TECHNIQUES - Archives Nov. 99

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Getting Ahead of the Game
by Cory Pedersen

It is no secret that the field of technical communication is exploding. With the expansion of technology into every avenue of our daily lives, both at work and at home, the need for clear, concise, and accurate documentation is intensifying. A growing number of high schools and universities across the country are beginning to realize the importance of training students to effectively create and document technical information. As students of technical communication, what can you do to better prepare yourself for a field that seems to change every day?

First, keep in mind that technical communicators do a lot of different things, and a lot of them do not involve writing. Technical communicators plan documentation projects, interview people, edit the work of other writers, learn new things constantly, and oh yeah, I almost forgot, they also write occasionally.

Good, efficient technical communicators appear to possess three common characteristics:

Documentation quality can be greatly improved if the importance of getting detailed information from engineers, developers, and programmers is understood. But to do this, you need to know what questions to ask. While in school, you can improve your chances of finding work by familiarizing yourself with as many word processing and desktop publishing applications as possible. Unfortunately, some employers are narrow-minded and consider only those applicants who already have experience with a specific application. Students can improve their marketability by becoming familiar with page layout, graphics, presentation and help-authoring software packages.

Popular applications at this time include:

You do not need to be experts in these applications by any means, just being familiar with them will increase your market value. You can better learn these programs by doing things like writing course outlines, writing document style guides, and rewriting existing documents.

Look at bad documentation and then rewrite them using the techniques and methods that you learn in your classes. This kind of work is great for portfolios. However, do not neglect the importance of knowing your audience and understanding the scope of the document you are about to write before you write it.

In order to create effective technical communication, you must first have a grip on what it is that your audience wants and expects from you. Keep in mind that not all of your readers are going to have the same level of knowledge that you do. Just because you understand how something works doesn't mean that your audience will.

These are just a few suggestions to help better prepare you for the field of technical communication. By no means are they complete; there are countless other aspects to becoming good communicators. However, the ideas discussed here seem to be common to businesses today. Practice and learn them. Although doing things like rewriting documents may seem tedious and boring, you will find yourself becoming more in tune with how effective documents should look and sound.

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