Re: [STC] technical writer job prep

Subject: Re: [STC] technical writer job prep
From: Westbrook <westbrok -at- HSNP -dot- COM>
Date: Sat, 6 Dec 1997 23:41:00 GMT

I am cc'ing this to Techwr-l because I think it may be of interest to both

On Sat, 06 Dec 1997 12:00:54 -0600, Ingrid Kellmer
<ingridk -at- power-glide -dot- com> wrote:

>I am trying to prepare for a job in technical writing after I graduate
>from college. Does anyone have any suggestions for job prep that they
>could share with me? What skills should I obtain in order to make
>myself marketable?

Here is the applicable section from a paper I wrote last spring. Although
my research methods (outlined below) were a bit informal, the results
should be a good rough estimate of what employers are asking for:

All relevant job advertisements in Usenet newsgroups that were available on
February 25, 1997, were cataloged by geographic region and by the specific
skills that were requested. After eliminating all obvious duplicate
postings, 321 advertisements were analyzed.

What Skills Are Required?

As a student, you are aware that certain skills are necessary to work in
this field. There seems to be some ambiguity, though, about which skills
you are being taught are useful and which are merely rhetorical. According
to the Usenet ads and the techwr-l survey, what follows are some of the
skills that employers and writers in the workplace feel are important.

· Writing Skills

Along with the basic grammar and spelling skills that are expected, those
most often mentioned are organization and the ability to translate jargon
into layman?s terms. Technical writing is not the place to show off a
large vocabulary.

Flexibility is also important. I technical writer in the computer industry
may be asked to create online documentation one day, a promotional web site
the next, and a business proposal the day after that. There are many
different types of documents, and if you limit yourself to being able to
create only a few types, you will also limit your employment options.
Other documents include traditional print manuals, tutorials (online and
video), and business correspondence.

· Computer Skills

The general consensus is that learning as many programs as possible is an
advantage. Even if a job does not require certain skills, having a large
"toolbox" may impress potential employers. Again flexibility is an
important trait to demonstrate in a field where the entire product you are
documenting may mutate into something entirely different from one day to
the next.

Knowing the industry standard software packages will also reduce the
learning curve at a new job. Many companies only hire technical writers as
an afterthought, and there may not always be time for you to learn a new
desktop publishing program (Folse).

The most frequently requested programs are FrameMaker, Microsoft Word, and
Robohelp. HTML and object oriented design programming (i.e. C++ or Visual
Basic) are also sought (see Figure 1). Although OOD programming is rarely
required of technical writers, many jobs require a working knowledge of how
it is structured.

[Figure 1:
Most Requested Computer Skills in Usenet Job Postings

FrameMaker: 110
MS-Word: 97
RoboHelp: 79
HTML: 51
Object Oriented Programming: 47
Graphics Software: 22
Spreadsheet: 13
PageMaker: 10
Acrobat: 6
Java: 5]

Familiarity with at least one program in each major category - word
processing, desktop publishing, graphics, spreadsheet, presentations -
should be enough to quickly learn new programs. With graphical user
interfaces (GUIs), most software is self-explanatory. If you know what you
can do, you can figure out how to do it.

FrameMaker is a desktop publishing program that is made especially for long
documents. It has many format options that can update the layout and look
of hundreds of pages with a single command. It is also known for its
ability to index and create tables of content for large documents. It is
published by Adobe, which also publishes PageMaker, an smaller, not as
powerful desktop publishing program.

Microsoft Word is the most popular word processing program. Its popularity
has caused it to become a recognized standard for word processing files.
Although lengthy documents can be produced on Word, it is best suited to
shorter pieces.

RoboHelp, from Blue Sky Software, is the leading compiler for online help
files. It works as a plug-in for Microsoft Word, again stressing the
importance of knowing how to use Word.

Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) is the language for creating Web pages.
The increase of online technical documents makes HTML a valuable skill.

Although technical writers are usually not required to create software
programs, many employers want applicants with some programming experience.
Many companies want writers who can read and understand the programming
code of others so they can write documentation for it without the
programmers having to take the time to explain the software.

· Operating Systems Used

Knowledge of as many operating systems as possible is an advantage, but
some systems are requested more than others. Among the job advertisements
that requested knowledge of a specific operating system, UNIX was the most
common. There were also significant requests for Windows NT, which is the
leading competitor to UNIX for network servers, and for Windows in general.
DOS, Macintosh, and OS/2 each had minimal requests (see Figure 2), but many
employers will assume that an applicant is proficient in at least one
common operating system whereas UNIX and NT are special requirements of
certain jobs.

[Figure 2:
Most Popular Computer Operating Systems in Usenet Job Postings
February 25, 1997

Unix: 89
Windows: 54
Windows NT: 45
Mac: 21
OS/2: 7
DOS: 5]

· Layout Skills Required

The demand for layout skills varies from company to company. Many software
packages allow the creations of templates upon which companies may now
rely. With a template many layout decisions are taken away from the
writer. Many companies have strict style guides dictating layout.

Many companies, however, are still new to the business and have absolutely
no idea how they want their documents formatted. In such a situation, the
writer will have to decide the format, for both print documents and online.

Sometimes a writer may be responsible for establishing a style that will be
imposed upon all who follow. In a situation like this, a writer will need
to know at least basic layout theory and design principles.

· Formal Education

The general consensus among those surveyed is that a degree is not
required, but it can be helpful. It is more useful in getting jobs than in
doing the work. According a technical writer for Dictaphone Corporation, a
degree is especially valuable in gaining respect from employers and
co-workers (Dean). Fewer than half the job postings requested a degree.

Elna Tymes, president of Los Trancos Systems, prefers to hire writers with
degrees in fields other than technical writing because he claims that
technical writing programs are too specialized.

Internships and cooperative education programs, where available, show
employers that an applicant knows how to work in the professional world and
is not skilled only in theory. Practical experience before graduation will
give you a competetive edge over unexperienced competition for jobs.

See my online resume at:, or

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