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Classroom Essentials for the Technical Writing Field
2014, Q4 (September 19, 2014)
By Matt McGinnis, Chapter Member

After being hired for my first technical writing job, I learned some background information about the hiring process that I believe any student or recent graduate would want to know. The hiring manager told me there were several dozen candidates, but the list was quickly whittled down to a few by discarding any resume that didn't convey Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) or XML-based knowledge. The company was switching from Microsoft Word-based authoring to DITA and seeking a new content management system, as countless companies are (regardless of the industry). For a student, then, any course that expands on DITA authoring is essential. Couple this with extensive practice editing instructional documentation and you will have most of the skills employers are specifically seeking. DITA knowledge can make a skilled writer and editor appear indispensable.

DITA logo
Make sure any DITA course provides hands-on experience. If it doesn't, use your new foundation of DITA knowledge for a major project in another writing course. Anyone with little experience will need a sample for a hiring manager, and this project should thus be treated like a hypothetical company's documentation (or a real company's documentation). If you want to separate yourself from the hoard of candidates even more, create a webpage for your portfolio and attach your DITA project in various output formats. Few candidates will take this extra step. If you provide a link to this project on your resume, hiring managers will inevitably read it. Rest assured, they will read it carefully.

This is where editing coursework becomes essential. A technical writer must be a perfectionist. Documentation must be minimalistic and cannot contain typos. (I learned why quickly on the job.) Any courses that provide extensive editing practice will help with this; editing is an acquired skill, just as writing is. With practice one becomes more thorough, more accurate, and faster. A technical writer cannot rush any body of work, despite a pressing deadline. Editing practice with long, dry, drawn-out, complex documentation will train your mind to look for common mistakes companies encountered on a daily basis. So, after taking a class in technical editing, pair an editing stylesheet or style guide with your DITA project.

Couple your editing style guide with a strong DITA project and you are much more likely to give the impression of a vastly experienced technical writer. I tried to display this by providing an editing style guide on my online portfolio; I placed the link directly beside my DITA project. The style guide was used specifically for the DITA project. Do this and you will show a company that you have all the tools necessary to complete what they need.

With a vast number of tech writing courses available, it is important to hone in on subjects that will make you more marketable. Usually this means leaving your comfort zone. If XML is unfamiliar to you, I believe learning it should be a priority. Key XML terminology to look for in courses includes DTDs, conditional processing, XSLT, nesting, tags, and DITA maps. If you can discuss these terms as easily as you can use them in an assignment, you will often elevate yourself to the final list of candidates for a tech writing job, especially if it requires XML knowledge. Take the time to gain the skills that companies need and you will be one of the lucky few with an education that gave a bang for your buck.

Matt McGinnis can be reached at mcginnismw at hotmail dot com. Read more articles by Matt McGinnis. End of article.

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