The Courses Conundrum: What Do You Need to Be a Technical Communicator?
When making the transition to technical communication, the “Do I need to take some courses?” question always looms large. It's a question I like to answer, not just because I'm an academic, but because I'm excited when people want to enter the profession. Technical communication is a fantastic career choice and one with plenty of opportunities both right now and for the future.
Part of my job includes talking with prospective students about courses, degrees, and certificates. I want to help people make the best choices based on their career goals, ambitions, and aptitudes. When students and I initially talk, we usually touch on the following: Do I even need to take courses? What courses? A degree? A certificate? Do I need to learn software? How do I decide based on all the options out there?
There are so many choices in the courses marketplace it's almost overwhelming. However, I see the courses question as one everybody should ask before considering a career switch to technical communication. Courses vary in cost, content, scope, and time; they're an investment and you need to be sure they'll be the right investment for you. To help you make a decision, let's look at a few ideas.
Do I Really Need a Course or Courses?
Some people still say all you need is an aptitude for writing, a few samples, and modest proficiency with a couple of software packages. I respect the point of view, but I don't actually agree with it. Technical communication is a profession that's moving forward into specialties and sub-specialties that demand more knowledge on the part of its practitioners. To use an analogy: If you want to jump on a moving train, you're going to have to gather some speed first. No matter who you are, you'll probably need a course to help you gain the necessary career momentum.
Unfortunately, there's no one ϋber-course that can prepare you to enter the field of technical communication. It's a matter of assessing what you know, what you don't know, and then filling in the gaps with a course or courses that will make you marketable. Without some combination of educational background, relevant experience, and portfolio pieces, it's going to be difficult to land any jobs or contracts.
What Can a Textbook Tell Me?
Before you run for the latest offerings at the local college, my first suggestion is as follows: Go to Amazon and browse the textbooks used in undergraduate technical communication classes. As you're skimming the table of contents, grab a pen and do a gap analysis. What seems to be missing in your understanding of the basics? What's familiar to you? Make some notes for reflection and review—now's the time to create your personal inventory.
Pay attention to the idea that the textbooks aren't talking about technology, programming, or any areas of specialization. Instead, these books cover the core concepts underlying the products and practices of technical communicators. Understanding these basics is fundamental in defining yourself as a technical communicator and presenting yourself as a professional to others—including people who may hire you.
Look at textbooks such as Technical Communication by Mike Markel or Technical Communication: A Reader-Centered Approach by Paul V. Anderson. Better yet, buy a used version of either book so you can browse the chapters in detail. If you're serious about the entering the profession, it's a good idea to have one of the classics on the shelf.
Next, browse Career Builder, Monster, or the Technical Writer group on LinkedIn. What kinds of positions appeal to you? Do you know what a proposal writer does that's different from a user assistance developer? Are you looking at positions that specify a college degree or are you considering jobs that say a mix of education and experience would be fine? Your past education and experience, coupled with your aspirations as a technical communicator, plays a big part in the coursework decision.
What About Software?
Software, or what we'd call “tools,” is another area you should consider when it comes to courses. The question I ask people is “Do you know if you're good with new or unfamiliar technologies?” The other day I was talking with a woman who held a freshly minted bachelor's in English literature. She wanted to know if making the leap to technical communication would be relatively easy.
Without a doubt, the writing and grammar portion of the leap would be easy, but my question was “Are you good with learning new, sometimes complex software programs?” Using the word processor to produce double-spaced papers for college classes isn't going to prepare you for structured authoring or single-source publishing. It's a good idea to try a software course if you're unsure about your aptitude with technology.
Considering the Courses Marketplace
As I've said, there are seemingly endless choices when it comes to courses. However, here are a few options you can consider:
STC offers excellent courses to help situate someone new to the field. Those courses run over multiple weeks and introduce students to the basics like Technical Editing Fundamentals and Tech Comm 101. All the courses run online, which is perfect for working professionals. Additionally, the instructors for the courses are well known in the professional and academic worlds—you'd learn from the best.
Continuing education courses from colleges and universities are very applied and practical. Typically, continuing education divisions of colleges offer short, non-credit classes or certificates. Whether it's one night per week for three or four weeks or a one-day intensive offering, you'll learn the fundamentals. You'll leave this type of course with good exposure to the writing and tools requirements for practitioners and you'll have several pieces for a portfolio.
College credit courses, like an undergraduate certificate in technical communication, will introduce you to practices, tools, and theories. I realize “theory” is usually the sticking point for most people. Don't, however, discount theory as useless or something an employer would never care about. Theory answers the question “Why?” If your boss asks why you're doing something a particular way, theory is the framework for your answer. Theory, once you know it, also helps you make better choices in less time—that means efficiency. You'll leave an undergrad certificate with longer, more complex portfolio pieces. You'll also gain, more than likely, some exposure to creating graphics.
Graduate-level credit offerings take you into the realm of rhetorically complex artifacts, research, and theory. You'd still write in a grad course, but you'd be writing, for example, a long-form proposal directed at a major government agency. Your understanding and application of both rhetorical choices and theories would be the nuanced, but highly persuasive elements in the piece. You'd leave graduate courses with pieces that demonstrate your research competencies, critical thinking and analytical skills.
Take Stock and Make a List
As I said earlier, take some time to create your personal inventory. Make sure you've considered what you'd like to do and what you'd need to know before you start. Your personal inventory will go a long way to helping you decide what course or courses may be right for you as you begin your career as a technical communicator.
About Laura Palmer
Dr. Laura Palmer is an assistant professor in the English, Technical Communication, and Media Arts department. She teaches primarily in the M.Sc. in Information Design and Communication (IDC) program; she also teaches Technical Communication courses in the undergraduate program.
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.