Giving Technical Writing a Reality Check

As you all (read: avid readers of this blog) know by now, us VALCANA ladies pursued Professional Writing (#msupw) for our bachelor’s of arts degree. Without spending this entire blog post worshiping the people, things, and stuffed animals associated with this program, here’s what you need to know:

  • Professional Writing is amazing.
  • Professional Writing will prepare you for a career in technical writing, among other writing professions.
  • If you want to call yourself a writer, you should study Professional Writing at MSU.

–End unpaid endorsement–

It’s the second aforementioned bullet point that really got me thinking, especially as I’m deep in the job hunting trenches at the moment: What exactly is technical writing?

When I go into job interviews or apply for “Technical Writing” positions online what is the potential employer really expecting of my skill-set? With a couple of years of experience under my belt I can confidently say it’s not what I thought when I was studying technical writing. It’s time that I gave my definition of technical writing a reality check.

To understand what an employer’s view of technical writing is today, I needed to understand who the first technical writers they hired were. Growing out of a necessity for clear and understandable documentation to accompany machinery at the turn of the 20th century, employers hired engineers (today known as subject matter experts) who could write better than their peers or copywriters who could liaison well with these engineers. Thus, the stereotype of technical writers as engineers who are the outcasts amongst their colleagues working in corporate office buildings for software companies a la Office Space was born. Despite efforts on behalf of the Society of Technical Communication (Unpaid Endorsement #2: You should join if you’re interested in technical writing because these people are super cool), some of those who are not technical writers still have this perspective.

As a student preparing to enter the workforce, I instead thought of technical writing in terms of its foundational approach that allows someone to be a technical writer regardless of their C++ knowledge.

Technical writing identifies the audience (or user) and designs documentation around their needs.

Sample Infographic

Making infographics can be part of a technical writer’s job.

Expected more? Well, everything else comes from that key concept. Reduction in jargon? Yup, if your end-user requires it (most likely they always will). Appropriate graphical document design? Yup, your documentation better be if you want to make reading and understanding the easiest for your user. Proven and tested? Double yup, because before you bring anything to market you want to make sure it’s effective and when people are your users you’re talking usability.

This is a fantastic way to approach technical writing, but it does have its drawbacks. While this may be how technical writers view their own field, it’s not necessarily how the engineers, human resource representatives, marketing communications teams and CEOs view technical writers. Through my experience they typically define technical writing as:

(Best described in a disengaged adolescent voice) The act of writing user manuals, instructional documents and all of that complicated or boring stuff our MarComms team won’t do, duh.

While not representative of all companies, many of the companies I’ve pursued want subject matter experts (SMEs) instead of writers. Many of the job descriptions circulating out there put greater emphasis on having previous experience with the company’s industry rather than having a true understanding of your audience and communicating appropriately with them. These are the same jobs that require English or Journalism as degrees, but I can say with confidence I’ve lost out on them to those with degrees in Mechanical Engineering.

While every employer is different and every business unit within large companies can be different, this hiring practice is so much more common than I expected two years ago when I entered the job market.

So I may have a different view than the employer, but I still want to get a job! What do I do?

Taking some valuable advice from Chelsea’s post on why she loves her job: it all comes down to people. If the employer does not value your perspective as a technical writer, you’re wasting your time with them. Focus on applying with the companies that want you for you! Below are a few things I’ve had to change when it comes to my job search:

I become picky.

If the job description requires a lot of experience with specific languages or technologies, I don’t apply because I can tell they want an SME, not a technical writer no matter how the job title may read.

I re-brand myself.

I’m not just a technical writer, I’m a communicator who approaches tasks from a technical writer’s perspective. I can create a brochure for an event just as well as I can produce a user manual for a new software program.

I don’t let HR rule my career.

This is something that doesn’t always have a positive outcome and is more something I do in theory. HR doesn’t understand me as a professional and they may never understand me as a professional because I’m a new kind of employee. I don’t fit a 20th century cookie-cutter career. It may mean they don’t hire me, but I feel that if I can meet with the team I’ll be working with daily and we see how we can best work with and learn from each other, then it will be the right hire for both parties.

I structure my language for the job.

Ok, so I do let HR “gently guide me.” Most likely we’ll be referring to the same thing but HR will categorize it as something different (i.e. Develop standard product lines = Make templates that are user-friendly and standardized).

So, there you go technical writing, you have officially been checked.

Ashley HaglundAshley works in corporate, health care and non-profit communications. She loves starting new writing projects; is a media junkie; enjoys studying science, technology and patent law issues; and has a love/hate relationship with semi-colons. To see her face and be her internet friend, follow her on twitter.
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When Doubt Rears Its Ugly Head

At my last review, I told my boss, “I want to build more things.” My official title is Digital Marketing Associate, but that really means web developer, Facebook ad wrangler, social media marketer, part time graphic designer, etc etc. Working for a non-profit means picking up hats wherever I’m needed.

After a year, I was finally given the chance to build something again. I was tasked with creating a new website for our camps department, based on a single-page home scrolling design plus individual camp profiles. At face value, it sounded easy enough. I’ve already built a single page website for my friend’s documentary, Sanskriti. I’ve built custom post types before (which is a fancy way of saying special WordPress blog posts with meta information), and I’ve arranged that data in many different ways. The big, hairy task that loomed over me was “How can we make those camps searchable?”

The Process

Why is the search necessary? Well let’s say you’re a parent and you have two children, Miriam and Jonah (I work for JCC Association, I couldn’t name them Mary and John). For sake of ease, you want to send them to camp together, which means you need lots of options. You want to know if you can send them to camp in your state or close by, what length of session options are possible (in case Miriam wants to go all summer and Jonah wants to go for just two weeks), what specialty activities are required (must haves: horseback riding and a pool), and if there’s financial aid. That’s a lot of different factors to go in to your search. A huge list of camps would be overwhelming and probably lead you to Google until your fingers go numb. Instead, on our camps website, you’ll be able to filter it down by all of those factors (and more) to find the right fit.

Although I had never built such a thing before, my response to this request was, “Of course I can do that.” That’s what Google is for, right? Plus, I have friends who work in this area of expertise. I knew there were people to whom I could send out the SOS, if necessary.

This ended up being a lot bigger and scarier than I could have imagined. I read until my eyes sagged and my brain could no longer absorb information. I built a search bar that didn’t work. I re-structured the entire custom post type three times, to make different parts of the information gathering process and display of that information actually function. Over the course of three weeks, I was close to a mental breakdown. That’s when the cloud of doom seemed to take over my thoughts. Who was I to think I could build such a thing?

I started to doubt not only my abilities, but my career path. How could I be a developer if I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t make the search work? Will anyone ever hire me again? I should just go to grad school now or leave this work field and follow my dream of being a cabaret singer. Sure, I’d be poor and sure, that isn’t the career path that I got a college education for, but wouldn’t it be better? Could I be happier? The amount of times I sat at my desk, staring at the screen and clutching my tightening chest, is uncountable.

Giving up on this task was not an option, plain and simple. If I couldn’t do it, it would go to our IT department (which means it wouldn’t be a priority) and who know what would have happened to me. I had to figure out a way to make it work.

I dropped the idea of making the search bar that we had initially designed and decided to go with a filter system. For the fourth time, I started from scratch. I’ve read countless tutorials about how to make a filter happen. I built one that was semi-successful and became close to tears. Maybe I could do it. Maybe everything would be ok. Finally, I found a tutorial from Zoe Rooney about how to create filters with Filtrify for WordPress. I would like to write a love letter to Zoe, declaring my undying devotion.

I rebuilt everything one last time, integrating the special Filtrify formula. And it works. Sure, there are still a few kinks, but there are actually drop down menus that allow users to pick and choose the most important parts of their camp search.

What I Learned

At the end of the day, the task was completed. I know I had to go through that learning period, and I know when the time comes, I could take what I learned and do it again. I do wish I hadn’t been so hard on myself. I spent so many evenings glued to my computer screen and so many nights tossing and turning. I kept telling myself that I would fail.

The moment I switched my perspective, when I said, “This is it. You have to do this,” is the moment I could finally start to achieve my goal. Negative thoughts are so destructive and can make you feel so powerless in every aspect of your life.

Believing in yourself is more than half the battle.

Alexandra WhiteAlexandra is a WordPress & front-end developer who builds awesome things. She loves craft beer, apple cider cookies, and traveling to new places (especially when the trip is free). You should follow her on twitter and maybe you can become internet friends. Or maybe even IRL friends.