Technical communicator, do you wonder why your SME treats you like a pencil-pushing drone? Maybe they took an undergraduate Technical Communication course like the one Becky Todd took.
“I thought the class was boring,” Becky writes, “because we mostly wrote memos and learned how to format letters. Like any good college student, I completely forgot about the class and moved on with my life.”
But Becky knew that she liked to write. And fortunately, soon after embarking on a career in chemical research, she found the opportunity to enroll in a Professional Writing program where she learned the true nature of technical communication. It changed the trajectory of her career.
Now, six years into her new life as a technical writer, it turns out Becky didn’t forget that first writing course at all. Instead, she remembers it for all the wrong reasons — for how boring and unsatisfying it was.
And I can’t help wondering how many courses are like that one: reinforcing the stereotype that technical communication is dull and menial. And how many students take those courses and then go through their professional lives looking with disdain upon technical communication and its practitioners.
I’ll bet there are lots of courses like that. And I’m certain they do a lot of damage.
So how can colleges and universities ensure that they’re teaching technical communication the right way?
No writing memos. No formatting letters. Instead, a good course (or program) will cover all of the following, at a minimum:
- Principles of good technical writing, like audience analysis and working with subject-matter experts
- Exposure to different kinds of writing: technical documentation, reports, grant proposals, policies and procedures, and so on
- The basics of information design
- A brief survey of tools — just enough to develop some basic competency in writing documents, creating graphics, and publishing content
- A practical project that students can use to build their portfolios
Finally, please read Danielle Villegas’ article, in which she pleads for academicians and practitioners to become friends. The best academic programs combine theory and research (the province of the academician) with practical know-how and business sense (the province of the practitioner).
What else would you look for in a good technical communication course or program?
Postscript: This post is intended to prompt discussion within the profession — not to be a commercial. However, I can’t help mentioning that I teach in a certificate program that I think satisfies all of the criteria I listed. If you’re looking for a good intro to technical communication, and you live near central North Carolina, I invite you to check it out.