Technically writing
April 8, 2010 9:33 AM   Subscribe

I am intereted in learning more about the discipline(s) of Technical Writing/Communication.

I have read this previous question which had a couple good tips, but mostly went in a direction different than 'where can I learn more about, or even self-start into, Technical Writing/Communication?'

I am in the USA.
My undergrad is interdisciplinary liberal arts (philosophy, psychology and theology).
I have worked as an accountant and comptroller, and have college level education in accounting, but I did not complete a degree. Instead I obtained a masters degree in finance - but have little work experience in that field.

The STC seems to be the main professional organization for this field, but there is no STC group in my region. I've read all the way through their site and there was not much more than a database of schools.

Any schools halfway near me only offer full degree programs that wrap Technical Writing/Communication focuses into the in the undergraduate and graduate English degrees. I don't really want to get another degree.

I am pretty good at learning, could I just get a couple textbooks and teach myself?

What are the best books in these fields?

Are online certificates of any use in this field?

How could I best use my accounting and financial knowledge as a springboard into Technical Writing/Communication?

Would helping document with Open Office or Mozilla be something I could then put in a portfolio?

Can you suggest any online forums or blogs that are full of writing about technical writing?

Finally do I need to decide between Technical Writing and Technical Communications or is it becoming interchangeable?

posted by iurodivii to Work & Money (7 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Tech writer here; from what I can tell, the two terms are completely interchangeable. Some places, especially large ones, still will hire technical editors, but editing is alas something most places can't afford anymore. Communications is only a formal term used on textbook covers; it's possible that the field is starting to use this term more, but it means the same thing.

If you don't want a degree, then yeah a great portfolio is the way to go, plus a great knowledge of the tools used like FrameMaker and InDesign. Learn html and xml coding, too. As far as I can tell, if you're already a good writer then you should be fine if you also learn those tools. has, I think, a section where geeks post their new software projects and then look for people to write the documentation for them. I think it's all on a voluntary basis, but that could also help your portfolio.
posted by Melismata at 9:58 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

In addition to FrameMaker, HTML, and XML, you might also want to get passingly familiar with DocBook and DTIA, which are XML schemas commonly being used in the documentation field. In the same vein, if you know how to use FrameMaker in Structured mode, and especially how to use it with DTIA, you will know something that few people know.

These skills may or may not actually be useful depending on where you end up working. I have been doing technical writing for 21 years and have never started up FrameMaker in Structured mode. If you work for a big company with lots of products that share or repurpose content, it is probably more likely.

Technical Communications is a fancy term for Technical Writing. It is meant to increase the prestige of the position by indicating that there are other things we do besides write. We edit, we organize, we design, we lay out, we present. Some of those things are arguably part of writing, but basic graphic design skills are not. If you learn how to create and deliver training, that's another type of communication you can do that a mere writer can't.

In practice though, it means "Technical Writing."

I have not found STC membership to be at all valuable. I was a member last year for the first time in my career (company paid for it) but decided to save the company the money this year. If you are new to the field, it may be more useful. Their newsletter may save you from learning certain things the hard way and there may be some networking opportunities if you had a local chapter, but you don't, so not so much.

A degree or certification may or may not matter. For a large company where you have to get past HR to even get a chance to be hired, it may help, because HR has a series of checkboxes that must be marked (degree? check). However, any degree will probably work. For a small company, it might not be necessary at all if you have a good portfolio. And smaller companies are also more pleasant to work for, in my experience. The industry you want to go into may also be a factor (software developers tend to be somewhat more laid back about qualifications than, say, medical device manufacturers or defense contractors).

For the record, I have an associate's degree in computer programming and a successful career as a technical writer.
posted by kindall at 10:27 AM on April 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

A thought for school--Arizona State University offers a post-bachelors certificate program. The program requirements are here.
posted by Aleen at 11:05 AM on April 8, 2010

I'm a technical writer. I do have a degree specific to technical writing (and am working on a graduate degree in technical communication), but many of the writers on my team do not have degrees in technical writing, but used experiences and certificate programs to build up the necessary skills. Most of them do, however, have degrees in either English/journalism or engineering. That also seems to be what most employers are looking for in a technical writer.

As far as degree programs go, I know that Northeastern University offers an MS in Technical Communication that is entirely online, and that is not wrapped into a broader English degree. I'm sure there are other, similar programs available as well.

Books on technical communication that I recommend include Technical Editing, Developing Quality Technical Information, and the Tech Writer's Survival Guide (for a nice introduction to the field).

Out of the 10 writers I work with (all of whom have 20+ years in the industry), less than half are members of STC. I was a student member when I was an undergrad, but I'm not convinced it's really worth it.

I think you have the right idea with regards to trying to do some work on open source projects that you can use in your portfolio. Your portfolio, your skills using documentation tools, and your ability to learn new technical topics quickly and easily are what will sell you to employers. A degree is nice, but not very many people have a degree in technical writing/communication.

I think the terms technical writing and technical communication are used interchangeably for the most part, though I tend to use the latter because it much more accurately reflects what I do. Many (maybe even most) technical writers do much more than just write -- they often create technical illustrations/diagrams, create screencasts, edit, and more.
posted by tastybrains at 12:38 PM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Texas Tech University in Lubbock offers an online Masters Master's Program that might be of assistance.

From my experience in the field, kindall is pretty spot on, and I like Melismata's suggestions for building a portfolio. It also allows you to write different types of information - start guides, overviews, technical specifications or requirement documents, training and even testing.

A "Technical Writer" can have any number of specific specialities in what they write (end-user docs, administration guides, programming guides, API guides, internal, training, specifications, exams information, faq, readmes, technical articles, requirements) how it is written (Word, FrameMaker, InDesign, XMetaL, RoboHelp, TextPad, Adobe CreativeSuite) and presented and/or reused (online, PDF, XML, in software directly) and what field (medical, technical, insurance, software, hardware, cell phones, tractors, cars, die-making machines). In addition to familiarity with DITA and other OASIS standards, Project Management certification can help, as can ITIL certification. If you're going into a software development environment, the ability to read code can help, too.

At smaller places, the technical writer might only be needed for a short time, or work part time at writing and part time at other tasks, YMMV. Or double as a marketing writer or training writer.

STC and ACM/SIGDOCs. I can't think of much to say to recommend them at this time, except that in such a touch and go economic climate, belonging to either is a bit of an act of faith and support in a lean time. I found ACM less useful and left a while back.

STC I've not renewed in a while. From what I've heard, STC have seriously slashed what support and unique offerings they do and did have, burned a lot of bridges in the circle of friends I know of by taking a lot of their significant historical offerings offline, and been 10+ years or more too slow in trying to drum up/support useful certifications and educational offerings. Even if there is no local chapter, you can pick a few special interest groups to participate in online. I've only been a part time "tech writer" for the past few years (been more process management and systems/ content management system design)

As for online writing about tech writing, I don't have blog recommendations, but there are discussion boards on sites such as LinkedIn - in their technical writing groups.

Good luck! I've found this industry can be feast and famine, and better in larger cities than smaller.
posted by tilde at 12:41 PM on April 8, 2010

Not sure STC is worth it any more. The first few years I was a member were fruitful in terms of networking and good learning opportunities, but that is no longer the case (in my opinion, anyway). If you get hard-core into content management, CMpros may be a good resource for you, but I didn't get much from it.

Somewhat-former technical editor here (in grad school in another field). If you learn DITA and single sourcing concepts, plus software like MadCap's Frame or PTC's ArborText, you will be prepared to work in an environment which is increasingly moving to content reuse; metadata, controlled vocabularies, and content management concepts in general are the next wave in technical communication. Ann Rockley's Managing Enterprise Content is a good place to start. A new technical communicator who doesn't have at least a glancing acquaintance with XML is at a serious disadvantage.
posted by catlet at 1:57 PM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all for your great overview of the Tech Writing field. I am going to start looking into the variety of concepts and acronyms to which you have introduced me. Maybe I can slog through it on my own or maybe one of the online certificate programs may be a better track to learn these concepts.

My library has Tech Writer's Survival Guide so I'll begin my reading there.
posted by iurodivii at 4:35 PM on April 13, 2010

« Older Um... hello... uh...   |   "Sign this and we'll tell you what it is later... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.