Technical Writers: Why STC Membership is Worth It

The Society of Technical Communication has been working with the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), since 2007 to update its definition of the technical communications profession. At long last, The Occupational Outlook and Handbook (OOH), published by the US Department of Labor’s BLS Web site in December 2009, has an individual report on technical writers. Through this classification, STC membership has provided the entire technical communications discipline a great service.

Though the Department of Labor turned down the Society’s request for a new classification, as “technical communication specialist,” the entry in the OOH states that technical writers are also known as “technical communicators.”

Many of the technical writer’s key qualifications and responsibilities (see below), including the technical writer’s communication skills and user focus, transfer especially well to a Web 2.0 world.

The Department of Labor’s forecast that technical writing job prospects are good, particularly for those with Web or multimedia experience, complements an emerging trend, known in content development circles as (note: link to pdf document follows) social technical communication, or convergence technical communication.

Significant Points about Technical Writers

Here are the significant points from the US Department of Labor’s description of technical writers:

  • Most jobs in this occupation require a college degree—preferably in communications, journalism, or English—but a degree in a technical subject may be useful.
  • Job prospects for most technical writing jobs are expected to be good, particularly for those with Web or multimedia experience.
  • Excellent communications skills, curiosity, and attention to detail are highly desired traits.

Excerpt about the Nature of Technical Writing Work

Here is an excerpt about the nature of technical writing work:

Technical writers, also called technical communicators, put technical information into easily understandable language. They work primarily in information-technology-related industries, coordinating the development and dissemination of technical content for a variety of users;
however, a growing number of technical communicators are using technical content to resolve
business communications problems in a diversifying number of industries. Included in their products are operating instructions, how-to manuals, assembly instructions, and other documentation needed for online help and by technical support staff, consumers, and other users within the company or industry. Technical writers also develop documentation for computer programs and set up communications systems with consumers to assess customer satisfaction and quality control matters. In addition, they commonly work in engineering, scientific, healthcare, and other areas in which highly specialized material needs to be explained to a diverse audience, often of laypersons.

Technical writers often work with engineers, scientists, computer specialists, and software developers to manage the flow of information among project workgroups during development and testing. They also may work with product liability specialists and customer service or call center managers to improve the quality of product support and end-user assistance. Technical writers also oversee the preparation of illustrations, photographs, diagrams, and charts. Technical writers increasingly are using a variety of multimedia formats to convey information in such a way that complex concepts can be understood easily by users of the information.

Applying their knowledge of the user of the product, technical writers may serve as part of a team conducting usability studies to help improve the design of a product that is in the prototype stage. Technical writers may conduct research on their topics through personal observation, library and Internet research, and discussions with technical specialists. They also are expected to demonstrate their understanding of the subject matter and establish their credibility with their colleagues.

Kudos to the The Society of Technical Communication for its work to gain official recognition for the technical writer’s diverse and timely skill set.

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Blogging: A New Role for Technical Communicators

Attention Technical Writers: Through Summit at a Click, The Society for Technical Communication is making the content—both the audio and visuals—of more than 90 sessions, available from the 2009 Summit in Atlanta. (Only progressions, keynote, and workshop sessions were excluded.)

Note: According to the STC site, “If you paid the conference registration fee, SUMMIT@aClick was included. STC Members who did not attend the Summit may purchase SUMMIT@aClick at an introductory price of $595. Nonmembers may purchase it for $895.”

Of special relevance here is Tom Johnson’s session, Blogging: A New Role for Technical Communicators, which the STC has made available for free to demonstrate SUMMIT@aClick.

In his session, Johnson, the well-known blogger at I’d Rather Be Writing: A Blog about the Latest Trends in Technical Communication, makes the following case for technical communicators, as natural corporate bloggers:

  • Technical communicators often possess literary and creative writing skills, in addition to traditional technical communication skills. Most technical communicators are writing specialists.
  • Typically, technical communicators focus on information, not hype. Information is what many searchers are looking for on the social web.
  • Technical communicators have direct access to projects, including project managers, product managers, and technical subject matter experts.
  • Technical communicators are well-accustomed to working reporter-style, already gathering and synthesizing information, as part of their day-to-day jobs.
  • Through indexing documentation deliverables and their attention to consistent terminology, technical communicators are used to paying attention to keywords, and are able to come up to speed quickly on SEO basics.
  • Again, natural writers at heart, many technical communicators would be easily incentivized to blog and to diversify their writing deliverables.

Reporting on the results of an informal survey on Twitter, Johnson noted that the #1 perceived value of blogging is increased visibility for your brand, whether that brand is corporate or personal. From there, he provides a nice overview of basic search engine optimization techniques, including using the keywords people are searching for in the first few words of your title and first paragraph. Johnson further explains the importance of backlinks, and how Google trusts other people’s opinions of your site, more than your site’s own content.

For me, Johnson’s tips on using your own personal voice and transparency to tell the story of your brand were particularly helpful…”It’s the story that makes blogging appealing,” Johnson explains, citing as an example, a technical writing blog, where the author shares professional wisdom, via a series of stories drawn from his own career.

Like Johnson, I agree that technical communicators are ideally positioned on cross functional teams to be highly effective bloggers, especially given their strong writing abilities, access to information, and reporter-like ability to synthesize content from a variety of sources. Where I believe technical communicators can learn a great deal from their more customer-facing and management colleagues, is from the relationship-building, and yes, business strategy, that we sometimes lose sight of, in the pure pursuit of information.

In my opinion, the blogger who can bring all those ingredients together—information, relationship-building, and strategy—within the framework of a story that represents what your brand is all about, in an engaging way—that’s who should be blogging for your company, no matter what the discipline. In all likelihood, “that person” is probably a combination of a few people in your company, who could work together collaboratively in a group blog format, which to me seems the most sustainable format, in a corporate setting.

Related Links: Technical Writing Blogs

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