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Should I Join the STC?

Society for Technical CommunicationBen Minson makes some interesting points about the role of the STC (Society for Technical Communication) and the value it offers to its members.

As an ‘outsider’ looking in, I have to confess to finding the STC a rather odd organization. A longer post is probably in order to discuss this. Continue reading Should I Join the STC?

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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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Audience Analysis: Power Tools for Technical Writing

Documents fail for many reasons. One common mistake is to adopt a ‘one size fits all’ approach to your audience. This works only when generic material, usually of a non-technical nature.

When discussing Audience Analysis, David McMurray points out that, “for most technical writers, this is the most important consideration in planning, writing, and reviewing a document. You “adapt” your writing to meet the needs, interests, and background of the readers who will be reading your writing. Continue reading Audience Analysis: Power Tools for Technical Writing

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How to Get Out of Technical Writing and into Better Paid Jobs

I'm a happy birdMany IT professionals, technical writers included, have seen their salaries frozen or reduced over the past 18 months. Contractors are suffering the same fate as short-term projects dry up.

However, several of my colleagues have managed to move out of technical writing and into other, better paid lines of work. Here’s a roundup. Continue reading How to Get Out of Technical Writing and into Better Paid Jobs

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Common errors in technical writing

Intrepid offier notes from a session of the Mumbai chapter of the Society for Technical Communication.

The first session was by Gurudutt Kamath, who is probably the most well-known figure in the tech writing community in India.

“My interest in attending the session arose cause someone I know was also speaking there, and also because a lot of the work that we do involves a significant amount of technical writing. So while, we may not be professional technical writers, consulting does require us to have excellent written communication skills.”

http://everydayentrepreneurs.blogspot.com/2006/10/common-errors-in-technical-writing.html

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3 Tricks to Sharpen Your Screenshots

Diagrams, charts, and images all serve to enhance academic, business and technical documents. Without them the reader’s attention would flag and their interest wane. Continue reading 3 Tricks to Sharpen Your Screenshots

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How much can I make as a Tech Writer?

The median expected salary for a typical Technical Writing Supervisor 1 in the United States is $57,580.

The Salary Wizard at salary.com has some terrific interactive tools for finding the base salaries, average salaries, and top paying roles in this field.

They also offer the “Basic Salary Report based on broad national data, reported exclusively by HR depts of thousands of employers from all sizes, industries and locations.”

Although these numbers are based on national data, the results are most similar to the data from companies with approximately 1,000 employees. If your company is bigger, smaller or in a unique industry, we strongly recommend using a premium report to ensure the most accurate answer.”

Based on their calculations, your Estimated Paycheck Results would be:

Bi-weekly Gross Pay $ 2,214.62
Federal Withholding $ 400.23
Social Security $ 137.31
Medicare $ 32.11
State $ 0.00

Net Paycheck Estimate $ 1,644.97

Take a look at the charts over at: http://swz.salary.com/salarywizard/

Ivan


Talk is cheap. Use Yahoo! Messenger to make PC-to-Phone calls. Great rates starting at 1¢/min.

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Considering a move into Technical Writing

Allan Hoffman on Monster.com offers some excellent advice for anyone considering a move into Technical Writing.

“To some people, any job with the word “writer” in the title looks like it must be a blast — the next best thing to working on episodes of “Desperate Housewives.” If spotting the job title technical writer in your job search whets your appetite to learn more, here’s a guide to the profession.”

He highlights that the mean (average) salary for technical writers and editors in the US was $61,730, according to STC’s most recent STC salary survey.

Their site is at www.stc.org. You might find the salary stats in the Press Release section.

It was there but has now been moved elsewhere!

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Microsoft Word compared against Adobe Framemaker

This article compares Microsoft Word and Adobe FrameMaker by examining the following key areas:

Ability to create Long Documents
Short Documents
Using Microsoft Word as a DTP Tool
Printing and Type
Cross-platform capabilities
Word’s Nice and Not So Nice Features
Importing Graphics
Indexing

Over the past decade, Adobe has created a suite of publications software, with FrameMaker fulfilling the role for documentation generation. Adobe said that development plans for the immediate future include enhancing the import and export of files from one format to another.

Companies that choose FrameMaker are safe-guarded regardless of future documentation standards, i.e. XML, SGML, Acrobat, or HTML.

Long Documents

Word Strengths
Word doesn’t handle large documents well and begins to have difficulties when it goes over 100 pages of standard text, i.e. combination of graphic and text formatting.
Compiling the TOC and indexes for multiple files takes much longer in Word than FrameMaker.
Microsoft Word is not a desktop publishing program — It’s a word processor.

Word’s Weaknesses
Word doesn’t handle large documents well and begins to have difficulties when it goes over 100 pages of standard text, i.e. combination of graphic and text formatting.
Compiling the TOC and indexes for multiple files takes much longer in Word than FrameMaker.
Microsoft Word is not a desktop publishing program — It’s a word processor.

FrameMaker Strengths
Ideal for large books i.e. 200 pages +.
Before you start, define your template. Using templates in Word is far from ideal as they tend to corrupt when under stress, i.e. if you have too many bullet list and graphic import, it will start to generate error, such as inserting paragraph marks in the header and footers.

FrameMaker Weaknesses
Expensive
Steep learning curve
Possible being phased out by Adobe. Replaced by InDesign

The real advantage to FrameMaker is the ease at which documentation, indices, and cross-references is easily updated. Page, section, figure, table, and even equation numbering can follow any scheme you can think up. FrameMaker is best on 1280 x 1024 monitors, and can be difficult to use on small screens.

FrameMaker is designed specifically for long complex documents, which can be edited, updated and changed, including the TOC and indexes very easily.

Short Documents

If your documents are under 100 pages on average, FrameMaker is probably not required. Also, the word processing functions in FrameMaker i.e. spellcheck, redo, undo, sort, are not up to Word’s

Word as a DTP Tool
Word was not designed as a DTP program — it’s a word processing program that has added features over releases, so that if can be used for less intensive publishing requirements. To be more specific:

It does not handle any color separations
Poor support for page layout and/or graphic placement i.e. you cant rotate graphics.
Not designed as a structured document tool, i.e. cross-referencing other books. Master Document feature is meant to address this, but is notorious for collapsing.

Printing
FrameMaker is excellent for producing printed manuals. Very little deterioration occurs when printing complex documents across a range of printers and operating systems.
FrameMaker is more connected to the publishing world, and has very close ties to Adobe’s other technologies, such as the Adobe Type Manager, Postscript and Acrobat PDF.

If you have to print large documents in Word, you’ll most likely end up having to split the document into smaller files, changing the header and footers accordingly, hard-code the TOC’s and having nightmares with any cross-references. Avoid at all costs!

Type

FrameMaker’s quality of typography is better than most DTP packages, and significantly superior to Word. FrameMaker is very useful for intensive printing jobs where, for example, you can utilize Postscript.

Cross-platform
Frame’s cross-platform capabilities are very impressive. No other commercial DTP package runs across so many platforms.

Frame prints identically on Unix/Mac/Windows — but you need to be using the same FrameMaker release.

Word’s Nice Features
Word is not without merit and has some nice features:

When you highlight a word, Word highlights the next space, which improves cut & paste.
The Insert Symbols dialog box is faster and more intuitive than FrameMaker’s Help KeyboardMaps mechanism.
Word offers several views of a document, including a non-WYSIWYG view that works well on typical landscape monitors.
Autotext, Autocorrect and the Macro Recorder are very helpful.

Word’s Not so Nice Features

Formatting diagrams and images is awkward and prone to crashing the system.
Temporary Word files will eat up your disk space, and sometimes don’t get deleted from the cache.
You can’t have text on one page with different directions, headers and footers horizontal and, for example, a vertical pictures description.

Importing Graphics
There is a distinct difference between they both handle graphics:

Frame imports graphics, which have been either copied directly into the FrameMaker file, or referenced from another location. This method is recommended as the files size doesn’t bloat and when you update a graphic, it is automatically updated in the document.

Word copies the file directly into the document.

Therefore, when you change or update the source graphic, you need to import it back in again, re-size and layout it etc. Importing files into Word tends to increase the file size rather dramatically.

We’ve seen files double from 2MB to 4MB and continue to double until they reached 64MB – with no additional graphics been added. When Word has difficulties, it tends to expand in size. This can result in been locked out of your document, as your PC will run out of memory.

Also remember that because Word copies the files in, rather than import them, when you make updates to your application, and screenshots needs to be updated, you have to go through all the Word documents again. This is very expensive and alone can justify the value of purchasing the FrameMaker product.

With graphic heavy files, Word will grind to a standstill and not display any graphics towards the final pages, if you get that far. It consumes all memory available and then some more.

Indexing

FrameMaker has very advanced indexing capabilities:

You can index to several levels
You can provide different types of indexes and lists, e.g. have an index of multiple chapters (each chapter being a separate file)
You can have lists of the tables and figures, which are compiled automatically. These are automatically brought in by referencing the file, and are automatically formatted
You can track the imported graphics on a list, and have the number of pages in each chapter, TOC, index, glossary created automatically in another compiled index
Microsoft has rudimentary indexing, but nothing near the capability of multiple indexing that FrameMaker has.

Cross-references

FrameMaker automatically cross-references document paragraphs, including those in multiple files. Cross-references include:

Text
Paragraph numbering
Figure titles
Table titles
Numbers
Microsoft Word does have these advanced features.

Formatting

FrameMaker again has very powerful f

eatures, such as:

Formatting multiple paragraph number schemes within a document.
Creating bullets with any character type.
Running headers and footers using referenced paragraphs, i.e.,
Paragraph heads.
Formatting tables using table templates, ensuring that you use a consistent format for each type of table.

Word has a limited and mutually exclusive form of paragraph number schemes. The formatting is tied to the rest of the paragraphs, making it extremely difficult to format different fonts, styles, sizes, etc. within the same numbering stream, or to have multiple numbering streams. Word does not number your tables or your figures.

Printing

Word changes fonts and pagination unpredictably when you change printer drivers. That means you can’t proof on laser prints, unless your laser writer drivers give you reliable PostScript output on the page size (plus crop marks) that you’ll need for final output.

Generating TOC

FrameMaker creates TOCs and indexes across the whole book.

In Word, you can make indexes and TOCs using the Reference Document program.

User Groups

Word User Groups tend to be more active than those for FrameMaker, partially because of Microsoft’s support.

Converting from Word to FrameMaker

The overall conversion process is time-consuming, with an initial expensive outlay, and may involve template design and other production factors. Before making the plunge, you might want to get a demo, produce some documents and seeing how you like it.

Online Help

If you are planning on providing on-line help for a Windows-based software product, Word’s conversion to on-line help is a lot easier than Frame’s.

Reference Documents

In Word, if you create large documents, when you come to printing all sections and creating TOC’s, difficulties usually arise. Word is not designed for this, and what you are asking it to do it beyond its scope.

If your stuck with Word, be prepared to ship files that you know will deteriorate or collapse when the user opens them. You can side-step this by saving the word file to PDF, and putting maximum security features on i.e. the user cannot modify the file contents. Get FrameMaker instead.

Once Word begins to degrade, everything will go awry and you’ll get mis-numbered pages, TOC entries with unresolved pages, mangled headers and footer, and other idiosyncrasies.

Graphics

FrameMaker is best for document creation that includes large amounts of graphics, and graphic layout re-formatting i.e. rotation.

Word’s performance degrades with imported graphic files —you’ll soon hear your PC desperately grinding in the background trying to swap memory—and the file sizes in Word increase to enormous proportions during graphic imports, beyond all reasonable logic.

Remember, when you import a low-res file format, e.g. GIF/JPG, into Word, it is converted into BMP, which partly explains the sudden increase.

Templates

Creating templates in Word is fairly limited, as its essentially designed for writing letters. Also, you can’t open a Word template while other users are using a document based on this template.

Pagination

Word tends to change pagination when you change printer driver, even if the fonts have not changed, ruining indexes and tables of contents.

OLE Support

FrameMaker doesn’t support OLE.

Bookmaking

FrameMaker is fast and intuitive.

Endnotes

Word supports true endnotes.

Frame does not. FrameMaker has a workaround using cross-references, but this is cumbersome when working with a book with many component documents.

Long footnotes

Word supports long footnotes, i.e. notes that must be split across successive pages.
FrameMaker does not support long footnotes. If a footnote is too long to fit on the page on which its marker appears, the entire footnote text is moved to the next available page.

SGML

With FrameMaker+SGML, you have the combination of FrameMaker’s features, and create an SGML document that can be used with a database search engine.

Adobe and FrameMaker future plans

Adobe has assembled a collection of documentation software, with FrameMaker central to that strategy. Adobe said that development plans for the immediate future include enhancing the import and export of files from one format to another.

Companies that choose FrameMaker are safe-guarded regardless of future documentation standards, i.e. XML, SGML, Acrobat, or HTML.

Contact me if you have any quesitons and I’ll try to get back to you.

Ivan (att) klariti (dott) com