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Are You Experienced? The Aspiring Technical Writer & the Tools of the Trade
2016, Q1 (January 12, 2016)
By Ryan Seymour, NCSU Student

Anyone looking to break into technical writing may find themselves caught in the paradox of being unable to get experience without a job or get a job without experience. Sure, you can string a sentence together, but that isn’t always enough. Can you tell XML from HTML or CSS from CMS or CCMS? How does an aspiring technical writer learn to use the tools of the trade?

I found myself in this predicament almost a year ago and knew I needed to do something to put more tools in my tool belt. I initially planned to work towards a professional writing certificate at NCSU but ultimately decided to pursue their MS in Technical Communication degree after discussing both programs with an NCSU professor.

I had not been in a classroom for over five years and had never taken a master’s level course, so I decided to enroll in one class the following semester to test the waters before officially applying to the program. Thankfully, NCSU’s program is designed to accommodate the working professional; the program’s core classes are all offered at night. It was recommended I begin by taking Advanced Technical Writing and Editing. It served as a great introduction to the program and has proved to be a strong foundation on which I can continue to build my technical writing skills.

The class introduced me to a wide range of communication mediums. The following projects were covered throughout the course:
  • Photography: manipulate original images using Adobe Photoshop.
  • Podcast: script, record, and edit a podcast introduction using on a topic of your choosing, using Audacity (free online audio editor).
  • Instructional Video: storyboard, record, script, narrate, and edit a video detailing the steps of any task using a video editor of your choosing.
  • WordPress Website: format, author content, and develop graphics using Adobe Fireworks and Photoshop for a WordPress CMS site on a topic of your choosing.
  • Technical Editing: edit and format an instruction manual.
  • Website (Final Project): draft a proposal for and create a substantial website using HTML and CSS in Adobe Dreamweaver following W3C accessibility standards.

As you can see, this course provides students with quite a bit of experience using different tools. Some projects, particularly the website, were intimidating at first. However, the lectures demystified the more technical aspects of the projects; what once sounded like alien industry jargon soon became my native language. Also, I have been able to transfer the skills learned in this class to other applications. For example, learning HTML helped me better understand the fundamentals of DITA during the STC hosted workshop this past October.

Starting out in a new field is difficult, but don’t let your lack of experience keep you down. Take advantage of events and workshops offered by the STC, sign up for a few technical writing classes, or enroll in a program at a nearby college. I gained a great deal of experience from just one class, and I am always looking for opportunities to throw a few more tools in my tool belt.

For more information on NCSU’s MS Technical Communication program, visit the program’s home page on the English Department’s website http://english.chass.ncsu.edu/graduate/ms/.

Ryan Seymour can be reached at rjseymo2 at ncsu dot edu. End of article.

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