Tell me about Technical Writing Certificates!
November 1, 2011 8:56 PM   Subscribe

Should I get a technical writing certificate? If so, where should I go? What's the difference between the programs?

I've been out of the work force for six years, being a primary caregiver to my kids. For about three years prior to that, I was not particularly intensively employed, due to a crazy stressful dot-com career that left me prematurely burnt out. My husband and I have always known that I would go back to work someday, but his stable long-term decade-plus job at a big multinational corporation evaporated a year ago and he's been working at contract gigs ever since, and it's becoming increasingly obvious to me that "someday" is "actually pretty soon now."

But while I was off making people, the economy fell to bits. And, bonus! I don't have a college degree. My previous career was in software QA, but to be honest I wasn't exceptionally good at it; my favorite part was writing test specs and documentation, and I found the actual "testing" part kind of desperately dull. Focusing on the writing part seems like a much better fit for me, particularly since I actually have a handful of publishing credits, including some major technical magazine articles.

But. . . no degree. I keep looking at jobs to get an idea of what's out there, and they all ask for a BA in English or Communications OR a Technical Writing Certificate. But the requirements for a technical writing certificate seem to vary widely, from a 40-hour online course offered by a professional organization to a two-year classroom program offered by our local state university. They can't both be just as good, can they? Is there such a thing as overkill? Is this even something I should be pursuing?

Sigh. When I was entering the workforce the first time in 1997, people were falling all over themselves to offer you a job if you could turn on a computer and write a simple declarative sentence in your native language. I liked that economy better.
posted by KathrynT to Education (8 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not quite helping you with your specific question, but I'm in a similar situation and am in contact with many re-employment experts. Most have advised me that PMP or PMI (project management methodologies) certification would go loads further than technical writing alone.

You can get very specific help at your local WorkSource center - you can ask them this very question and experts in getting people back into the workforce will be able to give you targeted advice on which programs are working best for their clients (especially those supporting the Workforce Investment Act).

Good luck!
posted by batmonkey at 9:08 PM on November 1, 2011

You'll want to get to know these folks.
posted by 5Q7 at 9:50 PM on November 1, 2011

I would consider a bachelor's degree to be the barrier to entry for a technical writer. If you do not have a BA, you are at a disadvantage in the market. You need not major in English. I know technical writers with degrees in mathematics (that was me), computer science, earth sciences, ...

The only writers I knew with a certification were the ones who had their certification paid for by their employer. I am not sure that tech writing certification will make you more employable.

I quit tech writing after five years because it was boring, work is being outsourced, and salaries are lower than for project managers/program managers/business analysts. I am glad I did not pay for dedicated training in the area.

If you are considering going back to school for two years you might want to think through some of your other options. Is there any way you can train up on business intelligence/data warehousing/analytics/report writing? There are tons of those jobs and they're impossible to fill.
posted by crazycanuck at 9:53 PM on November 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I do technical writing, instructional design, and training. I've worked as an employee and a consultant, as a worker bee and as a manager. Crazycanuck is correct -- the barrier will be your lack of a degree. In all these years, I've only known two people who did this job without a degree and both were frightened and miserable because they were hiding their lack of degree and terrified that their secret would become known. Only one of the two is still working in this field.

There are a few schools of thought about tech writers. In one group, you have teams of writers managed by a writer. Usually with these groups, they are looking for someone with a degree and quite a few years of experience as a writer. Not a person who did a lot of writing but whose job was actually something else. Almost everyone will tell you that they've done some writing in their jobs, but that doesn't mean they've done the specific job and done it well.

In other groups, you have small writing teams or individual writers who are solely dedicated to a project. Usually with these companies, they are looking for someone who has extensive knowledge about a specific area (like software development) and a degree in that, and who has done a bit of any type of writing or shows aptitude for writing.

Neither group is really excited about certification, which itself is pretty controversial. Both would vastly prefer a degree and in today's job market they can find it. In either group, it's not uncommon to find people with Masters degrees and it's not uncommon for that to be a requirement that is only waived with the same number of years of experience.

I flipped over to your profile, hoping to see that you were in an area of the US where maybe this wasn't true. If your profile location is current -- your city is absolutely saturated with both types of writers due to its main/well-known employer. This is especially true with a bad job market, because companies will forego documentation to save money, or ask anyone from the developer to the administrative assistant to do the writing. Or outsource, as crazycanuck mentions.

Below are some other ideas about what you can do (with or without a certificate) to improve your chances.

The STC chapter for your area is the Puget Sound one. In my area, you can attend meetings without being a member by paying something like $10. You can contact someone from the linked page and ask them about the meeting dates/times. Go to a few meetings and ask around about employment prospects for someone in your situation.

Other sources for finding out about how certification is viewed in your area, and for general information, are techwr-l and WinWriters.

Whether or not you get a certificate, you're going to need some basic tools in your toolbox. Learn the software you'll use. At a minimum, you will need to know software for creating printed material (Word and FrameMaker, with others optional), software for creating online help systems (RoboHelp or MadCap Flare), and software for HTML and XML. It would also be wise to know at least one graphics package (Photoshop), possibly DITA, and software for creating videos (Captivate or Camtasia). Most companies offer trial versions of their software for free, so use that to learn.

You'll also need to read a style guide. Really, read it even though it's reference material, because you can learn a lot and it has the writing rules you'll follow in your job. Large companies have their own style guides, but they supplement one of the other main ones. The main one is the Microsoft Manual of Style. Microsoft Press is about to release a new version -- version 4 -- which is much needed and overdue. Go ahead and buy a copy because you'll need it. In the meantime, you can read version 3 for free.

You'll also need a portfolio that shows writing ability and ability to use at least two of the main software tools. Smarten up what you wrote previously and use it. Also try to create a few other pieces that show ability in a different way (using different software to create a different deliverable, or different types of writing -- maybe one document that is mostly procedures with another document that is mostly conceptual). There are some ideas in this previous AskMe, if you need some prompts. You will show your portfolio during interviews. It's not something that you send off with your resume.

Without knowing what kind of software you worked with in QA, I'd say with or without a certificate your best shot is with a company that makes similar software. Focus your resume on your subject-matter knowledge of the software's customers, your knowledge of the tools used to create the software, and the writing you have done. For a completely made-up example, if you did QA on a warehouse management system sold to grocery store chains that was written in C++, then you would look for companies that make competing products, and focus on your knowledge of grocery stores and warehousing needs, C++, and the writing. That would allow you to compete against someone with experience and a degree, but no knowledge of grocery warehousing or C++.
posted by Houstonian at 2:45 AM on November 2, 2011 [9 favorites]

This is all kind of depressing but truthfully very helpful information. My previous QA experience was at our local Well Known Employer -- I worked in DirectX, in IE, in NT/COM, and in Host Integration Server. I was a contractor and just hopped around a lot, as they did. Then I went to a doomed dot-com that made website management software, but it was horrifically run, and I was laid off in the fourth round of layoffs in 2001. Then I worked for three years as a field tech for Dell doing onsite and in-home desktop and laptop repair, and then I worked for a year and a half doing wireless network installation and support, and then in 2006 I got pregnant and was promptly so ill I had to quit my job. And, well, that's where I stand. The last time I had full-time W-2 QA employment was a decade ago.
posted by KathrynT at 8:04 AM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Check out the Digital Eve Seattle mailing list. They might be able to give you good info.
posted by spinifex23 at 8:45 AM on November 2, 2011

I'm a tech writer and used to hire them. Houstonian speaks the truth, although I'd argue that familiarity with DITA is pretty important; everybody's still using the old tools (Word, Frame, etc.) but trying to migrate to the new (AuthorIT, Flare, etc.).

If you want to do tech writing for software, volunteering to document open source software is a great way to build up your portfolio. It shows you're tech-y enough and expands the list of programs and OSes you're familiar with.
posted by neushoorn at 11:04 AM on November 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

Oh, also, consider getting your name out there: make a Twitter account and tweet interesting articles about tech writing, editing, publishing, etc., and hang out at Technical Writing World.
posted by neushoorn at 11:08 AM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

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