ABCs of Technical Writing

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Course Description


Technical writing is the art and science of translating technical information into readable, accessible writing usable by a wide audience. If you have ever read the user's manual for a piece of software or equipment you've purchased, you've seen technical writing in action. Creating manuals, help and technical support systems, online help systems, and instruction manuals are some of the main projects technical writers take on. Since nearly every business in every industry imaginable has at least an occasional need to bring technical information to its users and customers, technical writing is found in nearly every business, governmental, and non-profit arena.

If you work in a high tech industry, technical writing may be a part of your job description. If you love to write, enjoy learning, and have an interest in technology, technical writing can be an exciting, rewarding career in itself. Job opportunities in the field are expected to grow as technology continues to advance.

Whether you are called upon to communicate technical information to clients and coworkers, or you are thinking of technical writing as a new and interesting career, this course is designed to help you get started. We'll talk more about the kinds of products technical writers get involved in, and discuss the kinds of skills that successful technical writing requires. We'll talk about ways to approach and organize a technical writing project, and look at the kinds of materials technical writers produce, from written manuals to video tutorials. For those looking at technical writing as a new career, we'll discuss ways of improving your skill set, getting training, making contacts, and breaking into the field.

Course Requirements

This course will not require you to have previous experience in any particular area but you should have a high school reading level. No books will be required.

Course Topics


Lesson 1: What is Technical Writing?

A.   Technical writing defined

B.   Who does technical writing?

a.    Engineers, project managers, developers

b.    Technical support staff

c.    Specialists in technical writing


C.   What fields use technical writers?

a.    Software

b.    Consumer and industrial electronics

c.    Medical procedures and equipment

d.    Any field where technical information needs to be made accessible to lay learners


D.   About this course

a.    Introduction to the kinds of projects technical writers work on

b.    Things to consider when approaching a technical writing project

c.    A look at the kinds of materials technical writers produce (and they're not all written!)

d.    Information on building a career as a technical writer


Lesson 2: Projects for Technical Writers

A.   software documentation

a.    online help files

b.    user's manuals

c.    quick start guides


B.   Product and equipment manuals

a.    Hard-copy user's manuals

b.    Online support

c.    Instructional materials


C.   Other formats for technical communication

a.    Wikis

b.    Audio and video documentation and instruction

c.    Creative formats

                                                  i.    Google's browser manual written as a comic book

d.    webinars



Lesson 3: The Technical Writing Process

A.   consider the audience

a.    what general level of skill and experience does the end user have?

b.    Which terms can be used freely, which terms need to be define, and which terms should be avoided?

c.    What style of writing will best communicate with the end user

d.    Which information is most critical for the user's successful use of the product?


B.   Define the deliverables

a.    Choices, choices. The array of formats available for technical writers is growing.

                                                  i.    Hard copy manuals

                                                ii.    Electronic documents (pdf)

                                               iii.    Online help platforms

                                               iv.    Multi-media

                                                v.    Wikis

                                               vi.    Blogs


b.    Which deliverable gives the producer maximum benefit for the least cost?


C.   Learn the technology

a.    Consulting S.M.E.'s

b.    Learning from other users

c.    Learning for oneself

d.    "meta-learning:" the successful technical writer doesn't just learn the application, he or she watches the learning process, noting where it is challenging and what pitfalls tend to slow it down. Meta-learning is invaluable when the time comes to help others learn


D. Organize the knowledge

a.    Toward a project outline

b.    Multi-sourcing vs. single sourcing

c.    Getting feedback from colleagues, SME's, and users.


D.   Write and revise the draft. For details on the nitty gritty of good technical writing style, see Lesson 5


Lesson 4: How to Write effectively: At it's core, good technical writing is simply good writing about technical subjects. Here are some general guidelines on producing clear, understandable, readable writing that will help your readers gain the information they need.

A.    Clarity and simplicity.

                                                                  i.    Write like you talk

                                                                ii.    Simplify when you can

                                                               iii.    Use examples


B.     Correct grammar and punctuation:

                                                                  i.    Using reference materials

                                                                ii.    Using Style manuals


C.     Use visual aids

                                                                  i.    Graphs

                                                                ii.    Photos


D.    Style and the technical writer



Lesson 5: Teaching an Alien to Drive: If you've ever taught a teenager to drive, you know you don't really have to start from scratch. The average kid will know where to put the key and how to start the engine just from watching his parents do it. But what if an alien landed on earth and asked you to teach it to drive? Successful technical writing is all about giving your audience the information it needs without going too far over or under its head. Let's watch technical writing in action as we teach an alien to drive.


A.   Breaking down the steps

B.   Defining terms, explaining concepts

C.   Selling the benefits

D.   Creating the deliverable


Lesson 6: The First End User: You


A.   How to learn new applications quickly

a.    Do you have the love?

b.    Ask dumb questions

B.   Get to know your own learning process

a.    S.M.E.'s

b.    Watch someone else

c.    Relax

C.   Document your progress

a.    What's hardest about learning this application

b.    What's easiest

D.   The butterfuly net and the jar: catching bugs and resolving issues

a.    Technical Writers as beta testers.

b.    Don't be a witch hunter

E.   Zen mind, beginner mind

a.    Keep the beginner in mind, no matter how skilled you get

b.    Be mindful as you learn


Lesson 7: Getting it Done. Project Management and the Technical Writer


A.   Defining a timetable

a.    When does the product launch?

b.    Is the product finished?

c.    Who makes the decisions?

B.   Assigning Tasks

a.    Do you have a staff, or are you on your own?

b.    Outsourcing and the technical writer

C.   Collaboration

a.    Dealing with SME's

b.    Keeping everyone on track

c.    Check your ego at the door

D.   Feedback from users

a.    Is the documentation working?

b.    Are you using the best deliverable medium?

E.   Keeping momentum

a.    Keep an eye on the calendar

b.    See how far you've come

F.    Staying on top of it.

a.    Dealing with writer's block

b.    Dealing with slowpokes


Lesson 8: Words, Pictures, and Links: The Growing Array of Deliverable Formats


A.   Put it in Writing

a.    Hard Copy

b.    PDF

c.    Web pages

d.    Blogs

e.    Wikis

f.     Quick Start Guides


B.   Worth a thousand words: Other Media and the Technical Writer

a.    Video

b.    Screencasting

c.    Podcasts

d.    Novelty

                                                  i.    Google's comic book style user manual



Lesson 9: Breaking into Technical Writing.

A.    Is technical writing for you?

a.    Are you good at explaining and teaching?

b.    Do you love to learn?

c.    Can you learn quickly?

d.    Can you manage large projects?

e.    Can you write clearly and plainly?

B.     Degree and Certificate Programs

C.     Networking

a.    Join the STC

b.    Put a profile on LinkedIN

D.    Learning the Tools

a.    Who's using what?

b.    Studying employers' needs and software requirements

E.     Building a Portfolio

a.    Get your hands dirty

b.    Trial software and help files

c.    Floss Manuals


F.      Types of jobs for technical writers

a.    Full time

b.    Contract

c.    Freelance


Lesson 11: The Tech Writer's Toolbox


A.   Software

a.    Robohelp

b.    Doc to Help

c.    DITA

d.    Visio

e.    Blogging platforms


B.   Code

a.    Html and css

b.    Xml

c.    Java


Lesson 12: Staying in touch with the user


A.   Web 2.0 and the global village

B.   Meet your users

C.   Setting up an maintaining a tech support blog

a.    What to post?

b.    How often?

c.    Dirty laundry – should you publicize your company's mistakes?

d.    Comments: a gold mine of user experience data


Lesson 13: Join the Community


A.   The tech writer blogosphere

B.   Writer River

C.   Starting your own Technical Writing blog

D.   Sharing knowledge – everybody wins

E.   Staying on the cutting edge



Technical writing can be a skill you need from time to time in developing a product, or it can be a dynamic, rewarding profession. As technology invades every corner of our daily lives, good technical communicators will be in even greater demand.

Course Materials

All course material will be provided in the lessons and netlinks. There are no required materials to purchase before taking the class.

Grading Policy

Each lesson will include a lesson review quiz along with one or two assignments. Students will successfully complete this course by mastering all learning outcomes with 70% or higher overall grade.

Learning Outcomes

By successfully completing this course, students will be able to:
  • Identify what technical writing is.
  • Identify the types of projects that require technical writers.
  • Know the technical writing process.
  • Write technical materials more effectively.
  • Write with the end-user in mind, and not the product owner.
  • Demonstrate time management skills to complete a project.
  • Evaluate your technical writing.
  • Identify the best resources for finding technical writing projects, and
  • Demonstrate mastery of lesson content at levels of 70% or higher.

Assessment Guide

Assessment Points
An Introduction1
Assignment - Lesson 120
Lesson 1: What is Technical Writing?10
Assignment - Lesson 230
Lesson 2: Projects for Technical Writers9
Lesson 3: The Technical Writing Process10
Assignment - Lesson 440
Lesson 4: How to Write Effectively10
Lesson 5: Teaching an Alien to Drive10
Assignment - Lesson 62
Lesson 6: The First End User: You9
Lesson 7: Getting It Done: Project Management and the Technical Writer10
Lesson 8: Words, Pictures, and Links: The Growing Array of Deliverable Formats9
Assignment - Lesson 925
Lesson 9: Breaking into Technical Writing10
Lesson 10: The Tech Writer's Toolbox10
Assignment - Lesson 1115
Lesson 11: Staying in Touch10
Technical Writing - Final Exam540
Total Points:780

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