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5 Reasons Why Women Are Better Technical Writers Than Men?

irish girl 19 century

Technical Writing attracts women. They’re very good at it and make great team leads.

Maybe I’ve been very lucky but I believe women are far better as technical writers than men.

Here are five areas where I think they have the edge of the guys.

1. Communication

When in entered technical writing, I assumed my days would be spent cranking out user guides on Adobe FrameMaker. Little did I know that a large part of my day would be spend chasing developers for specs, calling testers for bug reports, and working with customers (often non-English) to update the release notes.

Continue reading 5 Reasons Why Women Are Better Technical Writers Than Men?

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Is a Degree In Technical Writing Worth The Effort?

tech writing degreeDo you have a degree in technical writing or technical communications? Was it worth the money? If you had a second chance, would you have chosen this or opted for another career path?

One of my younger cousins has started her degree in university in Limerick, Ireland. Not the place most of us think of as the heart of technical writing. But, for Microsoft, Google and IBM this university has provides a conveyor belt, producing freshly minted technical writers every four years. It’s one of the few universities in Europe with a specialist degree in Technical Communications. Continue reading Is a Degree In Technical Writing Worth The Effort?

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How to Write a Capacity Plan

capacity-plan-buildingDeveloping a Capacity Plan is vital if you want to understand how much capacity will be required to support your IT systems and, by extension, the infrastructure that supports it.

Think about it.

If you plan to install a new large-scale solution, for example, IBM WebSphere or SAP, you also need to consider the impact these will have on your existing systems.

How to Write a Capacity Plan

1. Capacity Planning & Outsourcing

Another area where Capacity Plan is vital is outsourcing. Say you plan to outsource your Help Desk to a third party firm.

Well, for them to support the system technically (not from a business perspective) they need to prepare a Capacity Plan that details the technical requirements to support this solution.

2. Developing a Capacity Plan strategy

  • Assess the current solution and component performance
  • Identify constraints that may be imposed on the system
  • Use this information to develop the Capacity Plan for component acquisition, configuration, and upgrade.
  • Make recommendations on how the Capacity Plan should be maintained, monitored and updated as necessary.

3. Benefits of a Capacity Plan

Developing a Capacity Plan ensures that business and technical requirements can be supported by the infrastructure and application elements of the new solution. In this case, the Help Desk or the IBM back office solution.

4. Management Guidance

The Capacity Plan provides management with:

  • Breakdown of the resource capabilities required to operate the solution
  • Assessment of current capacities
  • Estimates on the resources and services to be upgraded and acquired
  • Projection of resource and services capacities that may be required by the solution
  • Capacity Planning ensures that there is sufficient processing capacity to run these new applications and for some predetermined time into the future as your business expands.

A well-defined Capacity Plan takes into consideration the likelihood that your business will grow and provides the appropriate estimates so you can develop the systems in line with these projection and also budget accordingly.

5. Capacity Plan Risks

If your company runs out of system processing capacity at some point (for example, due to increased user numbers, higher business volumes), the system’s performance will begin to suffer and you may be faced to upgrade the system (and associated applications) or move to a different more powerful system/server to process these applications.

To ensure that these applications can process the application load at cutover, and for some period of time following this, develop and check your capacity plan.

Capacity Plan Template

The method and results of this study should then be captured in the Capacity Plan document.

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Do Technical Writing projects need a Documentation Plan?

Gordon McLean asks: do you plan to review your plan?

This is in relation to the Documentation Plan (aka Information Development Plan) that most technical writers prepare in advance of starting a major project. Granted, on smaller projects you can get away with this if you know the product, have the resources and the deliverables are nailed down.

But, his point is that the plan itself should be reviewed/updated during the project lifecycle. Or, at least, that’s how I read it. Continue reading Do Technical Writing projects need a Documentation Plan?

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Is it possible to get into technical writing without a degree?

I got this email during the week. The question was: is it worth the time and money to take a technical writing course?

“I’ve been reading articles about Technical Writing and I’m thinking about a change in career. I’ve worked as a non-degreed Quality Engineer in the manufacturing industries. Writing quality documentations and SOPs was a large part of my duties. In the last 12 years I’ve been employed as a Business Mail Entry Tech with the United States Postal Services. I’m currently making 53K, and with all my benefits add up to about 75K. Writing has always been a love of mine. I’ve been looking for a field that will provide decent living as some sort of writer. After reading your articles I realized that I should take courses in HTML, Frame Maker, etc. Is it worth the time and money to take college technical writing courses?”

Can I get a job as a Technical Writer without a Degree?

Taking the courses won’t hurt, that’s for sure. However, I think we need to step back a second and look at the bigger picture. If you’re thinking of moving into technical writing —and don’t have a technical writing related degree —then, how do you go about it.

My story

I left university in the middle of my computer science degree. This was 20 years back when the economy was even worse than it is now. Partly this was to take up a role in London as a programmer (v low salary but a step in the door) and also to see what opportunities I could generate in a large city versus the small town I was living in.

I moved out of programming and into dtp/technical writing; more out of necessity as the recession got worse and also no-one else wanted to do it!

Several years later, I was working in Sacramento for at Intel on a nice little contract.  That was a start as a freelancer technical writer. I’d held full-time positions now and then but prefer to work for myself.

In that time, I’ve worked in Dublin, London, USA, and Asia. Clients include IBM, Bank of Ireland, Valista, and S1.

So, how much training have I had?

Some courses in UML, Process Design and Oracle, but no formal training courses in Adobe FrameMaker and other technical writing tools.

I didn’t go on the courses because of a) cost, b) time, c) and justification.

Instead I downloaded the applications and trained myself to use them. So, while I’m not a ‘recognized’ expert on Adobe FrameMaker, I know how to get under the hood and get things done.

This meant that when interviewed, I could hold my own and ask the interviewers questions that demonstrated that I knew the applications, making suggestions on how they could resolve their issues and improve working practices and so on.

Having the actual diploma wouldn’t have hurt and if you can get it, then go ahead.

But, by itself, then diploma or degree won’t get you hired.

There are a few reasons for this. What I’ve done next is complied some articles that discuss how to get hired as a technical writer,  especially those who don’t have a degree or are coming into this field from another area, for example, journalism or engineering.

What type of skills do Technical Writers need?

You need enough expertise to understand your audience’s background and their needs. For example, writers who develop documentation for software APIs and other technical subjects are often paid more than those who write guides for a nontechnical audience as it’s difficult to find writers with specialized technical knowledge.

http://www.ivanwalsh.com/2009/06/what-type-of-skills-do-technical-writers-need/

Qualifications for Technical Writers

This article is from a technical writer who started when there were no technical writing qualifications.

“The only requirement was that you had a degree of some sort, and even that wasn’t really compulsory. I know some technical writers who came up through clerical roles. Others, like me, are former programmers. A lot of them are trainers who decided that they could write better training manuals than the ones that were forced on them.”

A journalist who set-up a home office with the aim of becoming a freelance writer, lives in an area that is very IT-connected with many tech writers roles available.

He asks: how important is it for a writer to have a background in IT to be a techical writer in the IT field?

“I have done tech writing in the past (instruction manuals for the pulp and paper industry.) I knew little about the machines for which I was writing instructions, but was able to understand and clearly explain how the machines worked.”

Chris Street says to turn your skills to your advantage. For example:

  • You are a technical writer (you have written instruction manuals)
  • You understand programs from a user’s point of view
  • You can write simply and clearly
  • You are used to writing to deadlines
  • You’re used to writing quickly
  • You’re used to rewriting to editors requirements
  • You’re used to talking to people and getting information which you then turn into documentation
  • You’re used to working with house styles

More: http://www.infinitediversity.com.au/techwriter/archives/71

Chris adds that the two areas non-tech writer friends fall down in (from an IT-related perspective) are:

  1. they don’t know the tools and
  2. they’re not comfortable with project management and the software development lifecycle.

He also adds that most writers are “notoriously bad at selling ourselves, particularly if we have been in one job for a long time. You have to take a long, hard look at what your skills are and produce a marketable resume.”

UK STC on Qualifications for technical writers

The UK chapter of the Society of Technical Communications reckons that it is not necessary to have a degree in technical communication in order to get a job.

Only a small proportion of technical authors in the UK have such a qualification because most of the university courses in technical communication did not start running until the late 1980s or early 1990s.

However, most employers expect candidates to have a degree or equivalent qualification, though they sometimes settle for less in people with good practical experience.

The qualifications demanded depend to some extent on who’s doing the hiring; a Technical Publications Manager is more likely than a Software Development Manager to look for a degree or diploma in technical communication.

Any experience of formal writing is useful, as is a solid grounding in a technical discipline, such as computing or engineering.

http://www.stcuk.org/employment/techwritUK.htm

Education and Qualifications

The Technical Writing Zone makes the point that unlike other professionals, “technical writers do not have to meet specific educational requirements in order to be considered for employment opportunities. Indeed, there are successful technical writers who only have a high school diploma.”

Most technical writers today have a strong educational background. So, although there are no mandatory courses you must take before you can try to pursue a career as a technical writer, it is recommended that you obtain one or more of the following qualifications to increase your chances of success.

http://www.technicalwritingzone.com/technical_writing_required_education_and_qualifications.htm

Technical Writing Specialist Certification

If you want to become a qualified technical writer then the Certified Technical Writing Specialist course is worth a look.

The Certified Technical Writing Specialist (CTWS) is a globally administered credential representing the highest level of certification for professionals who create technical documentation.

CTS sets the credentialing standards for the CTWS credential and develops, maintains and administers the Certified Technical Writing Specialist Examination. CTS provides an objective reference for technical writers to demonstrate that they hold the highest level of core knowledge, skills, abilities and attributes.

The CTWS Candidate Handbook contains sample questions for the CTWS credentialing exam.

UCR Technical Writing Certificate

This Technical Writing Certificate was introduced in 1998 in response to the growing demand to more effectively communicate technical material through manuals, reports and online documentation. The program design provides an integrated curriculum covering principles and practices commonly used in technical environments. The program is designed for those who are looking to accent their current careers or enter an entirely new career focusing on technical writing.

Skills focus on organization, project management, creating user guides and manuals, documenting policies and procedures and writing documentation for online formats.

http://www.extension.ucr.edu/certificates/technical/index.html

Online Brooklyn College Technical Writing Certificate Program

Started in 1999 this program gives students plenty of opportunity to interact with instructors. As of February 2007, people from all over the world have registered for and completed over 400 individual sections of the courses that are offered.

Eight-course program is online: you can take the courses individually, or you can take some combination of the eight courses and earn the certificate—right in your own home and from anywhere in the world. http://www.io.com/~hcexres/brooklyn/index.html

UML Certificate Program in Technical Writing

Those with strong writing skills and an aptitude for computers are encouraged to enter this program. Taught by practicing professionals from the high tech industry, students learn to use the most current technologies and processes.

Students enrolled in this certificate program are eligible for special internship opportunities and can apply for scholarships sponsored by the Society for Technical Communication. http://continuinged.uml.edu/certificates/technicalwriting.cfm

Online Technical Communications Courses

You can selectively take Business & Technical Communications courses without going for a degree or certificate. Students intending to complete the degree or certificate often get jobs during the program and never complete the degree or certificate.

You can register in two ways:

  1. Regular academic credit:  To get a formal academic certificate or degree, you must take courses for regular academic credit. This entails admission to the college and tuition payment according to where you live. You can transfer in any relevant college course work you have done. You can complete the certificate or degree by distance. As a distance student, you can apply local course work to the certificate or degree as long as at least 25% of your course work is “in residence” at Austin Community College. (Online Austin Community College courses are considered “in residence.”)
  2. Continuing education: With this option, you do not have to apply for admission to the college, and you pay the same tuition no matter you live. However, you must “convert” courses taken as continuing education to official academic credit.

If you plan to go for a degree or certificate, contact David McMurrey, department chair, at davidm@austincc.edu or 512.223.4804 for advising. http://www.austincc.edu/tcm/

Recommended Reading:

David McMurrey, mentioned above, has written the best book Power Tools for Technical Communication I’ve seen on technical writing.

It’s not inexpensive, (ok, it’s expensive) but it worth the money if you want a decent primer into technical writing and are considering taking the online technical writing course via Austin University.

Summary

While I believe it’s possible to move into technical writing with a little determination and perseverance, the salary expectations for technical writers is falling. Contracts are also drying up and more IT companies are outsourcing to Eastern Europe, Asia and India.

For this reason, I’d be cautious in moving from a ‘stable’ position, especially if you’re earning 53K, with benefits 75K.

One approach might be to learn some of the tools (e.g. Frame or RoboHelp) and/or writing techniques and try to get freelance technical writing work. If this takes off, then you can give it more consideration and maybe move into it on a part-time basis.

One final thought it that most technical writing roles tend to be in large metro regions. It’s hard to find freelance work in the suburbs unless you live near an R&D centre.

What do you think? Is it possible to get a job in technical writing without a degree? Should this person stay where they are or upskill and move into IT?

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Review EPIC Editor – XML and DITA Authoring Software

Of all the technical writing tools I’ve used over the years, Epic Editor was probably the most impressive, especially when it came to doing tech documents that involved DocBook and Dita. It was difficult to learn – no point pretending otherwise – but once I got the hang of it, I used it non-stop for over 2 years. Then I switched companies are haven’t had the opportunity to use it again. With that in mind, here is a brief intro to EPIC Editor, Ivan’s favorite XML Authoring Software!

Update:  Epic Editor is now called Arbortext Editor. You can learn more over here: http://www.ptc.com/products/arbortext-editor

Continue reading Review EPIC Editor – XML and DITA Authoring Software

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Word To Framemaker Tutorial

Many tech writers have had to convert Word documents into FrameMaker. It is a very unpleasant and painful process!

The good news is that Tech Knowledge offer a nice tutorial that explains how to convert documents as quickly and efficiently as possible.

“The infamous Word2Frame document describing tips and techniques for converting from Word to Frame or Frame to Word. At the end of the file is a Word 97 macro you can use (on a MIF) to change the first line of tables to a heading row.”

The site also offers a Web-based help system for FrameMaker.

Go to http://www.techknowledgecorp.com/tips.html

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What exactly do technical writers do?

Technical writers write technical documents that explain complex issues in simple, plain English.

Technical writers – also know as Technical Authors or Information Designers – write material that supports software and hardware systems.

They design, write and produce material that is delivered in print, soft-copy or as Online Help, such as that found in the Help section of programs like Word.

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How to Interview Tech Writers

Jane R. in Texas asks for some tips on interviewing tech writers, especially when using assessment tests. Her company is about to hire their first full-time writer and they have not done this before.

I’ve worked on both sides on the fence in the past, (i.e. interviewed and been interviewed) and picked up a few tings in the process. Hopefully, these will be of some help.

How much time should be allotted to complete the assessment test?

I’d suggest one hour. Some people will race through it, while others will deliberate over the grammar questions forever. Nonetheless, one hour should be sufficient time for them to complete the test. By allocating this amount of time to the test, you are also emphasizing its relative importance. If it were a simple 10-minute quiz, it wouldn’t carry the same weight.

Here’s a suggested approach for administering the test:

When advertising the vacancy, mention that an evaluation test is part of the assessment process. By saying this upfront, you will ‘weed out’ under-qualified writers who know that they would not pass the test.

When scheduling interviews, remind the applicants that there will be a 1 hour test. Explain to them what this entails, for example, that there is X number of questions on grammar, procurement, technology etc. Among other things, this illustrates your company’s professionalism as you are helping the applicants to prepare for the interview.

In turn, it would be unprofessional to spring the test on applicants when they turn up and catch them by surprise. Completing the test take about 90 minutes and some of your applicants may have other arrangements to consider, such as day-care, commuting etc.

When they arrive, I’d interview them first and then do the test. If they are unsuitable for the position, you can cancel the test and say that it’s not necessary at this point. For those who are suitable, I’d do the following:

  • Give them a pen and paper (always helps).
  • Glass of water/coffee.
  • Find a quiet room with a PC or laptop.
  • Give them a printout of the test (most writers like hardcopys).
  • Walk through the test so that they understand what’s required. They can ask any questions at this point.
  • Once they are ready, leave the room and let them do the test in Word.
  • After 20 minutes, drop in to see how they are doing. This is not to police them, but to see if they genuinely need any assistance.
  • After 60 minutes return and print out their test.
  • At this point, I’d suggest that they have a break so that you can score the test.

Once you’ve completed this, sit down and go over the scores. As everyone likes to know how they performed in a test, I’d walk through the results and discuss them with the applicant.
For example, if they scored poorly in one section, ask them how this area could be improved.

And finally, I’d thank them for taking the time to do the tests and hope that they’ve gained from it.

How many points for a passing score?

You could use 40 for a pass and disqualify anyone who comes in below this. Most experienced writers should get between 60-80 depending on their skills.

What I’d look for here is an imbalance in the scores. For example, if someone failed most of the grammar questions, but did very quite well in other sections, discuss this with the writer.

You may discover that many writers have no formal writing training and will suffer in the sticky grammar questions but compensate in other areas.

I’d use the scores/results to assist the overall interview process, i.e. you have material in front of you that you can discuss with the applicant and explore their abilities as a proposal writer.

You could also ask for their thoughts on this evaluation process and if they had suggestions to improve it. This might give you some insight into writers with potential management or creative thinking skills.

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Problems with Table of Contents in Word

James in North Carolina asks, “In Word, the Table of Contents is not displayed. Instead, I get an error message: { TOC\O “2-4″\H \Z \T “HEADING 1,1”}. How do I fix this? Is it a bug? “

I think the problem is to do with Field Codes.

Here are three suggestions:

1. In Word, go to Tools > Options > View tab and click off Field Codes (if this is selected)

2. Close Word.
Open Windows Explorer and search for Normal.dot.
Delete all copies of Normal.dot!
Re-open Word.
It will automatically re-create a new Normal.dot, which may be the correct default settings

3. In Word, on the Tools menu, click Options.
Click the Print tab, and then clear the Field codes check box.

Let me know if you know other ways to fix this problem in Word.

Ivan

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Controlling large docs in Microsoft Word

The main issues with creating long docs in Word tend to involve formatting, styles, graphics, tables, and bullets.

  • Formatting — cutting/pasting material directly from one file into another is best avoided as this will bring unwanted styles in the target Word file. Instead convert it to raw text and then import it.
  • Styles — create specific styles and avoid over-riding settings. Avoid using the default settings in the Normal.com template file.
  • Graphics – avoid using cut/paste graphics into Word. Instead, reference them with Insert Picture etc.
  • Tip: insert graphics only after all other content has been built! Tables — avoid the default Word auto-format settings. Bullets — use styles to create bullets. Avoid using the toolbar and menu options to create bullets. Avoid over-rides.

WARNING: Bullet lists cause more damage than any other feature in Word!

  • Always turn off Allow Fast Save and Save Auto Recover. See Tools > Options > Save > Allow Fast Save.

Developing Microsoft Word files with these pointers in mind will help reduce the file size and avoid corrupting the document template.

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Why do backward Ps appear in Word?

If you open a Word document and see what looks like large Ps at the end of every sentence, then the Show/Hide marker has been turned on.

Sometimes this gets turned on by accident or when you open a doc which as these turned on by default.

The the Show/Hide marker is used for examining the document’s formatting as it shows details of the underlying paragraphs, section breaks and page breaks.

You can turn off this by clicking the paragraph marker. This is usually located on the toolbar.

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Podcast re: Technical Writing in India — Sandeep Balakrishna

For Indian readers considering tech writing as a career, download this free podcast with Sandeep Balakrishna, a seasoned technical writer based in Bangalore, India.

“He has been a technical writer for 10 years, and has observed the explosive growth of technical writing in India. According to Google Trends, seven of the top ten cities where the term “technical writing” is searched is India. What does that mean? Is outsourcing growing or shrinking? What is the Indian perspective on technical writing?”

http://techwritervoices.com/2006/10/30/technical-writing-in-india-an-interview-with-sandeep-beepu-from-bangalore-india/