Posts Tagged 'technical writer'

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

Talking the Talk: Being Articulate at Your Job Interview

If you have expertise in Word and Excel, create InDesign documents just for giggles, and hold an academic resume that deserves an award, then I owe you a hearty congratulation. You are officially a technical communication geek! [Audience wildly applauds and chants your name.] You probably have spent a substantial amount of time and effort on learning how to manipulate various editing and publishing software and you are ready to move up in the world, as a professional technical writer. Presenting yourself in a resume, as a skillful and competent candidate, is just half the battle when persuading an employer that you’re the right one for the job. In Pete Geissler’s, The Power of Being Articulate, he interviews company CEOs who hire their management team not only for what they know, but their ability to effectively communicate what they know. The ability to communicate effectively, with Standard English, has taken a back seat in the Technological Age, while brief electronic messages have dominated interoffice communication.  It is one thing to be an SME, but lacking the ability to communicate your genius ideas it is another which brings me to my point.

Tip 1– Don’t be an ummm person. You know the language that is filled with excessive unintelligible murmuring.  We are all guilty of brain farts every now and then, but lacing your sentences with too many ummms can disrupt your audience from clearly hearing your message. Writing your thoughts before you present an idea will improve your speech delivery. You will be able to recall your main points quicker than if you had not prepared at all. You will be praised for your ability to deliver details without meandering and never getting to the point.

Tip 2 – Know your stuff, and tell it. For instance, if you are interviewing with a company that does contracts with the government, then you should look up some basic conventions for MIL-STDs (military standards). Be somewhat familiar with the writing style that you will use on the job and articulate your knowledge about it. If your interviewer is not impressed, then at least they have an idea of how well you take initiative to be prepared. You will be showing on-the-job skills before being hired! If your interviewer does not notice your initiative, then they are just a bad person. Hmph!

Tip 3 – Don’t be a chatterbox. In his book, Geissler mentions several habits that articulate people avoid, and one of them is being verbose.  He says, Articulates never interrupt or finish the sentence of those who are speaking to them, and they avoid people who do. While on your interview, remember that communication is a tool for conveying your ideas, answering interview questions, and articulating your awesome abilities. Make your responses concise and to the point. You may want to refrain from regurgitating the tech comm encyclopedia during your interview. Don’t fret! You can impress your friends with your new found jargon later. 

-Jennifer F.

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


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