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Transitioning to Technical Communication: Five Things You Should Do Right Now to Prepare Yourself
2012, Q1 (April 06, 2012)
By Renee Freeling, Technical Communicator


Mobile computing devices such as smartphones, tablets, and netbooks have changed how the world communicates, creating a host of new markets in the information technology (IT) industry and making technical communication a sizzling hot career choice. With great starting salaries and promising employment growth, it’s no wonder that job seekers with no experience in writing or editing are considering technical communication as a possible new career.

The good news for people transitioning into a career as a technical communicator is that certain skills developed in unrelated professions, such as experience managing projects and expertise developed in scientific fields, translate well. Of course, direct experience is best, but there are actions an aspiring technical communicator can take to become a more attractive hire and increase the likelihood of getting a solid job offer.

Enroll in Training

Chances are if you’re still mulling over the decision to switch careers, then you haven’t enrolled in a graduate or certificate program in technical communication. What are you waiting for? There are a variety of educational choices for experienced professionals who already hold an undergraduate degree, and many are relatively inexpensive and don’t require years of schooling.

In North Carolina, there are onsite and online choices for attaining either a master’s degree or a certificate in technical communication, such as North Carolina State’s Master of Science in Technical Communication and Duke University’s Certificate in Technical Communication. Your flexibility in terms of time and finances will probably be the deciding factor for the program you choose.

Master's DegreeCertificate Program
Extensive program of studyFocused program of study
High tuitionLow tuition
Most programs 2 to 4 yearsMost programs 1 year or less
GRE requiredNo entrance exam required

If you don’t have any relevant experience or contacts in the technical communication field, consider attending an onsite program rather than taking classes online. You’ll develop much better relationships with your instructors during an onsite class, and since most technical communication instructors are industry professionals, you might also be presented with invaluable opportunities to network.

The Society for Technical Communication (STC) also offers training options for both beginning and experienced technical communicators and provides an academic database of technical communication programs.

Get Familiar with Technology

One of the biggest employers of technical communicators in North Carolina is the IT industry, so competence with technology and an aptitude for learning software is required. When hired to produce documentation for a piece of software, you probably won’t be expected to fully understand its programming language, but you will be expected to know how the software works and be familiar with related programming jargon.
If you’re coming from a field outside of technical communication, make the most of the resources in your area and attend any and all available STC presentations and events.

If you have never heard of HTML5, think C++ is a new type of vitamin, or just need to update your computer skills, consider taking a class at a community college or checking out a website that offers software tutorials, like Lynda.com. Many of the programs used by technical communicators—such as Adobe Robohelp, Framemaker, and Captivate—are expensive to buy but come with free trials. Take advantage of those trials to develop a familiarity with the software and to create documents for your portfolio!

Brush Up on Grammar

This one’s a no-brainer. If you’re going to be a technical communicator, then your grammar needs to be impeccable. If you can’t remember what a dangling modifier is or have forgotten when to use a semicolon, then invest in a grammar book or style guide and spend some time getting reacquainted with the rules.

The best way to shore up your grammar skills is to edit; fortunately, there are many, many writers looking for free or low cost editing, and they can be found in coffee shops and writing forums everywhere. Another way to gain experience editing (and perhaps pad your portfolio—are you noticing a theme?) is to reach out to nonprofit organizations and offer to revise their websites or promotional materials. Your work won’t be considered a tax deduction, but you’ll gain valuable experience.

Start a Blog

Potential employers will want to see some evidence that you know how to write, and blogging is a great way to highlight your talents, hone your skills, and expand your portfolio. WordPress is currently the platform of choice for the beginning blogger, though there are many free blogging sites to choose from.

One benefit of WordPress is that you can add Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to your blog to change its appearance. CSS provides the rules that web browsers use to interpret a website’s code and is employed extensively in the development of mobile applications. Technical communicators who create documentation for mobile applications need to be able to write CSS, so get familiar with CSS now and it will look great on your resume later!

Attend STC Lectures and Functions

Most people don’t find employment looking through classifieds or applying online but by networking with people who are either doing the hiring or know where to find the jobs. If you’re coming from a field outside of technical communication, make the most of the resources in your area and attend any and all available STC presentations and events. Not only will you learn about relevant technology and best practices, but you’ll meet local professionals who might be able to help guide you into your new career.

You don’t have to be a member of the STC to attend most functions, though membership does come with a host of benefits, like access to the STC’s job bank, publications, and webinars, as well as discounts on STC educational events and certification courses.

Transitioning to technical communication from an unrelated field will be challenging, but if you take advantage of training and development opportunities and exercise a bit of proactive planning, you’ll make the shift that much easier.

Renee Freeling can be reached at renee dot freeling at gmail dot com. End of article.

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