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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:
- Organized-Many projects
demand taking an overwhelming amount of information and organizing it, then
determining what to throw and what to use. Other projects involve searching
for information, then organizing and presenting it.
- Informative-Writers must
remember they are translators between those with the information and those
who need the information. The needs of the audience must remain paramount.
- Good people skills-In
many companies, teamwork rates as high as job skills. Group work while in
school can help tune your people skills, so don't take it lightly.
- Interviewing skills-
Up and coming writers need to be able to effectively extract information from
subject matter experts.
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
- Corel suite
- Microsoft Power Point.
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
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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User Friendly Websites
by Mary Donnelly
A user-friendly Website is one that visitors can easily
access. It is very important for users to be able to easily access and navigate
a site. Usability measures the quality of the experience the user has while
interacting with a piece of documentation. When testing a Website for usability,
one vital question must be raised: Can people use the site effectively? There
are many characteristics of user-friendly Websites. A few are listed below:
Typography is one of the most important ingredients for
a user-friendly Website. The size and style of the font should be easy to read.
Pay special attention to line lengths to ensure that they do not get too long.
If a line is too long, the document will be hard to read which will make it very
easy for readers to skip over information. Fonts placed in italics should be
avoided because again, this style is very difficult to read. There are many
effective and appropriate font styles already set up by default on most
computers. Several would work nicely when creating a site.
The format and layout of a Website should be simple. Use
upper and lower case letters, avoid blinking and underlined text, and avoid
words that are in all capital letters. Nothing will turn readers off more than
text that is placed strictly in capital letters, words that are in all caps
symbolize yelling on the online medium. How many users are going to want to
explore a site that is yelling at them? Finally, maintain a consistent look and
feel throughout every link or page in the document. Consistency is very
important when designing a page. If the same colors, fonts and styles are used
throughout the page, the designer's credibility will rank high.
Graphics play a vital role in emphasizing Websites. They
are fun to look at and give readers a break from reading text. However, it is
important to not overuse graphics. Be aware of the time that it takes for
graphics to load. A rule of thumb is graphics should take less than 10 seconds
to load. If they take longer, it is certain that people will lose interest and
move on to another site. Keep the number of graphics to a minimum. It cannot be
said enough that the more graphics a page has, the longer it takes for the page
to load. Use graphics that are relevant to the theme of the Website and help
emphasize the main points.
As with graphics and fonts on Websites, color must also
be pleasing to view. It is very important not to splatter Websites with color.
Use color sparingly and accordingly. Not all users have high-end monitors that
support every color combination. Keep this in mind and use basic colors that
convert from machine to machine. There are endless color combinations that can
be used. Do some research and user-testing to find out which colors work best
Search engines are a great way to ensure usability. They
dramatically cut down the time it takes users to find information. Visitors will
not be forced to search the site blindly because the engine allows them to type
in what they are searching and displays the results or takes them directly to
the information. Websites should be easy to use. The most successful Websites on
the Internet ingeniously combine typography, graphics, color, and search
Research and testing is also a key to success. Spend
some time analyzing users to find out what they need to know and then put energy
into designing the best possible way to deliver that information to them.
For more information on Website design issues, check
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Keeping with the Times in
The technical communication field
is constantly changing. Each year new discoveries are made that impact the way
technical communicators perform their jobs. College students majoring in technical
communication learn the current trends in the field and what skills employers
expect. As technical communicators, it is imperative to keep current on the
changes in technical communication in order to produce the most effective and
highest quality documentation possible.
There are many ways technical communicators
can stay current on the changes in the technical communication field. A few
are listed below:
- Publications Subscribe to various
- Numerous magazines, journals,
and newsletters are written especially for technical communicators.
- Technical communicators write
articles for publications, which focus on research findings and observations
that directly impact the technical communication field.
Although it is not required to subscribe
to all technical communication publications, it is recommended to subscribe
to at least one journal and one magazine. Journals typically feature longer
articles about findings while magazines contain shorter articles about special
interests; both provide a wealth of information that technical communicators
will find useful.
Get online. The Internet has become
the number one source for information including resources about technical communication.
Although it may take some time to find the most useful technical communication
sites, it is well worth the time. Once the most useful sites are found, bookmark
them, and visit them frequently as the information contained within them is
Listservs provide an interactive
way for technical communicators to review and analyze new ideas, discuss old
trends and argue about current practices. Subscribers to the listserv do not
have to be active in submitting questions or making statements as most subscribers
prefer to read the comments posted by other subscribers. Listservs keep people
current about topics and ideas that are presently being considered; however,
do not expect to find definite answers for many of the people actively involved
in listservs rarely agree on anything.
Become a member of a professional
technical communication organization such as the Society
for Technical Communication (STC). STC provides members with current information
and trends in technical communication. It does this by holdingmeetings at local
and regional levels and annual national conferences. The organization also provides
its members with a monthly magazine and a quarterly journal that contain information
for technical communicators and special interest groups.
For more information about STC or
becoming a member, visit www.stc.org.
Enroll in courses at local community
centers, community colleges, and universities. Although these establishments
may not offer courses directly related to the study of technical communication,
many of them offer courses in computer software, visual design, graphic layout,
and practical grammar. If any of these establishments offer courses in technical
communication, take a one and learn about the new trends and styles that are
being taught and discuss why the old styles are no longer practiced.
Taking additional courses provides
an opportunity to improve writing skills while using the latest computer technology.
Technical communication is an emerging field that is constantly changing. With
all the changes in styles and trends, it is important to be informed and to
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What is Technical
by Kiley Amundson
Technical communication connects
the creator and the user of technology. Technical communication relies on understanding
the components of a document and translating those parts in a clear and concise
way. The following are some aspects of what is involved in the field of technical
Technical communicators are responsible
for document design. Document design uses desktop publishing programs to give
attention to textual design along with graphical elements. Many of the textual
aspects such as spacing, headings, and tabs are taken for granted in documents.
Users assume that the standard layout of a document is already in the best or
most efficient format possible. However, by changing a block of lengthy text
to a simplified list, the same information is suddenly more understandable and
easier to read. It is important for the technical communicator to analyze these
elements and decide which are beneficial to the overall document to be helpful
for the intended users.
Graphics and Visuals
Graphic illustrations such as charts,
graphs, and tables are important elements of technical communication. They give
documents the ability to visually display data figures and messages to a particular
audience. There are a variety of purposes for using graphics in technical documents:
They enhance reader comprehension, serve as a quick reference, and add appeal
When technical communicators conduct
research to write documents, they must consider many elements. One of the most
important is language and term definition. Since language differs from culture
to culture, it is important to define any words that do not translate. Technical
communicators must define all terms that may be unfamiliar to users. As technology
advances, so does the field of technical communication. However, document design,
graphics and visuals, and defining terms will remain the responsibility of the
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by Susan Beelman
Looking for your first job is not
easy. You can help yourself by researching companies one or two years before
graduating. Graduates often ask, "Where do I begin my search?" and "What kind
of information do I look for when researching a business?"
Focus on researching:
- company history
- financial worth
- location, policies
- treatment of employees
- employee satisfaction.
The best places to look for answers
are the following:
- college career development center
- college and public libraries
- the company itself
College career development centers
carry pamphlets with general company information such as:
- company subsidiaries
- departments within a company
- possibly a company mission statement
The Internet can also be used to
find and apply for jobs. Company Websites often contain job openings, benefits,
location, job requirements, and a brief company history. University and public
libraries can provide a wealth of information. Magazines and newspapers can
be searched for up-to-date company information such as:
- company reputation
- how they treat their employees
- new products
- statistics on the best companies
to work for and why
Information on financial worth and
company policies can be difficult to find especially when the company is not
publicly known. The following resources contain this information:
- The Minnesota Business Directory
- Corporate Report Fact Book 1999
Edition Researching a company is a good way to know whether or not the company
would be a good fit.
The suggestions listed here should
put you on the right track.
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Letter from the Editor
by Cory Pedersen and Brandi
Welcome to another year of Techniques.
This year we are proud to welcome several new faces to the Techniques staff.
Michelle Maack-Friederichs will be taking over for Dr. Kathy Hurley as the Techniques
Faculty Advisor. Dr. Hurley is on sabbatical this year.
Other additions include Kiley Amundson
and Mary Donnelly. Kiley and Mary will be taking on the roles of Techniques
online editors and will be responsible for maintaining the Techniques Website.
We will keep you posted on the status of our site and release the web address
in an upcoming issue. Susan Beelman will be the layout editor this year. She
will be designing every issue of Techniques. Philip Dickey will be joining the
staff as copyeditor. Philip is in his third year of the technical communication
program at Minnesota State University and will provide a lot of talent and enthusiasm
to the staff.
Everyone on this year's staff is
looking forward to continuing the tradition of bringing our audience up-to-date
on technical communication issues and trends; however, we need your help. This
year, we would like to see Techniques become more of a reader-driven newsletter.
If you have any suggestions or topics that you would like to see covered in
future issues, please feel free to e-mail either one of the editors-in-chief.
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by Mary Donnelly and Kiley Amundson
Microsoft recently released its newest
Website authoring tool: FrontPage 2000. The software package combines usability
with innovated tools, which allows it to be easily used with other Microsoft
FrontPage2000 contains new and improved
features to make Webpage design easier. These features include 60 different
design themes that can be altered to the user's needs. Movement and interest
is easily brought to the page through animation effects that are provided by
dynamic hypertext markup language (DHTML). The color selector allows users to
customize themes by applying pre-set color schemes or by choosing coordinated
colors from a color wheel.
FrontPage also allows users to work
with existing Web pages and will not modify the existing code. One feature that
FrontPage has for users who are learning HTML is tool tips that reveal a complete
tag description when the mouse is hovering over a tag.
Websites can be easily managed with
the following views:
Various pre-built summary reports
such as broken hyperlinks, slow pages, and unlinked pages help troubleshoot
any problems. The software allows users to select browsers that their Webpage
will work best with. It also restricts features that will not work with selections.
For more information on FrontPage
2000 visit Microsoft's Website at http://www.microsoft.com.
by Sue Beelman
This site will help those who wish
to start researching prospective companies. The site focuses on providing information
about numerous companies around the nation. It also provides insight to entrepreneurship,
foreign trade, investments and patents.
There are links that give free access to annual reports filed with the Securities
and Exchange Commission from 1994 to present.
Monster.com is a site that will help
anyone searching for a job, researching a company or looking for a place to
store a resume online. It also has a chat room with scheduled times and topics
for those with employment related issues. Monster.com is also helpful for employers
who want to post jobs complete with a description and location.
PALS is a part of the southern regional
library system. Search PALS will lead to business indexes and company profiles.
Through business indexes you can search for specific business magazines and
newspaper articles, whereas company profiles will give descriptions of particular
Communication Situations and Strategies
by Brandi Mason
Technical communication is evolving
into more than communicating technical concepts to a non-technical audience:
It now incorporates page design, visuals, and Webpage development. With new
responsibilities, technical communicators are faced with new situations that
require new strategies.
Mike Markel's book, Technical
Communication: Situations and Strategies, discusses a technical communicator's
primary responsibilities as analyzing audience; conducting research, both primary
and secondary; and writing the document. In addition to discussing the basics
of technical communication, Markel also discusses the new responsibilities technical
communicators must be prepared to perform. These include using electronic tools
such as computers, creating Web pages, and choosing effective graphics.
All of these topics require a separate
book to fully develop the concepts behind them, but this book introduces a variety
of topics that technical communicators must master to be effective. The book
provides novice technical communicators with basic definitions used in the field
along with ethical concerns to consider. It also provides experienced technical
communicators with new concepts and ideas in the field that are being explored.
Technical Communication: Situations and Strategies also includes appendices
that could be used as a reference handbook for current or future technical communicators.
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1999 International Competition Winners Announced!
The winners of the 1999 STC international art, publications, video, and online
communication competitions have been posted on the Society Website. From the
homepage at www.stc-va.org, select "Professional
Development" from the sidebar. Then select "Competitions," and finally "Competition
Winners for 1998-99."
New Student Chapter Joins STC!
The STC board of directors has approved the formation of the University of
Wisconsin-Eau Claire (WEC) student chapter. WEC is a member of STC's region
6, and currently has 11 members. The student chapter advisor is Dennis G. Jerz.
STC Membership at a Glance
Numbers as of August 31, 1999:
Total Members: 21,733
Members residing in the U.S.: 19,078
Members residing in Canada: 1,793
Members residing elsewhere: 862
Total Chapters: 144 *
*Includes 30 student chapters
**Information for Announcements was provided by the September 1999 issue of
Tieline, the STC leaders' newsletter: Volume XII, No. 7.
Notes from Region 6 Director/Sponsor Susan Jensen...
The competitions for 1999-2000 have begun! Listed below are the different competitions
that will be judged for this year. Competition rules and criteria are listed
on the STC Website:
1. Frank R. Smith Outstanding Journal Article Award
2. International Online Communication, Technical Art and Technical Publications
3. International Science and Engineering Fair Technical Communication Competition
4. International Student Technical Writing Competition
5. International Technical Video Competition
6. STC Newsletter Competition
7. STC Public Relations Competition
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Meet the Staff
Michelle Maack-Friederichs teaches
technical communication courses at Minnesota State University, Mankato and is
the current Techniques faculty advisor.
Her professional and academic background
includes writing, teaching, and administration. Ms. Friederichs' technical communication
background includes writing policies and procedures, institutional self-studies,
training materials, brochures, and newsletters and presenting at corporate and
Her teaching experience includes
undergraduate and graduate courses in technical communication, research methods,
technology in curriculum, multicultural issues, desktop publishing, and English
composition. Ms. Friederichs holds an MA in English with a concentration in
technical communication from MSU and a BA in English from the College of St.
Benedict. She is finishing her Ed.D. in Educational Leadership. She is a former
dean of instructional programs and has taught at St. Mary's School of Graduate
Studies, Concordia University of St. Paul, and at Rasmussen College.
She enjoys teaching at MSU and looks
forward to meeting and interacting with students. For leisure, Ms. Friederichs
enjoys hiking, running, and researching.
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