Monthly Archives

February 2017

Technical Communication Careers

What Professional Communication Careers Look Like.

February 23, 2017

Most careers in professional writing are entry level, which is to say you can qualify for them with little or no professional experience. Don’t misunderstand . . . I am not saying you can commonly jump into one of these jobs with no qualifications. I am saying that if you have the right writing skills and are prepared to put in the effort to learn the necessary technical skills, you can become qualified to work in this industry.

Typically, employers will look for someone with a technical communication degree, but all of the TC programs in the country can’t produce enough graduates to satisfy the industry. Moreover, it is the rare TC program that actually teaches the technologies the writers will need to use.

As a consequence, most job posters will cover their bases by asking for degrees in technical communication, journalism, English, or comparable. If you have the “comparable” degree (i.e., a degree that required a lot of writing), you meet that first requirement. For example, degrees in philosophy, political science, history, and psychology often generate excellent writers, and a degree in any of these areas may give you the writing skills to meet that degree requirement.

About the three years of experience?

These advertisers will also often ask for three or more years of professional experience. Again, they cover their bases. Using the phrase, “. . . three or more years’ experience preferred,” allows potential employers to interview you even if you come up a bit short. They can look at internships and volunteer work you might have done. You can often get one of these jobs if you can demonstrate you have the right skills and some relevant experience. Maybe you are proficient with Photoshop and Dreamweaver or InDesign and can demonstrate that you write well (even fiction and/or poetry can be used as a part of your portfolio).

The key is to get prepared

If you plan ahead, you can keep your day job and freelance or contract jobs on the side while you develop the skills and experience for that one job you really want to do. Think of it as an investment of time and effort.

To create the air of professionalism, you can give yourself a company name and put together some business cards. The first thing you know, you have built the skills and experience you need to move into the new profession of your choice.

What experience do the employers really want?

Employers will want you to be able to use the digital tools contemporary writers typically use in the twenty-first century. Some of these tools require software such as Photoshop, Dreamweaver, and InDesign. Other tools involve the ability to read and use HTML, CSS, and JavaScript code as you write for digital media. Just as you need to know formats for traditional, hardcopy, media, you need to know the formats for digital. I will discuss this in great length later. But for now, all of the best jobs require that you be able to write in the 21st century.

Where do I find the jobs?

During that time in Purgatory, you should do professional writing projects, even if you have to do them for free. You need to be able to show that you have done professional quality work by showing a portfolio of work, so you want to build up a portfolio. That means if you have a friend who needs a new brochure, you should help him with it so you can put it into your portfolio. You can also assign yourself projects. Finally, if you are claiming to do professional work in the 21st century, you should have a professional website, along with one or more Facebook pages, LinkedIn page, and twitter account.

Fake it till ya’ Make it

Many of you will be afraid of cheating (claiming more than you can do). Well, you don’t want to cheat when applying for a job, but nobody begins difficult tasks by being good at them. If you work at it, at some point, you move from wishing you could do something complicated to knowing you can do it. Consider the figure skater who performs at the Olympics. She was once the goofy looking kid who couldn’t keep her feet under her on the ice. Or consider the pianist at Carnage Hall. He began by playing chopsticks somewhere. Every good writer was once a bad writer. Everybody who is good at something difficult was once bad at it. They all have to go through that transitional part and keep trying until one day they discover they are pretty danged good. The rule all these people follow, whether they know it or not is, “Fake it ‘till ya’ make it!

It just takes courage and self-confidence

More important than experience is the willingness (courage) to attack a demanding learning curve and push on until you have topped it. Constantly updating technologies has become an important part of the job. I have often heard the following claim: “When a person is courageous enough to believe he or she can learn anything, and persuades me they want this job because they have researched the workplace and really want to work for us . . . that is often enough to get them hired.”

Create networks

Look for a local, professional organization. The Society for Technical Communication (STC) has local chapters that often meet monthly. There may be one in your city. If there is, and they have meetings, you can get a lot of support. Most of the people who attend meetings regularly are among those who recommend or even hire new people. It is good to know them.

On line, LinkedIn has professional discussion forums, including forums on professional writing and freelance writing. People beginning in the field, often ask questions about getting started in the profession. Longtime professionals will usually answer their questions. You will need connections.

Finally, there are forums set up by unaffiliated groups. They are worth checking out, but I must confess they tend to be dominated by opinionated bullies who tend to dominate the conversations. After a while, these forums can become really tiresome.

Talents and Skills the Professions Demand

As you think about attacking a learning curve, consider which learning curve you want to attack. You only need to attack the ones that enhance your talents. Knowledge of some skills naturally leads you into jobs you might not want to do. Understanding who you are, makes it easier to understand what you want to know.

No matter how hard they might try, not every ice skater is going to make it to the Olympics. Skill comes from practice, but talent is a part of who you are. Understanding your talents is a critical part of deciding who you might want to be in one of these careers. For example, some people love new problems. They will attack it with relish, but having solved the problem, they have little interest in pursuing it further, and even less interest in repeating the process with the same problem time and again. For example, a writer might be asked to document a software application (describe how to use the software) in a guide. The first time, the writer might relish the process, putting in lots of extra hours learning how to configure the text in an appropriate pattern while carefully describing all of the important processes. But once having done that, the writer might find doing it again and again and again and yet again (for the rest of her life) with similar applications is more than just tedious. This person might do a good job as a software documentation specialist, but would probably never love the job. The person who loves that job will be comfortable with repetition.

In contrast, copywriting demands the writer attack a different problem every time. A person comfortable with repetition would probably hate the copywriter career.

So what is a talent?

A talent is a natural tendency that enhances your efforts. It’s a part of your personality—part of how you like to do things. The drive to solve puzzles is a talent. Interest in emerging technologies is a talent. The love of reading is a talent. Always striving for perfection, while knowing you can never achieve it, is a talent. That said, it might be clear that a talent for one kind of job can be a detriment for a different kind of job. Striving for perfection is not a talent when the need is for speed. So a natural love of experimenting with and learning new technologies would enhance the career of an information architect, but might do nothing for a proofreader. With a sense of your talents, you can better identify the list of careers where you will most likely thrive – they require a variety of talents.

How do you identify your talents?

The Gallup organization spent decades interviewing millions of employees in an effort to discover what talents make us excellent employees. What they found is that we all have natural characteristics that we cannot change. They are just a part of what we are. Some of us happily thrive in chaos (e.g., copywriter). Some of us are risk takers (e.g., indi-book publishers). Some of us thrive in an environment where snap decisions are the norm (e.g., managing editors). In contrast, some of us are naturally comfortable in consistency (e.g., proofreaders). Some of us thrive in carefully considered strategies and are reluctant to make changes once the strategies are established (e.g., documentation specialist).

Gallup published their results in three books. One of the books is devoted to presenting hiring and management suggestions, but two of them are relevant for helping us identify our most important professional talents: Now Discover Your Strengths (Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton, $19,89 on and Strengths Finder 2.0 (Tom Rath, $15.44 on The books provide access to tests that permit you to identify your top five talents, but by reading their list of 34 talents, you can see others that could apply to you and even others that clearly cannot apply to you.

An important point to take away from this segment is that no matter what talents you may exhibit, there are careers in professional writing that have your name (with your talents) written all over them.

. . . and what is a skill?

A skill is something you have to learn how to do. The drive to solve puzzles is a talent, but the ability to solve them is a skill. The need to produce a perfect product is a talent, but the ability to reach near perfection demands skill. You use your understanding of your talents to decide what career you want to pursue, and then you go and get the skills to do that.

It is likely that right now you do not have those skills. How do you publish a magazine or and eBook? How do you manage the metadata in a website or integrate content into code? These are the skills you need to bring to the interview.

So where do you get the skills

There is a huge inventory of learning options for you. Some of them may cost a bit, and some may cost a lot. But consider this: in the end, the best tech comm. jobs pay well over $100K. That is worth investing in. A writer with network certification is a valuable person, indeed. You can get network certified with no particular experience or education.

Many of your options, however, are free. You can find many inexpensive courses or workshops online or at local colleges. Formal instruction often comes with some kind of certification, which improves your credentials. You could get a degree in professional and technical communication — we once had an opera singer come through our online master’s in technical communication program — but you really don’t need it. If you have a degree that demanded a lot of writing or a lot of technology (and you are a good writer), you are probably in good shape from an educational point of view.

Additional skills

If you are an excellent writer, there is a very good chance that you are involved in other arts as well. It is common for writers to work in painting, photography, video, Web design, or theatre. It is just as common for writers to be interested in various computer technologies or the sciences. These are all skills you can combine with your writing to make it richer and more marketable. Work on enhancing the additional skills.

Resources for enhancing your skills

To improve your credentials may just require you to browse YouTube and similar sites. I have seen educators point to a student and say, “she could get an education at Barnes and Nobel.” The point is that driven people can self-educate.

YouTube is filled with useful tutorials. There are also learning sites such as that offer exceptionally high quality tutorials. Finally, you can practice on your own or with others. The thing is this: there are more options than you will have time to explore.

If you are a good writer, you are almost certainly also an avid reader. These characteristics go hand in hand. Moreover, If you are really interested in becoming a professional writer, you will be a person who is attracted to research. If that is the case, finding the skills you need for a professional writing position will be a part of what you like to do anyway.

List and description of the 50 most available career opportunities in professional communication.

Over the next weeks, I will describe 50 of the careers I have identified that you can consider if you find a career in professional communication interesting.

Introducing technologies into effective writing

Moving Your Writing into the 21st Century

February 9, 2017

On being left behind.

There is an ongoing news story about a segment of the economy that feels left behind. They entered the workforce when we were in an industrial (manufacturing) economy. There were a lot of good paying jobs that required minimal education. Over time, however, industry moved about 10% of the jobs to countries where they could get cheaper labor, and they automated most of the 90% of jobs that were left.

More importantly, the economy evolved. The kind of careers we could move into changed from manufacturing to technology and information, and  now that we are in this new century almost all the needs of employers are different. While there are jobs where someone can have a well-paid career with limited education (e.g., plumbing, electrical work, carpentry, etc.), there aren’t nearly as many as there were in the past. Those people who feel left behind, weren’t so much left behind as they fell behind. Their mistake was to maintain a 1960s mindset and skillset while their jobs moved into a 2017 expectation.

Changes in writing through time.

That “left behind” group is now beginning to include professional writers. In 1440 Gutenberg printed his first flyer with a printing press. In some respects, writers who are still writing for print are following that 15th century tradition with a 15th century mindset. But Tom Peters’ book Thriving in Chaos  describes a world in a constant state of change, where employees (including writers) need to work proactively to keep their skills updated (this book is pretty long in the tooth, but it is still an important read). Writers in the 21st are following the model Peters describes. They are living in a new paradigm where they are constantly updating their tools. By and large, more and more successful writers in the 21st century can, at the very least, read code, and many can write HTML4, DHTML, XHTML, HTML5, CSS, CSS3, XML, and JavaScript. They can also work in database systems such as DITA and ASP. These are the new tools for successful writers in this century. 

Why is knowing how to code important?

I know of no companies that do not have websites. That means that any writers working for any company will probably be writing for the website along with whatever else they might be expected to do. Writers who simply write and edit, are held in relatively low esteem by their technical colleagues. Writers are seen as technicians who write. But in the minds of IT, engineers, and the like, anybody can write, so any contribution to the project is seen as modest.

In contrast, writers who can work their texts into the code, writing much of the code themselves, and writers who can participate in usability studies and propose studies the IT pros never heard of are much more respected. I promise you this . . . any writers who can put this on their resume . . .

Proficient in
HTML4 and 5, CSS and CSS3, XML, DITA, and eBook development

. . . are employable. Moreover, the ones who are truly proficient can demand huge salaries — $100K or more. On the other hand, those who cannot put that message on their resumes are in the same position as those manufacturing employees of the 1960s.  

For those of you who are interested in writing fiction professionally, you already know that it is nearly impossible to get fiction published without an agent, and no agent will touch an unpublished author. Many contemporary authors are producing their work as independently published eBooks. This gives them a chance to publish, and if their work is good and they begin making good money, they have a good chance at getting an agent. In the past, independently published books were frowned on, called “vanity pubs.” Now they are considered smart. eBooks, however, are really XHTML-based websites bundled into a zipped file. That means that people who independently publish eBooks have to know how to work in code, or they have to pay a publisher to publish the eBook. Moreover, EPUB 3 is now available as a tool. EPUB 3 is an HTML5-based website and is very much more interactive and exciting as an opportunity. This is an area of huge opportunity that didn’t exist 10 years ago.

My point?

Organizations hiring writers, expect those writers to be able to use contemporary software and coding languages. Like those left behind in the industrial age, writers who cannot use these contemporary tools can expect to be left behind.

The solution . . .

Learn to use the technologies, They are not hard. They seem difficult to writers who know little about them, but, in reality, code is pretty easy. For example, <h1> means first headline (the biggest and most important one). Knowing that, <h2> and <h3> becomes easy. “Start a paragraph” is <p>. That is what HTML looks like all the way down the page. Moreover, there are only about fifteen, or so, commands you use over and over again. When you run into something you don’t remember how to do (I run into this with CSS all the time), you simply copy/paste from a “snippets” page you keep with you. 

When I see enough interest (8 or 10 people), I will start a class on how to integrate HTML into your writing. The class will be free and will be done online in an asynchronous model (I have taught graduate students that way since 1997).  If you are interested, let me know in the comment section.     


Introduction to problems in writing for digital media. Introduction to ReaderCentric Writing

The Problem with Audience Analysis

February 1, 2017


Last year I had a heated argument with a colleague. We were designing publicity for our doctoral program, and he felt like I was dragging my feet. It involved the question of our audience. “Who are they?” His response was, “People who want PhDs”! Now, keep in mind that not only is he an English teacher, he is a writing teacher.

If you have ever been in a writing class, you know the teacher invariably insists, “You need to know the audience you are writing for.” This is actually, absolutely true, but their follow-up is often not useful to professional writers — as is this example.

“People who want PhDs,” is a set of people. Our audience will be a tiny, tiny subset of that set. It will only include people who want PhDs in technical writing, but even that small slice is too big. Texas Tech and the University of Washington doctoral programs are giants compared to us, and most anybody who is accepted at one of those schools (with appropriate funding) is likely to go to one of those schools. They compete with us, but we decidedly do not compete with them. What that means is the doctoral program needs to be a niche program, attracting a specialized following of people with interests not served at TT or UW. That specialized group of maybe 25 people in the whole world is the audience.

The problem with finding your audience is complicated and you need to be careful.

Let me give you the kind of example I gave my students through the years. Look at this camera.

 Photo of a Canon 5d mark III


Canon EOS 5DS R DSLR Camera (Body Only) 

The body, alone, costs $3600. The question is, “Who would buy this camera? Who is the audience for your copy?”

Writer Tend to Describe Audiences Superficially

Students and even most professional writers will say, “Professional photographer.” They are right, as far as that goes, but the answer doesn’t really provide any information. We hear that phrase, and we see in our mind’s eye all kinds of options . . . many of which will be altogether different. National Geographic uses completely different professional photographers from those who might work of Boeing or the newspaper.

“Professional Photographers” Come in Many Different Shapes but the Best Photographers Are Often Not Professional at all.

Here is the problem in a nutshell . . . This is one of the cameras of choice for the following photographers

Outdoor Photographers — They typically use wide- and ultra-wide angle lenses. They will often have the camera sitting on a tripod and may shoot exposures of two or three seconds. They need the largest possible CMOS chip with the best color. They need to shoot extreme depths of field (often from three feet to infinity) . . . AND more often than not, their interests are artistic and not professional.

Wildlife Photographers – They need a camera with a very fast shutter 1/8000 or better and use telephoto and super-telephoto lenses. They often focus on the eye of their target and may want very shallow depths of field. In effect, their needs are the exact opposite of each other. The one thing they have in common is they are usually not professional. More specific wildlife photographers (birders) are virtually never professional.

In short, the biggest body of users for this camera are not professional photographers.

Professional Photographers May or May Not have any Use for this Camera

Professional photographers, such as industrial or institutional photographers, may well not have any use for this camera. Because industrial photographers often shoot photos focused on larger things (e.g., construction equipment or buildings, industrial photographers may need medium format cameras such as Hasselblad or Pentax. Institutional photographers may use less expensive cameras to shoot events, award ceremonies, etc. Photos that are going to be posted in newsletters do not require National Geographic quality.

Sports and wedding photographers may use the camera much like wildlife Photographers

If you keep an eye on the sidelines of any football game, you will see photographers carrying cameras with large and long, white lenses. These lenses are often Canon lenses fixed on 5D Canon cameras like the one above or like the more expensive 1D. Like wildlife photographers, sports photographers use telephoto lenses and need exceptionally fast cameras. Although I mention football games above, and they are often outdoors, many athletic events occur inside in light that can be poor. Flashes are out of the question. Being able to shoot in relative darkness is critical.

Like sports photographers, wedding photographers usually need speed, but flashes are allowed. They shoot portrait style photos with the same camera they use for group shots.

In short:

Although “professional photographer” might seem the right answer to my original question, it should be clear that it is not. The majority of people who use the camera are not professional photographers. More important, however, is the fact that the needs of the people who DO use the camera are diverse. To market to the camera’s users, you need to keep in mind that there is not audience. Instead, there are a variety of different audiences, and you need to deal with each of them independently.

I have a chapter on audience analysis in the book, ReaderCentric Writing for Digital media. To access that excerpt and more comprehensive information, click here.