication where the reader of your manual or help file may stumble over poor grammar, spelling or even worse technical inaccuracies or other inconsistencies. Poor, error-filled documentation reflects poorly on the product, the company, the other members of your team, and of course on yourself.

Recommended ReadingThe Complete Idiot’s Guide To Technical Writing, Pages 5-8

 

Lesson 1: Introduction to Becoming a Technical Writer

What Are the Advantages of Becoming a Technical Writer?

There are many advantages for those wishing to become technical communicators. In addition to offering a fulfilling career in the exciting and rapidly changing world of modern technology, you may find any or all of the following benefits of interest as you decide whether technical writing is for you:

  1. The high tech market is booming (usually!) and demand–driven by the computer industry–for technical communicators is very high.
  2. Demand is so high in fact that there is actually a shortage of technical writers in the United States and Canada, and is rapidly becoming that way in other countries. Thus, employers are open to entry-level writers who wish to break into the field.
  3. High tech companies value good technical writers, and, thus, pay rates have increased in recent years. Thus, technical writing is one of the best paying jobs for those who wish to use their writing talents.
  4. Technical writing has much to offer the budding creative writer also. Along with journalism and copy writing, tech writing keeps the prospective writer writing. You learn to write in active voice, write concisely, edit your copy, and make timelines (Something your future publisher will appreciate!). Besides, you do not have to starve in a garret; you can actually live–and even prosper–off the excellent pay!
  5. If you think you would enjoy working at home all or most likely a day or two a week, you have found the right field. Of course, not every company is willing to allow employees to telecommute, but management is becoming more and more open about letting employees work out of home offices, as they usually save some costs in property and equipment. Some municipalities and states also provide financial incentives to encourage telecommuting, primarily because if you are at home, you are not contributing to traffic congestion.
  6. The booming market for technical writers should parallel the continuing mushrooming growth of the computer, telecommunications and other high tech industries. Thus, there should be some measure of job security or at least the ability to find another job quickly should you be laid off.
  7. Since the lifetime of many projects is from a few months to a couple of years, many companies use temporary contractors. While contractors receive few benefits, their pay is often substantially higher than that paid permanent employees. Many technical writers enjoy the higher compensation, freedom to take time off occasionally, and the variety of job tasks involved in contracting. To paraphrase an old TV show, such writers sometimes think of themselves as “hired guns” who Have Word Processor, Will Travel.
  8. While your manual on the operation of the latest “widget” or “wadget” may never make the New York Times bestseller list, you can truthfully say that you make your living as a professional writer–no small accomplishment!

Recommended ReadingThe Complete Idiot’s Guide To Technical Writing, Pages 8-12

 

 

Lesson 1: Introduction to Becoming a Technical Writer

What Kind of Salary Can I Expect?

Entry-level technical writing jobs usually pay somewhere between $30 to $40,000 per year depending on the type of writing (For example, writing for a technical audience usually pays more).

The median salary for an entry-level technical writing job in the computer industry is around $35,000 though pay varies by region and background. The Society for Technical Communication surveys the salaries of technical writers every year and publishes the results on their Web site. There is a link to the Society in the Resources section.

Experienced writers in the computer industry can go as high $75,000 or even higher if they have a strong technical background, while the median income for all technical writers in all fields is around $47,000.

By the way, the field is a great one for women, and they make up about two-thirds of all technical writers. You should be aware that there are significant regional differences in pay scales. Average rates in Northern California or the Northeast around Boston, for example, are higher than the national averages mentioned above.

The lifetime of many new writing projects–especially software ones–varies from a few months to two or more years. Therefore, some high-tech companies do not wish to hire permanent tech writers.

This has led to a great many technical writers into work as freelance contractors. You could say that these writers are rather like “hired guns,” who work for a firm for the duration of the project. Such contractors usually earn from $30-$75/hour depending on where they are, the type of industry, their experience, and so forth.

Freelancers who use agencies to find work usually earn a somewhat lower rate–from $25-$60 per hour. A few freelance technical writers earn $80-$100,000 a year. However, most freelance contractors earn $35-$60,000 in a typical year.

While you may make a higher hourly rate as a contractor, the downside is that you do not get many–if any–benefits if you work for an agency. Many of them offer health and other insurance at group rates, and some now offer 401k savings plans, but do not expect these agencies to help pay for your insurance or contribute to your savings plan (a few do).

You may find it difficult to find work as a freelance contractor until you have built up a portfolio. Thus, most freelancers start out as a staff person though the reverse is true also. For example, my spouse started out as a contractor, but the company for whom she worked eventually hired her as a permanent employee.

Recommended ReadingThe Complete Idiot’s Guide To Technical Writing, Pages 8-12

 

Lesson 1: Introduction to Becoming a Technical Writer

Bibliography

“The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Technical Writing” by Krista Van Laan and Catherine Julian

“Handbook of Technical Writing” by Charles T. Brusaw, Gerald J. Alred, Walter E. Oliu

“Technical Writing for Dummies” by Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts

 

 

Lesson 2: What a Technical Writer Does

Technical writing covers a lot of territory, ranging from a quick-start card for a new software application to a manual for a new semi-conductor process hundreds of pages in length to a help file for an accounting program.

In this section we shall look at some of the tasks that technical writers must accomplish, how the writer fits into a company, how the writer gets ideas across, and take a look at a typical day in a technical writer’s life.

Typical Job Duties and Skills

As a tech writer you are usually part of a product development team and must work not only with the engineers and/or programmers designing and implementing the new software application or other new technology, but often must also deal with an assortment of quality assurance (QA), marketing, safety and executive personnel. By far, writing and maintaining documentation constitute the majority of what most technical communicators do. The launching of new products certainly requires much time and effort and is often quite exciting. You are busy “ramping up” (learning) on the new product in preparation to starting outlining and writing the manual, help file, or other documentation. Think just when you have finished the docs and think you are through with the project for a while, you find–sometimes to your horror–that a new release of the software or new features are being added to a product, and you must rewrite parts of the documentation in order to maintain the documentation adequately. While jobs in the field vary widely, the following list describes some of the basic job duties and skill that employers expect of technical communicators:

  1. Mastery of a major word processor (usually Microsoft Word) and other software software associated with publishing, such as FrameMaker or Adobe Publisher.
  2. In some cases the writer is expected to test the software or other product for usability, that is to make sure that the controls and interface are easy to use and master.
  3. Develop and write online help and online documentation using a software application, such as RoboHelp.
  4. Have some understanding of graphics, including the ability to work with pictures (resizing, changing color balance, etc.) and other design elements.
  5. Work onsite or with external printing houses to handle document production, CD duplication, packaging, etc.

As cannot be said enough, a technical writer must communicate information accurately and concisely in a way that is actually helpful to the ultimate end-user. The following truths are always applicable to good technical writing:

  • It must be what the user wants to know–usually no more or less.
  • The reader can easily (or with a modest amount of searching) find the information when it is needed.
  • It fits in with other information that the reader already knows or it is presented with other information that helps each piece make sense and be useful.

I think that it is important for the technical communicator to understand deeply that she/he is performing an extremely useful task in our society. A technical writer is somewhat like a power transformer stepping down high power electrical current to less intense voltages. Thus, as a technical writer, you are helping people to utilize more fully the powerful computing technologies now available. You are performing an extremely useful and valuable service to your fellow human beings. Recommended ReadingThe Complete Idiot’s Guide To Technical Writing, Pages 15-21

 

Lesson 2: What a Technical Writer Does

Producing Professional Documentation

As you read and study and continue to assess whether technical writing is for you, consider some of the following strategies that are important in producing professionally written documentation.

  1. Like so many other writers, I have learned the hard way that it is important to your efficiency as a writer to create an outline.
  2. Be sure to incorporate the timelines of your team mates in your planning of the deliverables.
  3. Organize and then, reorganize some more.
  4. You must learn to be observant and to listen well..
  5. Be very aware of details; they are so important to technical writing.
  6. Ask questions when you do not understand a point. You certainly cannot guess at a technical function when your main mission is to produce concise, accurate documents.
  7. Be sure that you are specific in your writing. You cannot be vague in this type of writing.
  8. Look for likenesses, parallels, contrasts, reversals, and antithesis.
  9. There is a saying among writers that “Good writers borrow but great writers steal” There is some truth to this as we all build on each others work; we do not create in isolation. However, be careful how you borrow; you do not want to plagiarize.
  10. Revise, revise and proof and proof are the hallmarks of an excellent technical communicator.
  11. With a few exceptions (notably in writing for software tool kits), technical documents are written in “active voice.” Avoid passive voice and try not to overuse the word “there,” which is usually not specific enough.
  12. Be sure you have a co-worker or other person proof your writing. We all have a tendency not to notice certain mistakes that we are prone to make.
  13. Try at least to get interested in the product or process that you are documenting. It helps you in producing documentation that is more thorough.
  14. Don’t over estimate your audience’s knowledge of the subject. For example, be sure that you include all the steps necessary to document a process or procedure; don’t assume the user will fill in the blanks.
  15. As a technical communicator it is critical that you be willing to deal with change. Sometimes it seems that just as you have learned everything there is to know about a new software application and have become the consummate expert in its operation and use, you must suddenly start working on new, quite different assignment that represents a totally new learning experience for you.For example, when I was working as a contract technical writer for a large semi-conductor manufacturing firm, I prepared training targeted toward new employees to help them learn about a highly sophisticated inventory forecasting system. Six months later that project ended, and I was suddenly learning how to write documentation for software tool kits intended for software engineers. Not being a programmer, I studied the C++ coding language by night while interviewing engineers and writing and editing manuals by day!
  16. Try to enjoy what you are doing. Realize that you are actually helping other people with your writing even though your audience may seem remote.

Recommended ReadingThe Complete Idiot’s Guide To Technical Writing, Pages 50-59

 

Lesson 2: What a Technical Writer Does

Writing Example: Rewriting a Specification

Most of the time you will find that you write from specifications of the product, software or process furnished by design engineers. Most of the time also, you will need to contact the engineers or programmers to clarify what they exactly meant in the “geekspeak” that constitutes much of their supporting documentation.

To give you a taste of how technical writers transform highly technical language into documentation that is readable and actually helpful to the user, I offer the following example.

Below is a sample of an actual specification relating to the software panel of an application intended for an oscilloscope. Following the specification is an example of how the technical writer rewrote much of this description in creating the relevant part of the manual. The writer had to interview the engineer responsible for this section of the specification to clarify much of the verbiage. Note that the manual had some illustrations (impossible to reproduce here) of the panel to help the user view the processes involved in accomplishing the operations mentioned. Much of the special formatting in the manual has been lost also.

The following is the specification:

Description of PanelInput sources: This component consists of input sources that user can select for any measurement. Signal can be either differential or single ended.

Measurement Tabbed Pane: All measurements have been categorized into five categories. To support this Measurement tabbed pane has five tabs. Clock Tab: This category consists Clock based measurements namely Clock Frequency, Clock Period, Cycle-Cycle, N-Cycle, Positive Cycle-Cycle Duty.

Two input sources available for this category are Clock and Clock_Bar where inability of Clock_Bar signal depends on differential toggle button’s state.

Clk-Data Tab: This category consists Clock to Data based measurements namely Setup Time, Hold Time and Clock-Out. Three input sources available for this category are Clock, Clock_Bar where inability of Clock_Bar signal depends on differential toggle button’s state and third one is Data.

Data Tab: This category consists Data based measurements namely Data Frequency, Data Period, Data TIE and Data PLL TIE. One input source available for this category is Data. General Tab: This category consists General measurements namely Rise Time, Fall Time, Positive Width, Negative Width, High Time, Low Time, Skew and Duty Cycle Error. Two input sources available for this category are Source and Skew.

The following is an extract of the section of the user application manual relating to parts of the above specification:

Configuring a Measurement

Many measurements require configuration. To access the Configure Measurements menu, go to the Measurements menu in the menu bar (illustration) and choose Configure> Measurements.

See Also
Clock Edge Option on page 26
Data Edge Option on page 27

Please Note: The following measurements do not have configuration options:

  • General area: Rise Time, Fall Time, Positive Width, Negative Width, High Time and Low Time
  • Clock area: Positive Cy-Cy Duty, and Negative Cy-Cy Duty
  • Data area: Data Frequency and Data Period

In the Measurements: Configure menu, the following message appears on the screen when you select any of the above measurements: “No configuration parameters available for current selection.”

Configure: Measurement Menus

Clock Edge Option

The Clock Edge option defines which edge of the clock input is used to calculate statistics of the following clock-based measurements:

  • Frequency
  • Period
  • Cycle-Cycle
  • Positive Duty Cycle
  • Negative Duty Cycle

This was just a brief comparison of a complex specification and the actual user documentation written by the tech writer. Do not be discouraged if you found the engineer’s specification confusing. Frankly most of them are like that, but you get used to deciphering and reading between the lines as you gain experience.

The example also illustrates the importance of consulting with the engineers or other designers in order to ascertain what they truly mean. Remember, you may not have the technical expertise of the engineer, but you are most certainly the expert on communication. In fact, some enterprises call technical communicators, “information engineers.”

Recommended ReadingThe Complete Idiot’s Guide To Technical Writing, Pages 180-181; review pp50-59

 

Lesson 2: What a Technical Writer Does

Writing Exercise

Teaching you how to do technical writing is beyond the scope of this course. Your text, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Technical Writing is quite helpful in this regard and includes sections on writing clearly, grammar, active voice etc. Check out the resource section of the course for links to Web site that may prove helpful also.

Meanwhile, below is a little writing exercise to let you try out your wings with writing some simple instructions for network users. Write up your instructions based on the specification given below. One possible way of writing this exercise is given at the end of the lesson (No peeking!)

There is not a “correct” answer, but your instructions should be written clearly and concisely using active voice. Let’s see how you do.

The topic is: “Creating Shared Drives under Windows 95 for Network Multi-users.” Here is the way the software engineer wrote the instructions:

Whenever the program is being installed on a network server, in order to access it, somebody must “share” their machines with the network drive upon which you have decided to keep the application residing. The following must be kept in mind sometimes if you should decide to set up a shared drive:

  1. The name of the server if the program is installed on it.
  2. Assuming the user is using the Windows Desktop, he should right click on the icon that may be called My Computer. He should hope that he (or she I guess) should select the Windows Explore from a list.
  3. Will need to choose to map a network drive to accomplish this.
  4. There is a scroll arrow beside the box called “Drive” on the screen(look at Figure 5), and try selecting some kind of network drive letter. You know a, b, c, etc.
  5. There is a box called “Path,” click the scrolling arrow to be choosing the path to server if the path is not listed, you may decide to check with your network or systems administrator.
  6. Usually the box that states, “Reconnect at Logon,” will be checked occasionally if deciding to use this mapped drive and network path all the time necessarily.
  7. Click OK should you want to save this information for “posterity.” (ha, ha, Dennis!)
  8. I suppose if you are idiot enough not to know how to do this, you might reference the online Windows Help should you need some other type of help with mapping network drives.

* * * * * *

Below is one way the above was rewritten.

Whenever the program is installed on a network server, in order to access it, users must “share” their machines with the network drive upon which the application resides. The steps to set up a shared drive are as follows:

  1. You must know the name of the server on which the program is installed. Check with your network administrator if you do not have this information.
  2. On the Windows Desktop right-click the icon, My Computer, and select the Windows Explorer from the menu. Alternatively, you can bring up the Start Menu, select Programs and choose the Windows Explorer from the list.
  3. On the Explorer menu select Tools and then choose Map Network Drive.
  4. Click the scroll arrow beside the box called “Drive” on the screen that appears (shown in Figure 5), and select a network drive letter.
  5. In the box called “Path,” click the scroll arrow to choose the path to the server. If the path is not listed, you should check with your network or systems administrator.
  6. Usually the box that states, “Reconnect at Logon,” should be checked if you plan to use this mapped drive and network path continually.
  7. Click OK to save this information.
  8. Please reference the online Windows Help should you need further assistance with mapping network drives.

Recommended ReadingThe Complete Idiot’s Guide To Technical Writing, Pages 180-182

 

Lesson 2: What a Technical Writer Does

Bibliography

Bibliography

“The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Technical Writing” by Krista Van Laan and Catherine Julian

“Handbook of Technical Writing” by Charles T. Brusaw, Gerald J. Alred, Walter E. Oliu

“Technical Writing for Dummies” by Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts

 

Lesson 3: Preparing to Become a Technical Writer

In this lesson we study what we must do to become a technical writer. We take a look at what software tools with which you need to become acquainted and give you some ideas for building a portfolio.

Tools of the Trade

You need to have some mastery of the software tools used in technical writing in order to create the professional documentation that today’s companies (and users) expect. While you do not need to be an expert on all the software packages listed, you should at a minimum have acquired a expertise with a word processor and one or two other tools.

Here is a list of the software most often recommended for technical communicators:

  • Microsoft Word – It is critical that you become an expert with this program. You should at least have reached a high intermediate level of expertise with this word processor. I personally have not seen a technical writing job in years that does not call for experience with Word. Moreover, since Word, has grown in publishing features, it is becoming more and more popular for longer, “book-size” documents as companies try to cut back on more expensive desktop publishing packages.
  • FrameMaker – A publishing program put out by Adobe that is especially useful in large company work environments where many writers are working on parts of the same document. This package is currently the standard in the industry for producing long documents where extensive formatting is needed.
  • RoboHelp or other Windows Help authoring tools such as Doc-to-Help, ForeHelp – More and more documentation is written to be “task oriented.” This means that the user is able to find the solution to the problem easily rather than having to sift through pages and pages of a manual to put together the solution. Since online help is searchable and lends itself to online tutorials and is often placed on Web sites, it has revolutionized technical writing. As a prospective technical writer, it is critical that you obtain some experience designing and writing online help.
  • HTMLWith the explosion of the Internet, more and more documenation is being placed online where it is more easily accessible. Thus, knowledge of HTML (hyper-text markup language) and the ability to use an HTML editor has become extremely important in order to obtain employment as a tech writer. You should at least acquire expertise to the intermediate level and be able to edit web documents. It is also helpful if you can learn some of the newer HTML code derivations, such as XML and SGML.Web Authoring ToolsThese are web publishing packages that enable you to create and maintain web pages in “wysiwyg” (what you see is what you get)or graphical mode rather than having to code each page in HTML. Examples are Microsoft’s Front Page and Borland’s DreamWeaver. Smaller companies who do not wish to employ a full time HTML web developer often use these applications. Authoring tools are getting better and better and more companies are using them, especially for producing computer-based training.
  • Graphics Tools – You should master at least one or two sets of graphics tools as a budding technical communicator, as you are going to need them. Choosing or creating charts and other illustrations as well as working with pictures are an integral part of the job. The more demanding tasks are usually handled by a bonafide technical illustrator or other graphic artist, but you will certainly handle all the more common situations involving graphics. A good inexpensive graphic software application that is widely used is Paintshop Pro. Demo versions are available from the manufacturer (see resources). Visio, a very user-friendly program used to create charts or all types is also often used in creating “visuals” for documents. You may want to do some research and check with local staffing agencies to find out the types of graphics software that employers in your area recommend.
  • Programming Languages– If you have any expertise with programming languages or other developer tools, it will help you find a job. Java, C++, ReportWriter, XML, SGML are especially popular. Some knowledge of programming is often helpful in understand certain program specificiations and in writing for an engineering audience.Employers seem to put a lot of emphasis on software knowledge–to much in my opinion, as I believe many technical writers can master most software in a reasonable length of time. Still, the more software applications that you master, the better your chances of getting a job.By the way, if you are familiar with some of the other less popular or older software tools, be sure to add them to your resume. WordPerfect, Interleaf, Ventura Publishers, Quark, and PageMaker are examples of these tools. You never know who is still using them.Recommended ReadingThe Complete Idiot’s Guide To Technical Writing, Chapter 20, especially pages 232-235

 

Lesson 3: Preparing to Become a Technical Writer

Building a Portfolio

Hiring managers will want to see a portfolio of your finished work before they hire you.

If the job entails writing manuals showing how to operate an “X-26 Automated Purple Grape Picker,” they will want to see manuals from the prospective employee showing that you have written similar documentation previously. Of course, it may not have to be with the Grape Picker. Experience documenting the “RD325 Super Excalibrated Cherry Picker” may suffice. . . There is always a pesky “catch 22” when you are trying to find an entry-level job in any field of endeavor. Hiring managers want to hire people experienced in work that is similar to the types of jobs that they have open.

The technical writng field is no different. How can you get some experience when no one will hire you without experience? Furthermore, you must have some experience in order to build your portfolio.

After all, this portfolio is your most valuable technical writing possession and job-finding tool, and you must work to build it and insure that it looks professional.

Here are some ways to get experience and build a portfolio before you land your first job:

  • Volunteer to write something for a non-profit organization that needs technical writing (there are lots of them).
  • Build your own web site to show what you can do. Choose some subject you are interested in and know something about and build a site devoted to that topic. For example, a hobby, a charity, an issue, a regional guide, whatever.
  • Help a working tech writer on a project. Subcontract a portion of a project from an overworked friend.
  • Create Your Own Experience. Find a friend who owns or runs a business and will back your story. Then write something similar to the kind of work you are trying to find. For example, a 20-30 page manual for that specific business describing how its employees are to perform some common tasks or use the company hardware and software.
  • Go to school. Take classes where you produce portfolio pieces as part of your course work. Never waste your time on a class that does not end up with something you can put in your portfolio.
  • The Open Source Writers Group maintains a web site that is very helpful to the aspiring technical writer with limited writing samples. You can register with this site as a volunteer writer or editor and write documentation for open-source projects (see resources for URL).Sometimes to get past an impasse and move on with your life you just have to take the bull by the horns and figure out a strategy to make your dreams come true.By way of illustration, I had a friend who wanted to break into technical writing for two or three years and was actually writing technical scripts for computer support. This person had a degree in English and lots of writing experience. The problem was that he was not experience with any of the publishing tools that employers wanted. Microsoft Word was the only technical writing software with which he was competent.Finally, he just got fed up with his job frustration and decided that there had to be a way for him to break into technical writing. He started surfing the Net and found some Web sites that offered advice on breaking into tech writing.From that site he discovered that he could download a demo version of one of the software packages that he needed and that there were shareware (or freeware) versions of the other tool that was used so much in his area.

    In the end he downloaded these versions of the software that he needed and used them to write documentation and help files for himself and other members of his computer support team. Eventually he had enough documents to build a substantial portfolio and soon was able to find a technical writing job that even at entry level paid twice what he had been making in technical support.

    So, don’t give up! Like the sign I saw one time in a sports locker room in high school: “You make the breaks!”

    Recommended ReadingThe Complete Idiot’s Guide To Technical Writing, Page 38

 

Lesson 3: Preparing to Become a Technical Writer

How Important are Degrees?

While you still may be able to find a technical writing job without a degree if you have a strong technical background and writing skill, there is no doubt that most employers desire that aspiring writers have some kind of college credential.

You do not necessarily need to have a degree in technical communications. I know colleagues who have become technical writers who majored in art therapy or philosophy or business as well as those who came from the more traditional writing majors of English and journalism. Any liberal arts degree is helpful from the standpoint of writing. If you know something about grammar and composition, you can usually master the succinct, active-voice style of technical writing.

Coming from a programming or other technical background with a flair for writing is extremely helpful in making the transition to technical writing. Indeed, prior to the computer revolution, most tech writers were scientific or technical types who could understand the needs of the intended audience and communicate accurately and clearly without relying too much on the jargon of their technical field of expertise.

At a minimum however, a prospective technical writer should take one or more tech-writing courses. Courses in desktop publishing and/or web design and development are invaluable also.

There are also many books available on technical writing. The course author, who was an English major with experience in journalism and technology, took this route prior to entering the field. He found that it was a credible way to learn the mechanics of technical writing.

If you are still in university, you may want to take a few technical writing courses whether you are a liberal arts or engineering student if you are considering the field after you graduate.

Lately, more and more entry level jobs are now requiring a degree or certificate in technical writing. (Certificate programs require fewer classes than degree programs.) I know several people who have attended the local technical college to take courses or earn a certificate in technical writing after graduating from a two or four-year college.

It is important to understand if you do not have a technical background but are a good writer that you should gain computer literacy through college courses or practical experience. If you are interested in a particular industry, you should take seminars or study that field formally or informally.

There is no one answer to the question of the necessity of degrees. Most employers do want you to have a two or four-year degree, be computer literate, and be able to write well.

 

esson 3: Preparing to Become a Technical Writer

Bibliography

Texts on which this lesson is based:

“The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Technical Writing” by Krista Van Laan and Catherine Julian

“Handbook of Technical Writing” by Charles T. Brusaw, Gerald J. Alred, Walter E. Oliu

“Technical Writing for Dummies” by Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts

 

Lesson 4: Breaking Into the Field

After studying the other parts of this course, you have decided that you would like to make technical writing your career. In this lesson we go into some of the ways to get started as an entry-level writer.

 

What Hiring Managers Are Looking For

As in any field, the hardest step is landing your first job. Most managers hiring an entry-level technical writer look for the following:

  • Writing ability – This means the ability to write clearly in standard American English about a technical subject. This means you must be able to explain a product or process to a typical user. Hiring managers are not looking for brilliant creative writing or an eloquent prose style. The manager will want to see one (or more) pieces of technical writing that you have done.
  • Software Tools – Though an entire lesson is devoted to software that technical writers use, I should add that knowledge and experience with Microsoft Word and certain desktop publishing (DTP) tools such as FrameMaker is essential to landing that first job. Though it helps, you don’t necessarily have to be an expert with all of the software. However, you should be very familiar with Microsoft Word and at least another of the tools mentioned in the lesson called “Tools of the Trade
  • Technical Background – Companies are always looking for writers with technical backgrounds. The more technical knowledge you have, the easier it is to find a job and often one with higher pay. A background in programming, electronics, engineering, computer science, etc. will almost always prove invaluable in finding a job. However, if you do not have a strong technical background, do not panic, many jobs out there do not require years of technical experience or only require a “lite” technical background. It is often hard for employers to find someone who actually meets their technical criteria, and will hire a “bright,” young (or old) talent such as yourself.
  • Know the Lingo – Before your interview or other dealings with a company, be sure you become comfortable with some of the buzzwords (or jargona) common to their industry. That way, you will not panic when some strange term is thrown at you during the interview. Of course, learning the jargon is also learning the language of an enterprise and will help you in dealing with colleages and translating that lingo into standard English.
  • Email & Internet – You cannot do anything today in today’s high-tech world with out knowing how to “bring up” your e-mail and use the Internet’s fabulous capacity for research. Do not even try to apply for a job in a technical field—much less tech writing—without having first secured an e-mail address. Be sure to put a working e-mail address and the URL (web address) of your personal or professional web site if you have one, on your resume.
  • Interpersonal Skills – As with most jobs in today’s economy, relationships with co-workers and colleagues is essential (in some ways more important than any other skill). You especially must be able to work well with engineers and programmers since you will be obtaining so much of your product information from them. Also, they will be reviewing and correcting your work. Often you must gain their respect by showing that you either have or are learning quickly the knowledge necessary to do the work. Sometimes you must be firm with the “techies” also, as they often have a way of putting off any concerns about the documentation until the project is almost complete. If you allow that situation to continue, they will often want you to do “mountains” of corrections and rewriting at the last minute. While there is always much to do at the last minute as a project nears completion, you should not let lack of communication with the engineers cause you to fall so far behind in your documentation that you cause the project to exceed the specified release date (Don’t even think about it!).
  • Positive Attitude– All things considered (as the expression goes), you stand probably 100% greater chance of getting hired if you have (and show) a positive attitude. Hiring managers want to know that you can get the job done, as they are under enormous pressure to hire excellent employees. While excellent credentials are critical for your job search, quite often the applicant who comes across as positive, eager and self-confident will get the job—all else being equal (sometimes even unequal so important is attitude). Can anyone say “Michael Jordan?”Recommended ReadingThe Complete Idiot’s Guide To Technical Writing, Chapter 4

 

Lesson 4: Breaking Into the Field

Handling the Interview

Handling an interview for a job in technical communication is very similar to handling interviews for other jobs. You want to look professional at the interview. Usually this means wearing business professional clothing not business casual.

Save the business casual look until after you land the job. By the way, I should point out that many times when I have been called back for a second interview by a hiring manager, I have actually been told to come in dressed casually as if actually going to the job!

Be sure to have extra copies of your resume on hand as well as samples of your writing in a brief case. Eventuallly you may want to invest in a portfolio case.

You have probably read or been told the following advice many times, but it bears repeating:

  • Be sure to research the company before the interview. The Internet is a wonderful resource in this regard as often you can find out just about everything you need to know just by going to their Web site. If you know someone who has actually worked for the prospective employer, it is of course a great idea to talk with them. After all, knowledge is power!
  • If you are nervous, try taking some deep breaths before you are called into the manager’s office. Remember some nervousness is normal; eventually you will get used to the interviewing process. You may find it helpful to relax and review positive experiences from your past, such as interviews where you made an excellent impression and landed the job or other successful activity. An excellent book in this regard in Claude Bristol’s The Magic of Believing.
  • Be sure to ask questions. Interviewers expect you to ask questions, as it shows that you are bright and interested in the company, its products and the type of job duties performed. You may want to jot down a few questions you plan to ask at the interview, especially if you tend to get so nervous that you forget what you intended to ask.
  • Your research of the company and confidence in your own skills and abilities should help you answer most of the interviewer’s questions. Answer truthfully but cast yourself in as positive a light as possible. You have to sell yourself. Like the real estate agent attempting to sell an older home, emphasize the spacious rooms rather than the rather antiquated (but still serviceable) plumbling!
  • Most Important: Make sure the interviewer knows that you want the job. Be sure to send the interviewer a written note or e-mail thanking her/him for the interview and expressing your desire for the position. Often the follow up is the difference between getting the job or not.
  • While persistence pays off, do not make a pest of yourself in checking back with the interviewer. Do not check back more than once a week unless of course you are told a specific date and possibly time to call.Sometimes it takes a while to get that first job even in today’s hot tech writing market. Just keep trying. Like the authors of our text, I personally do not know of anyone who wanted to be a technical writer who is not working in the field.Recommended ReadingThe Complete Idiot’s Guide To Technical Writing, Review pages 43-48

 

Lesson 4: Breaking Into the Field

Writing Your Resume & Other Tips On Getting Hired

An attractive, well-written resume that emphasizes your skills, knowledge of software tools and experience in technical communication is critical to your landing a job as a tech writer.

Teaching you how to write a resume is beyond the scope of this course. There are many books and web sites offering you help in this regard (See the resources section.) There is even an excellent resume writing course available through Suite University.

Most modern resumes include a summary listing your professional skills and expertise and outstanding achievements relevant to your employment objective. Often, an additional section is included for software and hardware expertise.

Since most people taking this course are trying to break into the field, you should slant your work experience to show any writing or technological experience that you have gained. For example, though you have been working as an accountant, you may have written reports and used a computer.

There is a link to my online resume in the resources section (Technical Transformations – Thomas Martin) which you may find interesting as an example of the resume of an experienced tech writer. There is an online portfolio there also.

For more examples of resumes, just do a search on the Web for “technical writing resumes.” You will also find some companies who will help you develop your resume for a fee. I personally do not feel that you need to pay for a resume, especially if you study the many examples available on the Net, but that is up to you. I do know some tech writers who have used such services with success.

After you have built a portfolio and written your resume, what do you do next? While you could mass mail your resume to high tech employers in your area, the author feels that a more efficient way to break into the tech writing field is to work with a staffing agency.

Many such agencies are very open to helping job seekers looking for entry-level work. Additionally, many of the agencies offer training in various computer software applications which is helpful if you need more computer experience. Several agencies which specialize in placing technical communicators also offer training in many of the software tools necessary to obtain a tech writing job. For example, a local agency in the Pacific Northwest where I live offers classes in RoboHelp, FrameMaker, DreamWeaver, Photoshop, Word, etc.

Getting an interview can be tough sometimes even though there are a lot of openings for tech writers. You should realize that hiring mangagers are under a lot of pressure to hire the best people for the job.

Companies want experienced people, and, consequently do not always look favorable on job seekers without the applicable experience. As a matter of fact, in my opinion companies often spend months looking for the right person when they could have hired and trained someone in a few weeks.

However, here are some stragegies that will help you land that first job:

  • Keep up with the latest technologies. Visit the web sites of staffing agencies or ask for an “informational interview” to find out what attributes employers in your area are looking for. Is the market hot for tech writers who can write about Java programming? Go take a course in Java at your local technical college. Sometimes you can even find courses online. Are web skills needed? Beef up your resume with a course in HTML. Try to stay ahead of the curve!
  • Networking is very important in your job search. The more technical writers and other technical people that you know, the greater your odds of stumbling onto a job opportunity. Attend job fairs armed with a stack of resumes in your briefcase. Try to talk with as many people as possible.
  • One of the best avenues for networking is to join the Society for Technical Communication (see resources). Depending on the group in your area, there are often meetings every week which you an attend. Some groups even have seminars for “newbies.” Most local organizations also put out an employment newsletter that is often free to members (or you can pay a subscription fee).
  • Be positive and confident that you will find a job. Take the attitude developed by salespeople who often must face rejection constantly. They will tell you than every “no” just gets you closer to a “yes.”Recommended ReadingThe Complete Idiot’s Guide To Technical Writing, Review pages 39-41

 

Lesson 4: Breaking Into the Field

Bibliography

The following books were consulted in preparing this lesson:

“The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Technical Writing” by Krista Van Laan and Catherine Julian

“Handbook of Technical Writing” by Charles T. Brusaw, Gerald J. Alred, Walter E. Oliu

“Technical Writing for Dummies” by Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts

“The Magic of Believing” by Claude Bristol

 

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