This article appeared in “Career Woman” magazine, Winter 1992
What if I Don’t Want to Write Software Manuals?
by Brenda P. Huettner
Technical communications is more than writing for computers. In
fact, the Society for Technical Communications (STC, an international
professional group) found that in 1990 less than 60% of their members
surveyed worked in the software industry. The rest worked in other
fields such as electronics, research, or engineering.
Some of the areas with the most opportunities today are the military,
Biotechnology, education, and visual instruction.
The military employs hundreds of thousands employees, all of whom
must perform jobs in the approved military way. How do they know
what the approved way is? By reading military Standard Operating
Procedures and other technical manuals. These cover everything from
opening and closing an office to proper storage of food. In addition,
there are thousands of government contractors who must also create
proposals and instruction manuals according to military specifications.
There is work for anyone familiar with the military style.
Another growing field is the medical and biotechnology industry.
These companies have to create documents that follow strict government
guidelines, which usually requires all kinds of documentation -
directions for assembly, use, training and maintenance. According
to Carol Szatkowski, President of Clear Point Consultants (a Boston-based
firm specializing in Technical Communications placement), "This
is a new, big area - even more in demand than the DoD (Department
of Defense) work."
All companies have to train their employees, and some large companies
have entire departments devoted to training. Other companies specialize
in teaching courses to business people. Corporate Class, a Virginia
firm, conducts classes in subjects such as word processing, spreadsheets,
and databases. Jean Piedmont, the President of Corporate Class,
says "The responsibility for getting the information out is on us
- we have to open up their minds and pour it in." Her advice for
aspiring trainers - "Work for free if you have to, but get experience
in the corporate world. In education today, everyone has a college
degree. You need something to set you apart."
The term "visual instruction" includes everything that appears
on a screen - from on-line computer systems to instructional videos.
This work often involves writing scripts or designing images that
appear when a person uses a computer. According to Clear Point Consultant's
Szatkowski, "A lot of companies are really keen on making the entire
product geared toward teaching something." This includes every word
and image that appears on any type of screen. "Right now, there
is a real strong interest in people with instructional design experience"
- people who understand how adults learn, and can incorporate that
knowledge into a product. "These skills are going to be even more
relevant as companies get increasingly involved in multimedia."
Variety of Jobs
The STC describes their members as "the bridge between those who
create ideas and those who use them." This includes not only writers,
but also editors, artists, and production specialists.
Large companies often hire editors for documentation departments.
This requires great attention to detail, a good sense of the English
language, and the ability to meet deadlines. It does not always
require an in-depth understanding of the technology involved, since
the documents you are editing are usually supposed to be clear enough
for a novice to understand.
In almost every television manual (or refrigerator or desk lamp),
there is a drawing of the object being described. Often, there are
as many illustrations as there are pages. The graphic artist is
responsible for capturing accurately the technical subject, and
highlighting the portion being discussed in the text. In addition,
someone has to decide on the page design, the format, the cover,
and the overall presentation for every document. This is often the
writer, but very large documentation departments may employ design
specialists. These people know what looks best, and how to portray
a given message without words.
Once the text and graphics are complete, a manual is still only
partially complete. Someone has to assemble all the pieces into
the finished product by performing conversion, typesetting, pasteup,
proofreading, and general production duties. This may involve working
with vendors, establishing budgets, evaluating binder formats, and
arranging for shipment. Like editing, this type of position requires
good organization, attention to detail, and the ability to meet