My Writers

I teach technical communication at Seneca College here in Toronto. I am also the co-ordinator of the 1-year post graduate technical communication program, so I see these particular students for more than a full year. They are “mine”. 🙂

They often contact me before they apply to the program so that they can have questions answered. I administer a writing test and give them an orientation after they have applied, but before they have been accepted. I have taught 5 out of the 10 courses that they take during the program. I am the person they come to with all their problems — usually academic, but sometimes personal as well. I get to know them very well.

These students represent a range of ages and backgrounds. Many of them are career changers, some even in their 50s and 60s. Others are already working in some aspect of the profession but need to update their skills to become more competitive. And the third group that is typical of our applicants are younger people right out of university who need a valuable additional qualification to differentiate themselves from everyone else in the university graduating class.

Our program is very much hands-on practical writing, editing, content development, publishing and dealing with technology. Our grads are prepared to go into any company, organization or institution and be productive from day #1. They are industry-independent, a grad being as likely to go into Aerospace as Food Manufacturing or work for a non-profit organization.

In our profession they get to marry their love of technology with their love of writing and make something truly useful to others. User documentation, interface design, web content, policy writing, procedures, marketing, anything that has to communicate a message simply and clearly is our province. I tell them that if it has to do with information, communication, or technology, we should have a hand in it somewhere.

I suppose most teachers come to love their students or we wouldn’t be teachers. We get a kick out of seeing them grow and change, we like to see how they develop confidence and competence. But these particular students hold a special place in my heart. Many of them struggle greatly during the first semester. The older students may have been out of school for a very long time and now have to get back in the groove. Others are not as comfortable with computers as they need to be, and they struggle to acquire mastery of these very important tools of their trade.

It is not uncommon for a technical writer to be thrown a prototype of a new piece of software or hardware and asked to write the instructions for it, as well as contribute in all phases of its development. In the end, we find that we know more about this product than anyone else because we’ve seen it from all sides. Often, we are the only people in the company who know exactly how a product is supposed to work, and we get to see the big picture as well as all the details.

This can seem like a huge responsibility for students who are acquiring new skills and are uncertain about their futures.

I always ask them to keep in touch after they graduate. Many do. I have seen them marry, have children, move into management positions, become known in the industry for their excellence, and I have even hired a couple of them to come back and teach for us.

Some even further change their careers, using their learning experience in technical communication as an important stepping stone to something else that they want to do. Even the few who decide the program is not for them continue to let me know from time to time how they’re doing. They invariably say that the opportunity to confront what they really wanted to do occurred when they started the program.

I think you can tell how satisfying it is for me to meet and get to know these interesting people. It is truly my dream job, and one I never would have aspired to, thinking that I just wasn’t up to the challenge. But I guess the very circuitous pathway from where I started to where I am now was the route I needed to take. I am certainly glad I did!

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Ideal Second Career

Changes in the economy often mean unexpected layoffs and situations that prompt one to think of a career change. Technical communication is a profession that allows you to leverage your prior background and training into a new career.

No matter what industry you worked in, you can take those skills and reapply them in a new way, by becoming a technical writer, a usability specialist, a content provider, or an instructional designer.

Has the market for bakers shrunk? Consider the equipment used by professional bakers, and others in the food service industry. It all needs documentation. Manufacturers of food service and restaurant equipment need website content, interface advice, and even training materials.

With existing knowledge of any field, you can transition easily into a new career writing and developing information about that industry.

Technical communication relies on skills that involve plain language and procedural writing, researching, interviewing, audience analysis, and project management. Good communication skills are necessary, but do not have to be Governor General’s Award-winning calibre. It is sufficient to be able to write clearly, concisely, logically, and appropriately. It is more important to target information correctly for the audience than select a poetic turn of phrase.

The writing and facility with technology can be taught. Seneca’s 1-year program in Technical Communication teaches the basic skills, tools, and approaches needed by technical communicators. The certificate you receive upon graduation from the program indicates to employers that you have the processes, skills and understanding to communicate complex, technical information to a range of audiences, no matter what the industry.

In good times or in bad, communication is always required, and practitioners who know how to get a message across to the target audience are always valued.

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Building Bridges

Technical communicators are always building bridges — between technology and its users, between content and design, and between groups or individuals so that the flow of information can be smooth and easy. In that way, we are always making connections. We connect people with the information they need to solve a problem, perform a task or answer a question. We often connect people with other people, even though there may be another type of interface between them.

Continually standing in the gap, as it were, we see both sides of a situation. We are also very familiar with the chasm that can exist between information and understanding. If you’ve ever fallen into that chasm yourself — flailing helplessly because you don’t “get” whatever it is you’re supposed to be getting — you know how much of a relief it is to finally have that dawn of understanding when the lightbulb goes on and what you’ve been struggling with makes sense.

That’s a situation our students confront all the time. From their own uncertainties, they forge structures that help them get from the unknown to the known. Learning to build those bridges makes them very effective at creating similar structures for their readers and users. It is our empathy with our target audience that helps us correctly choose and shape the information we convey so that it does the job intended.

You don’t have to be an engineer to be a good technical communicator, but it helps to be able to think like one.

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Gadget Junkie Heaven

  • If you were the kid who took all her toys apart to see how they worked…
  • If you love to browse the tools, products, and gadgets in every Big Box store you see…
  • If your version of the ideal present is something that whirrs, clicks, or runs on electricity…
  • If you’re an inveterate tinkerer…

…You might be a Technical Communicator!

Many of us get into this profession because it gives us access to technology in many forms. We have the mandate, if not the divine right, to fiddle with new products or investigate technology we’ve never seen before.

FACTOID: HALF of the top 10 blogs are about gadgets and technology.

To be a good technical communicator, you must have an unending curiosity about how things work, but more than that, you care about how they work for people.

Knowing that technology is only as good as it is usable, meaning that it allows someone to accomplish their objectives with it, we explore and assess new gadgets to make sure they do what we need them to do. And then we write about it. We communicate what we’ve learned about the technology so that others can use it better.

And sometimes, we read instructions just for fun.

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