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Are Certificate Programs Helpful for Transitioning into Technical Writing? [Collaborative Post]

Jan 6, 2011 • beginners, general

Certificate programs for technical writingI get this kind of question regularly from people who find my blog. I never quite know what to say.

Dear Tom,

I stumbled upon your blog in search of information about becoming a technical writing.  I decided to shoot you a quick email in search of a bit of advice.  I have a M.A. degree in English and have been working in education (secondary through college level) for the last 10 years.  I've also created and edited a creative online literary site and adapted material from the site into a live show that has found success here in Los Angeles, where I currently live.  I'm looking to transition into a new career direction that would combine my expertise in writing with my experience in education.  Technical writing specifically for e-learning platforms seems like it might be a good option for me.

Based on your experience as a technical writer, do you think certificate programs in technical writing or instructional systems design would be wise for me to pursue???  Or, do they hold little value in the field?  I have no direct experience in technical writing, though I may have the opportunity to begin editing pieces for a friend of mine who creates corporate e-learning platforms in the new year.  Still, I worry I may have difficulty transitioning from the traditional education environment I've occupied for the last decade into the field without some kind of formal education.  However, I don't want to waste my money pursuing a certificate if it won't be regarded positively within the field.

-- Amy

Re certificates, any education is helpful, and if you have the time and money, go for it. However, sometimes in these academic programs, I hear things from teachers such as, "We teach the latest technologies here. For example, just this week we showed our students how to create drop-down menus in Dreamweaver." Or I hear students say, "We're learning how to create web pages in Word and upload them to a web site." Cringe...

If you're already a skillful writer, the challenge to transitioning into technical writing probably involves technical skills. No doubt the job listings require all kinds of technical know-how that you may not have. If this is the challenge, then a certificate program may not help you. I'm sorry. Academics are more focused on theory and concepts, techniques and methodologies -- not tools. To learn tools, get a subscription to Lynda.com for $25 and go through the courses.

Lynda.com is great for learning tools such as Illustrator, Captivate, Photoshop, and other Adobe products. For more tech-comm-based tools, such as Flare, Robohelp, or Framemaker, you'll have to look elsewhere. Work on learning a handful of tools and put together a portfolio showing your ability to use them. You could also find a mentor in your local STC chapter to guide you.

If you do plan to get a certificate, I think the STC's certificate courses, taught by professionals in the field, will probably prepare you well.

Do you have any advice for this reader? If so, please add it in the comments below.


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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.