The Novice Technical Communicator – Where does my journey begin

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This is the first in a series of articles based on our 2016 theme for TCUK: “From Novice to Expert – Writing Your Career Path as a Technical Communicator”.

Fountain pen and ink bottle resting on an open blank notebook with 2 closed pens lying next to the notebook

For a person entering the world of technical communication, this world may seem exciting and yet daunting. The role of a technical communicator is constantly evolving with the changes in technology and constantly presenting new challenges.

There are many avenues to be travelled upon – for example, you can choose writing, editing, illustration, designing or publishing. Regardless of the avenue you choose as a technical communicator, you need to be able to understand complex (technical) information and convey this to your audience in a meaningful and appropriate way.

On the job, you would work with a range of specialists – designers, engineers, technicians, marketers, product developers and publishers. You would need excellent communication skills to be able to deal with different types of personalities and extract the information you need from them.

The career opportunities in the field of technical communication are plenty. At this point, you will be asking yourself, where do I begin my journey as a technical communicator?

Here’s our take on how you can kickstart your career in technical communication.

What does technical communication involve?

Typically, technical communication involves creating documentation for technical processes, software programs and systems.

You could produce end-user content – from the user’s perspective – that provides useful information on the product functionality and usability, which helps to solve the user’s problem, answer their questions and meet their needs.

Your everyday work could involve creating new documents, updating or rewriting existing documentation, performing user research and presenting the information in the most appropriate manner. You could commission or illustrate photographs and diagrams, test materials and work with digital platforms for delivering and publishing content.

Other types of documents you could create include:

  • articles, case studies and white papers
  • educational content
  • product manuals and specifications
  • policies and procedures / standard operating procedures
  • API documentation
  • how-to guides
  • blog posts

The field of technical communication is moving beyond merely authoring classic documentation. Documenting what developers do is a growing area. Straddling the field of user experience while keeping one foot in technical communication is a popular choice. Technical communicators are expected to understand and utilise a variety of software programs, tools, methods and digital platforms that aid content creation.

Which industries need technical communicators?

You will make careful considerations about the industry you want to work in as a technical communicator.

Before you choose the industry you want to work in, firstly, decide what you want to write about and try to follow your passion.

There are many industries that require the skills of a technical communicator, such as:

  • aerospace, defence and manufacturing
  • architectural structure and engineering
  • digital technology
  • educational services
  • government agencies and organisations
  • information technology
  • telecommunications
  • scientific research labs
  • publishing agencies

Use the internet (or any available resources!) to research which local industries are recruiting technical communicators – you can widen or narrow your search based on your results.

Professional mentors and training

The most difficult part of embarking on a career is breaking into the field. We have highlighted a few steps to guide you.

Step one: Research the company you want to work for

Use online and offline resources to find out what you can about the company you would like to work for.

  • Website – Most companies have a website – a shop window – which gives you an insight into the company history, present and future. Use the website to understand what the company does. Learn about the company products – even write your own (product) article based on the information you have so far.
    Download (free) resources such as case studies and white papers to give you an idea of the type of content that is being written and the level of skills required to produce that type of content.
    Make note of the things you think you can improve on as you navigate the website. If asked at a later stage to share your thoughts, then you refer to these notes.
  • Social Media – Take a look at the social media channels the company uses to promote their brand and products. This will give you an insight into the way in which the company engages and interacts with its customers and audiences online.
  • Publications – Take a look at trade magazines or other publications where the company contributes content to or is featured in.
  • Contacts – Make a note of the persons responsible for producing technical content. You will find contact information such as an email address or social media profile available on the ‘Contact Us’ page of the company site. Always use the preferred method of contact when reaching out.

Step Two: Make contact and get a mentor

In step one, you collected a list of contacts you can approach.

Start off by introducing yourself and let them know who you are and what you are looking for. You could send them a copy of the article you wrote or other pieces of content that showcase your skills to generate interest.

This would give them an opportunity to learn something about you. If they are interested in your work, they will contact you and request you to either contribute to a project that suits your skills or guide you through the hiring process for a role at the company.

You may have to contact several technical communicators before you receive a response. But it’s worth your time – in the end you may just land your first role as a technical communicator.

Entering the field of technical communication is challenging, but there are professionals out there who can mentor and guide young professionals looking for a break.

Step Three: Memberships and Training

Become a member of a recognised technical communication organisation or institute.

This is a great way to meet professional technical communicators, join groups, attend events and find mentors and more contacts.

Many memberships offer discounted events, courses and workshops for you to attend.

The Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators is the largest (non-profit) body in the UK that represents the technical communication profession. The ISTC offers a range of professional communities, events and courses for its members. The ISTC has a mentoring programme.

Becoming a member of a professional organisation shows that you are proactive and curious about your field.

Here is a list of technical communication organisations you can consider joining:

Write your Tech Comm CV

Writing a CV for any profession is a tough task.

Being new in the field could mean that you may not have much experience. Use your CV as an opportunity to showcase your skill set and any relevant experience. For example:

  • Experience – If you have graduated from university – write a brief paragraph about a piece of course work you produced. Include skills that would be relevant to the role you will apply for – research, information gathering, use of imagery, and writing style used to produce course work.
    If you have your own blog or have written any articles or product reviews, then reference those in your CV. This could act as a portfolio of your work.
    If you were employed whilst you were a student then include your dates of employment and a brief sentence about your role.
  • Skills – List the software packages, methods and tools you used to produce your work with.

From writing the CV to choosing the right format for the content is perhaps the biggest hurdle. Take a look at these sample technical writing CVs to get an idea of how the CV should be formatted, and begin writing the content.

Your CV should read easily and follow a simple format as follows:

  • Top of CV – Name, address, contact details and social media profile – include a link to LinkedIn profile. Brief tag line of objective.
  • Body of CV – Work experiences till date – professional or voluntary. A list of skills, qualifications, certificates, and link to portfolio (if works are available online).
  • End of CV – Education.

The clarity of your CV should indicate the clarity you will bring to the job!

The cover letter for your CV should address the requirements posted in the job advertisement. If you are submitting an unsolicited CV, your cover letter should reflect the insights you gathered in step one.

Build your network online or offline

When building a new career, how you network with other professionals is key in the progression of your career.

There are many technical communication leaders and experts out there that you can connect with on social media or even meet at events. You can follow them for regular updates and even post a message to them when you see something of interest from them in your personal feed.

The internet is a fascinating way to connect with people. Set up your own professional social media profile on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn and share your thoughts on the industry, join groups or communities and participate in discussions with other professionals.

Keep in touch with the people you meet along the way. You never know when an opportunity may arise and you could be contacted – because you took the time to connect with them.

Our next article will focus on the Expert Technical Communicator.

Written by: Vee Modha
Contribution by: Karen Mardahl

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