Software We Use

There seems to be a debate as to what is the best software for Technical Communicators to use. It would be nice if you could choose your software, but there are those of us who are told to use what the company uses. And that’s what we have to use. Yet for ourselves, if we had enough money, we could choose to install the software we felt most comfortable with. However, for us mere mortals, that is just a dream, and we use what the computer comes with. Perhaps we supplement with some freeware or software that is old enough to be marked down in price. But the concept is the same – most professional software is well beyond our reach.

If you had your druthers, what would you choose? And why?

The next question I have to ask is why is software so important to recruiters and hiring managers? It really doesn’t define what we do, yet that seems to be what they look at first. Some people are FrameMaker people, others are Word people. Some people use Help Authoring Tools (like RoboHelp), others create them from scratch (by using DreamWeaver or some other HTML authoring tool). Just because the company uses one brand of software and you prefer another brand, doesn’t mean you can’t learn the other brand. And it shouldn’t mean that you are automatically counted out of the running. (Shouldn’t, but we all knows that sometimes it does.)

What do you think? As usual, comments are always welcome!

Talk to your user?

I’ve almost completed my Master’s degree in Technical Communication, and most of the classes say the same thing. You must talk to the user to see what they need. (This may be different from what they say they want, but that’s a whole other blog post.)

I know it is rule #1 in all of technical writing – Talk to your user. You can’t create a product without knowing what the end-user needs. Yet I’ve been in multiple positions where we were so removed from the end consumer that it’s very hard to know what they really need. I’ve spoken to the client about what they need, I’ve asked to speak to the end-user, and yet the client always says that they know best. So I’ve done what any good writer does – given the client what they ask for.

But then I get some feedback (usually about 6 months later) about how the end-user liked the product I delivered. And it’s usually not as well as I had hoped. They need feature A and I was told to deliver feature B. Or they were expecting feature B and I delivered feature L – something totally different and unrelated to what they need.

And I always find it amusing that the client comes back to me and expects me to take the blame for this. Because it’s my fault that I delivered what I was told to deliver, instead of what the end-user needed.

What do you do in a situation like this? How do you explain to the client that you really do need to communicate with the end-user? Please leave your opinions and comments below – they’re always welcome!

Technical Communications

I’ve been wondering about the difference between Technical Writing and Technical Communications. When people ask what you do, do you say “Tech Communicator” or “Tech Writer”? Everybody knows what a Tech Writer is, not many people have heard of a Technical Communicator. (Just look at Tina the Tech Writer on Dilbert!)

But the college degrees out there aren’t in Technical Writing, they’re in Technical Communications. You learn so much more than writing. You learn many different skills that you need for today’s market. For instance, since I’ve started taking classes for my Masters degree, I’ve learned how to make a podcast, a screen cast, a tutorial in Captivate, a decent PowerPoint presentation, and a proper project schedule in MS Project. And this is all on top of the writing topics in XML to DITA standards, writing properly cited term papers, and all about UX. There are terms I had heard before (like Information Architecture) that are a part of writing, but not the nuts and bolts of putting pen to paper.

There’s currently a discussion going on about the new paradigm of technical communications. Are we still writers? Yes, but that’s just a fraction of what we do. Are we communicators? Yes, but that’s not all. We are so diverse and multi-talented that it is hard to explain who we are and what we do. But, until we come up with a new term, Technical Communicators will have to do.

What do you think we should be called? What’s your opinion on the “technical writers / technical communicators” shift? Comments are always welcome!

Other Certifications?

I’ve read elsewhere that technical writers ought to get some other certifications under their belt – if only to show that they can learn many different things. It’s also great to show their expertise in something other than writing.

I know some writers who get certifications in the software they use – so they can show their expertise in the programs that we use. Or a general Microsoft certification – I know some writers who opted for that large certification. That’s great for some people, but I find that I use whatever method I can to get the job done – and it doesn’t always coincide with the “official” method, so I’d flunk the exam.

I also know some writers who get certified in their career area. It’s wherever they have landed and would like to stay – be it finance, HVAC, automotive, biotechnology, or whatever. Again, that’s great for people who want to remain in one area and specialize in it. I tend to go to wherever I can get a job, so I haven’t specialized in anything. I’m one of those people who know a little about a lot of things, and I like it that way.

I’m currently going for my CAPM certification – it’s like the PMP (Project Management certification) without the people experience. Granted, it’s an entry-level certification, but I figure – no better place to start than the bottom! And project management is something you can take wherever you go – no matter what area you decide to land in. I’ll keep you posted on how I do!

I’m wondering what certifications you think are necessary or desired? As usual, comments and opinions are always welcome!

Writer’s Block

Every once in a while, I suffer from writer’s block – just like everyone else. That dreaded feeling that you have nothing to write about – and have no idea what to write.

I start writing about writer’s block. Back in college I had to write a poem for a creative writing class. The topic could be whatever you wanted it to be, just so long as it was creative. I looked around, took a walk, absolutely nothing was coming to me. So I wrote my poem on writer’s block, and it got an A. Not bad for someone who couldn’t think of a darn thing to write about!

The problem I face is when I can’t just write about it – I have a specific topic I’m required to write about. That’s when the problems emerge.

I’ll research the topic, see what others have written about it, and see what’s new in that topic. If it’s a piece of software or something like that, I’ll play around in the software. If it’s a piece of hardware, I’ll look it over and see how it’s built. Whatever it takes to get more information about it – so I can write something, anything, about what I’m supposed to write about.

And then, if I’m still blocked, I’ll start writing about writer’s block – just to get something down on paper. Then, once I’m feeling creative again, I’ll look again at whatever it is that I’m supposed to be writing about. Usually by then I’m over the writer’s block.

What do you do to get over your writer’s block? I’d love to hear your ideas! As always, comments and opinions are always welcome!

Technical Writing World

I wanted to give a great big shout out to Technical Writing World.

It is a social group for Technical Communicators – but anyone can join. I find that I learn something new every day, and it is a very valuable resource – a wealth of information. There are members from all over the world, which puts an interesting slant on the conversations – you know you’re truly getting a global view on any topic. And while I might not log in every day, I do check it every day – and I’m sure I’m not the only one who does this.

There is a list of blogs where you can read about the latest trends and thoughts about everything from single-sourcing and DITA to Wikis and Web 2.0. I check this list (the TechComm Superfeed) every day, and learn more about the latest trends, trials, and tribulations than I do in my college classes. (Don’t misunderstand me; I’m learning a ton of stuff in my classes, but the latest topics and ideas area always here.)

There is a terrific community there, where people ask questions and anyone with an answer can and will answer your question. And you can ask anything – from tips and tricks in a word processing software, to the latest theory in online help and how to integrate comments into your help. And there’s never a lull in the conversation – I check it about 3 or 4 times a day, and there’s always something new that I didn’t read before.

So if you’re looking for some information on technical writing, or another community to join that relates to technical communications, be sure to check out Technical Writing World. I know it’s someplace that I feel welcome and not afraid to ask anything, and it’s definitely a place where community is the best asset.