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Technical Communication

What to expect from schools with technical communication courses

The centuries-old profession of technical writing, the process of writing fact-based instructional documentation, has become transformed in the 21st century to include all forms of media - text, audio, video, and graphics, as well as animations. However, much of the work of a technical communicator is the same - providing fact-based information on technical or specialized subjects or providing instruction on a technical task - and so too are the educational requirements.

With the inclusion of these specializations in the field, technical communication is now open to those who have degrees and experience outside of writing. Indeed, the most significant difference between technical writing and technical communication is the inclusion of nonwriting professions such as graphic design, Web design, animation, and audio-video. As such, technical communicators can have degrees in technical fields, such as the science or engineering fields, along with experience or training in communications, technical writing, graphic design or audio-video production. In addition, the education requirements might also be reversed, as those with a B.A. in journalism, video production or communications may, through experience, training, or certification, become technical communicators in a technical field.

However, some employers may require more than experience, and technical communicators may be required to have two degrees. Technical communicators in the more advanced trades, sciences, and engineering discipline may be required to have degrees in their specialty in addition to a degree in writing, graphic design, or video editing. In addition, similar to technical writers, in most cases a technical communicator may need a period of on-the-job training while adapting to the communication style of an employer.

The skills a technical communicator needs

While the work of a technical communicator can include writing - and much of the education and training requirements may be similar - it is important not to confuse technical writing with technical communication. In fact, Maurice Martin of the Society for Technical Communication and Richard O'Sullivan of Change Management Solutions went so far as to write in 2007 that, "By describing technical communicators only as technical writers, the U.S. Department of Labor (DoL) data and reports misrepresent modern business reality, understate market trends, and send erroneous market signals."

However, as the work of a technical writer and technical communicator is similar, the Bureau of Labor Statistics' suggested skills for technical writers may be helpful for determining if a career as a technical communicator would be a good fit for you. According to the BLS (BLS.gov/ooh, 2012), technical writers need to be imaginative and detail oriented. as they must accurately describe sophisticated technical information. They should also have a strong sense of teamwork, since they may work with industry experts during the production process.

According to the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators, in addition to having strong communication and technical skills, technical communicators should be able to function well with little supervision, as they may be expected to research products and services with minimal information and guidance.

The tools used for technical communications

Unlike the professions with which a technical communicator may work with, technical communicators do not have specific tools or programs they can expect to encounter. Audio communicators may use Avid's Pro Tools audio mixers, while video communicators could use Apple's Final Cut Pro. However, all technical communicators may be required to follow a specific manual of style.

Manuals of style provide the guidelines for writing, layout and sourcing of a written document or an audio/video production. The guide provides examples and rules for source citation, footnotes, endnotes, preferred punctuation, and spelling. Each manual of style has its own preferred formatting and is used by a specific profession. For instance, the Associated Press (AP) style guide may not be used by the American Medical Association (AMA) but could be used by advertisers.

Here are some of the more popular manuals of style for technical communicators:

  • Chicago Manual of Style
  • Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications
  • AMA Style Guide for Business Writing
  • AMA Manual of Style: Official Style Manual of the American Medical Association
  • ACS Style Guide: Effective Communication of Scientific Information
  • Franklin Covey Style Guide for Business and Technical Communication
  • Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law

The career potential for technical communicators

While there are no specific statistics for technical communicators, the BLS does provide statistics for technical writers, which may be helpful for gleaning insight into the career outlook for technical communicators.

According to the BLS, many technical writers start off as researchers or specialists before moving up to become writers and eventually editors (BLS.gov/ooh, 2012). The employment of technical writers is expected to grow up to 17 percent from 2010 to 2020, nationally, as scientific and technical products continue to expand. Online, Web-based product support should also increase the demand for technical writers. The growth of high-technology and the complexity of the medical information needed for daily living should also contribute to the growth of technical writers. As of May 2012, the national median annual wage of technical writers was $65,500, with the highest and lowest 10 percent earning $101,660 and $38,700, respectively (BLS.gov/oes, 2013).

Sources:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2012, Technical Writers, March 29, 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes273042.htm
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, Technical Writers, July 11, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/media-and-communication/technical-writers.htm
Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators, Thinking of a career in Technical Communication? http://www.istc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/CareersLeaflet-v1-1.pdf
University of Texas at Austin, Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, The Case for "Technical Communicator," Maurice Martin and Richard O'Sullivan, http://www.ce.utexas.edu/prof/hart/documents/case4tech_communicator_martinandosullivanSTC.pdf

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