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Technical Writers? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Technical Writers. Oh, Wait…..

Imagine: A quiet day at the office. Working away, on-target and on time, when suddenly the universe hurls a supermassive monkey wrench into your plans. All you can do is scramble to adapt. There’s no one there to help you. No one there to guide you. And it’s life or death because “your office” is… SPACE!

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Sound like the plot of the latest Hollywood blockbuster? Well, it is. We can all relate to this situation from Gravity, the latest movie starring Sandra Bullock. We’re in the middle of an important task, we’re alone, and technical problems arise. What’s a user to do? We consult the manual!

Who writes this stuff, anyway?

User manuals are not generally known for ease of reading. No one I know takes them to the beach or on vacation as a pleasure read. And yet we have them. We have them because we need them. But who actually writes these manuals? In recent years, some in the technical communication industry have noticed a trend toward Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) as technical writers. A recent internet search for technical writing jobs reflects this trend. Requirements include “Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science/Engineering or a related technical discipline,” “Bachelor’s degree and five years work related experience or a Master’s degree and one year work related experience in a relevant technical discipline,” and “Bachelor’s degree (in related technical field) or equivalent, and zero to two years of related (technical writing and copy editing) experience.” It would seem the “writing” part of technical writing is taking a back seat to the technical aspect. While knowledge of the topic is certainly important, knowledge of writing, specifically the methods and theories of technical writing, cannot be overlooked.

In space, in the office, or at home (SPOILERS)

In Gravity, Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, who finds herself alone and faced with the need for knowledge of complex equipment. What does she do? All her other resources have been cut off – her communications with NASA have been lost and (SPOILER ALERT!) all the other astronauts are dead. So she gets out the manual, just like any user would do. And, voila! She’s alone no more. It’s as though she has a technical writer with her.

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Dr. Stone’s best chance of getting back to Earth alive is to pilot a Russian Soyuz capsule from the International Space Station back into Earth’s atmosphere. Piece of cake, right? Sure, until that monkey wrench enters orbit. How about a ship that’s out of gas AND has a dashboard written in Russian (which she doesn’t read)? Luckily for Dr. Stone, there’s a manual in English. Assuming that manual is accurate, easy to follow, and well organized, she should be home free! (This is where we hope NASA hires good technical writers, or she’ll never make it home.) The craft of a technical writer – conveying the right information, and only the right information, when, where, and how the user needs it – is what she’s counting on now. Whether at home, at work, or in orbit, all users need accessible information that works for them in their specific situation – even a situation like Dr. Stone’s, that the technical writer probably never dreamed of.

User Needs — in Space and on Earth

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Dr. Stone has a task she must complete; like most users, she dips in to the manual, finds the information she needs, and dips out again. Most do not read the entire manual. (Ron Byrne offers insight into why in the HCi Journal of Information Development.) Even though some users (like Dr. Stone) may have been trained on the product or a version thereof, situations arise where very specialized information is needed. Information that can take a user

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Who can best convey this information? I vote for trained technical writers. Chunking, relevance, consistency, and hierarchy – these are ideas that technical writers have thought about, are experienced with, and know how to execute. (More on these components of information mapping on the TechWriter Wiki and I’d Rather Be Writing.) Others have argued that technical writers are necessary for clarity and to reduce costs, to act as user advocates, and as usability experts. Add to that someone whose documentation can get me home in one piece – or just help me make the printer work – and it’s clear. Technical writers? Yes… we do need them.

– Mandy Hughes

Are the Technical Writer’s Job Prospects Good?

As an aspiring technical writer, I haven’t been aloof to how technical writing—in practice—is changing from what it—in theory—is often presented to be in much lay and sometimes academic literature. And this is a serious issue to me and to those who are in the same boat. It is not apparent that the apparent changes confronting the traditional technical writer are positive changes that will work to the benefit of the education and experience of those ready to enter the workforce. The case for pessimism can indeed seem strong.

To be sure, there are reasons why things look dreary for the technical writer. This was on no greater display than when a class of we technical communication students spent a few moments exploring job postings for technical writers on the internet. Our conclusion: the jobs were there if you are skillful with the English language and Microsoft Office—and if you were familiar with a certain software suite other than Microsoft Office (who knew in advance what that would be?), and were familiar with hardware, and Department of Defense standards of publications, and knew how to work with a mark-up or programming language, and so on.

Consider that Diane Martinez and colleagues in their widely-used and referenced book, Technical Writing, spend the bulk of their time discussing topics like “purpose, audience analysis, and context,” the “forms of technical writing” (e.g., e-mail, memos, and business letters), how to approach research, and how to write grants and proposals. Gerald J. Alred and colleagues in the likewise well-known Handbook of Technical Writing emphasize such topics as forms of documents (a la Martinez), considerations for design and visuals in one’s documents, job searching, and organization. Now all these topics are critical to the education of tomorrow’s technical writer, but notice how centered they are on matters of language, style, and context with precious little in the way of guidance about all the other knowledge, skills, and abilities that we noted are now being demanded by today’s employer.

In acknowledging the disparity between what technical writers are taught and what employers actually want, and agreeing this deserves some attention by our educational institutions, it’s worth noting that recognition is growing that employers can be unrealistically demanding of applicants: Back in 2011 Peter Cappelli wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal where he noted, “With an abundance of workers to choose from, employers are demanding more of job candidates than ever before. They want prospective workers to be able to fill a role right away, without any training or ramp-up time.” This year, he’s still beating the drum where on the HBR Blog he writes this insightful tidbit, “Some of the cost-cutting took out recruiters. They used to be the people pushing back on hiring managers, asking “do you really need someone with a graduate degree to do this job?” or telling them, “you aren’t going to find someone with 10 years of experience at that salary.”” As post–recession-recovery realism sets in for employers who cannot fill their positions, I suspect the intimidating demands will become more reasonable.

That said, technical writers—aspiring or otherwise—should be on the lookout for continuing education opportunities that are being held in their area. A simple search on the internet can give you information about local opportunities; this especially applies if you live near a college or other institution of higher learning.  Also reassuring is O*NET’s projection that technical writing is expected to grow at an average pace—some 10%–19%. Perhaps we ought not be so pessimistic after all.

 

— Dane Parker

Tips for Getting a Technical Writing Job

Recently, I’d Rather Be Writing featured a post with insights from a technical communication job search. It’s full of great advice like checking out the company’s documentation before an interview:

In order to speak to documentation-related issues and challenges, it’s important to study the company’s documentation beforehand. You can gather a lot of insight and questions by looking over the way a company does documentation. If the documentation isn’t accessible, you can still gather a lot of information by reading about the company. I like to look at the way a company organizes their content, as well as any visual communication, user engagement, short guides, online help, and other documentation efforts the company is engaged in.

TalentEgg recently posted its own tips for finding technical writing jobs. Great sample interview questions are also available here.

For more insights on the technical writing market, check out the Bureau of Labor Statistics outlook for technical writing jobs.

Technical Writing Position at Butler America

Butler America is hiring a technical writer. The job posting is below:

Butler America has an opportunity for a Technical Writer with RPSTL (Repair Parts and Special Tool List ) experience to work in Huntsville, AL for a long term contract project. Will consider a Technical Writer with a background in IPB (Illustrated Parts Breakdown) manuals.  Prior experience with XML is preferred. Prior experience with military manuals (aircraft) is preferred.  REFERRALS WELCOMED Please contact Carol Arsenault at 256/684-8867 and/or send resume to carsenault@butler.com to discuss further.

Technical Communication in the Game Development Industry

As a gamer, I have been wondering about the job outlook for technical communicators within the video game development industry. This seems like a fantastically exciting industry to work in if one is a technical communicator who just so happens to be a gamer and passionate about gaming. After completing an exhaustive search on the internet for technical communication jobs within the gaming industry, I found that it seems like they are either hard to find or are slim to none.  So I figured that these jobs must be titled something else other than the usual technical communicator or technical writer.

According to a whitepaper on the gaming industry by Laura Hamilton, there are four common job titles for technical communicators in the gaming industry which include, “instruction manual writer, web content writer, strategy guide writer and game designer.” (Hamilton)

The instruction manual writer writes the small instructional booklet that comes with the game inside the case. This booklet lists rules, controls and other important information needed for a user to get started playing the game. The web content writers write technical content for the development company website.

The strategy guide writers write books which help users complete and win the game. In some cases, these books can be referred to as a “walk-through” of the game. A good example of a strategy guide would be the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Official Strategy Guide by David Hodgson.

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Game designers write the game design document. According to gamasutra.com, a major website for game developers, it says, “the purpose of documentation is to communicate the vision in sufficient detail to implement it.”  So the game designers would come up with an idea for the game and put it on paper which would act as a guide for further creation of the game. Next, the designer would use this document to make a technical design document. According to Sloper, this is, “a document that describes the process they will use; what engine or other technology, and will identify the challenges (of designing the game) and address how to handle them.”  Lastly, the game designer would create a game proposal. According to gamasutra.com this document should include, “the revised game concept, market analysis, technical analysis, legal analysis, and cost and revenue projections.” After the game designers have gotten everything about the new game on paper, they will work with the programmers and other team members to make the game come to life.

There are many video game development companies in the United States. One of the most prominent ones is called 343 Industries which is owned by Microsoft Studios. 343 developed Halo 4 which came out about three weeks ago.  343 industries is now in control of all things Halo related. Halo was once controlled by Bungie, until they broke off from Microsoft and became independent. Afterward, Microsoft created 343 Industries to take control of Halo. 343 Industries is based out of Washington.

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Another popular video game development company is Bethesda which is owned by ZeniMax Media. Bethesda is both a developer and a publisher and they are based in Maryland. They have released games such as the popular Fallout 3 and the entire Elder Scrolls series including the award-winning Skyrim.

A third popular video game development company is Epic Games. They have made games like Gears of War and the Unreal Series. They are based in North Carolina. A fourth popular development company is Gear Box Software. They made the Borderlands series and the Brothers in Arms series. Gear Box Software is based out of Texas.

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The last two popular development companies I researched were Infinity Ward and Treyarch. Both companies have worked on and developed games in the Call of Duty series. These two companies are both owned by Activision Blizzard, which publishes their games. Infinity Ward made the first Call of Duty as well as four other games in the Call of Duty franchise. Treyarch has made Black Ops, Spiderman 3 and Quantum of Solace. Infinity Ward and Treyarch are both located in California.

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It seems like there are technical communication jobs in the game development industry, but they are hard to find. I am glad I did the search early enough to know what I am in for when I do start job hunting. If anyone has any other information on this topic, please let me know.

 

Ruby A. Stevens

 

Technical Writing Position at Aerotek

Here’s a contract position sent along by a UAH alumni. Check it out if you’re looking for a job!

Aerospace Technical Writing Job

An alumni recently forwarded this job posting along for a technical writer at Neos US, LLC. It is a great opportunity for the right candidate!

Two Jobs at Red Team Industries

Red Team Industries is hiring a Proposal Manager and a Senior Technical Writer. Check out the job ads below for the complete information.

Proposal Management
– Plan, coordinate and manage the comprehensive development process of competitive sales proposals for The Red Team’s clients
– Develop compliance outlines based on solicitation requirements, and manage proposal development to ensure conformance to outlines
– Develop production tools including worksheets, storyboards, task lists, meeting agendas, schedules / timelines, and other proposal management tools to coordinate team actions and ensure compliance
– Manage writers, editors, graphics artists, production coordinators, SMEs and team partners to ensure a seamless proposal process that results in winning proposals
– Ensure timely submission of proposals
– Ensure technical compliance of submitted proposals
– Ensure completeness of submitted proposals
– Ensure each proposal meets The Red Team’s quality standards, including high use of graphics, customer-focused themes and messages, and single voice story-line with flawless grammatical presentation.
– Travel required up to 100% (of assigned projects)
– Work often exists in a high-stress, time-critical environment for 60 days or more in a travel status
– Maintain absolute confidentiality related to project information, client data, and The Red Teams proprietary processes, pricing, and technical data
– Perform other duties as required to support Client objectives.

Technical Writing
– Provide clear, compelling, accurate and compliant written content for various assignments, including SOPs and process guides, proposal volumes, training materials and marketing/PR products for electronic and/or print media
– Create and present to the client outlines/graphics concepts/storyboards that effectively communicate section writing tasks while meeting compliance requirements
– Develop graphics and illustration concepts, and incorporate with effective captions into writing sections
– Interview Subject Matter Experts, Engineers, Operations Team Members and Technical Staff to glean critical information related to technical compliance; distill this information in clear, compelling and accurate written content that supports overall project objectives
– Meet all deadlines – Ensure compliance of written material with solicitation requirements
– Meet The Red Team’s quality standards for grammar, presentation, style, and customer-focused themes and messages
– Utilize a variety of software applications including, but not limited to MS Office Suite (Word, Excel, PowerPoint), MS SharePoint, Adobe In-Design, MS Visio, online timesheet applications, and other productivity and creative software
– Travel required up to 100% (of assigned projects)
– Work often exists in a high-stress, time-critical environment for 60 days or more in a travel status
– Maintain absolute confidentiality related to project information, client data, and The Red Team

Freelance Editor Needed for Resume Project

A local resident is looking for an editor to copyedit a two page resume. Compensation will be offered. Please contact Dr. Weber at rw0019@uah.edu for more information.

Freelance Technical Writing Opportunity

A local business owner is looking for a freelance technical writer to produce articles for doctors interested in the optical industry. The job pays per 100 words and looks to be ongoing. If interested, please contact Dr. Weber at rw0019@uah.edu.


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