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.

Be Graceful in Times of Rejection

Last month, my boss asked me to come in his office. He told me about my colleague, Jordan, and how her new promotion meant that she would no longer be a project manager for our extranet, JCCA. This wasn’t new news, but he went on to explain what being a project manager entailed. He listed several tasks and said something along the lines of, “Most of these tasks, you’ve already been doing.” He took out the sheet of paper listing my new responsibilities, should I choose to accept a promotion from Digital Marketing Associate to Digital Marketing Manager.

Yes, I did accept it. And yes, I’m very excited about it.

My promotion got me thinking about when I first went on the job market and started applying for jobs (two years ago this past October). I applied to countless companies all over the United States.

I had many interviews, eventually interviewing with JCC Association (where I currently work). My feeling was (and is) always to just get myself to the interview process so I can charm my potential future bosses and show them what I can do. A resume and even a portfolio doesn’t really do justice in showing who I am or my work ethic, at least not in the way that actually speaking with me can.

If anything, that belief is what makes rejection all the worse. When I take the time to sit down and be interviewed, and they take the time to sit down and interview me, I am fairly confident about my job prospects. But it doesn’t always work out.

The first job I was rejected for was a part-time administrator for one of the school’s at Michigan State University. I had gotten an interview, driven up to school during the summer months to meet with the woman in charge, and went back home thinking, “I’ve got this.” Two weeks later, I got an email that I hadn’t gotten the job. At the time, I was really disappointed. I didn’t know what to do or how to respond. I’m not even sure I sent a thank you.

As time went on, and as I interviewed more, I had to become comfortable with rejection. It’s just a part of life. Not everyone is a fit for every job, and not every job is the right fit for every prospect. I became comfortable with turning down jobs, but it took more time to become comfortable with being turned down. Plus, responses to rejection change depending on the scenario. These days, rejection comes mostly in the form of email, but it can change depending on the person who emailed you.

Scenario One: An email from the person who interviewed you.

Let’s assume you sent a follow up note after your interview to thank your interviewer. Upon receipt of a rejection, first comes first: follow their request. If they say not to follow up, don’t follow up. If they don’t say something of the sort, it’s always good to send one last thank you for their time. This will keep the bridge open in case you should want to apply to that company in the future. If you feel it’s appropriate, ask for feedback. They may not be willing to give it to you (there may be even be a company policy against it), but if the interview went well, there isn’t harm in asking. A great blog from Ask a Manager covers this topic well.

Scenario Two: An email from the HR representative.

An email return with thanks for their time and for the interviewers. Using your best judgement, if the interview went well and you have the contact information for the person you interviewed with, it’s ok to send a separate follow up thank you email letting them know that HR has contacted you. That follow up can be similarly formatted as in scenario one.

Scenario Three: No follow up from HR or from your interviewer.

This was surprisingly more common than I had expected. Of all the possible scenarios, this one feels the most stressful. In the age of getting instant satisfaction, the waiting is hard to sit through. Sometimes, the follow up never comes. One job I applied to and had two follow up interviews for, never accepted or rejected me. They just didn’t follow up at all. I sent an email to ask about the status of my application and of the hiring process to no avail. All you can do in this situation is follow up with an email or a call to see about the status. Beyond that, if they choose not to respond to you, then it’s time to move on.

Not every company will offer you the job, no matter how confident you are in your abilities or how well the interview went. Sometimes, it’s just not a right fit. However, if you’re graceful, who knows what opportunities may open up.

It’s ok to look like this behind your computer screen. No one needs to know.

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.