Classes in Advanced Technical Writing Starting Soon

Want to be a working writer or perhaps improve your writing for your job? The Advanced Technical writing class starts Monday, August 2, 2021 at California State University Dominguez Hills. The course is completely online and students learn advanced technical writing techniques along with improving their writing skills. The class is hands-on as we work on putting together a portfolio while we learn. Portfolio pieces are an important aspect of applying for technical writing jobs to show a prospective employer your capabilities. Dr. Lu Kondor teaches this class. Check out the FAQ on this site if you have questions.

For this class, students may take it even if they have not completed the Intro course if they have some writing experience. The certificate at California State University Dominguez Hills consists of three courses. Check out the schedule page if you want to see the other classes. The entire program for the certificate is taught online (and will continue to be taught online). Find out more information on the CSUDH website.

Technical communication encompasses a broad scope of organizations and businesses.

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Lu Kondor has worked as a technical writer for more than 20 years for major corporations. She has a Doctorate in Business Management and has worked in a large variety of organizations including entertainment, software, electric utility, manufacturing, oil and gas, chemical, and nuclear process industries. She is an adjunct lecturer in Advanced Technical Writing as well as Information Design for more than 14 years.

Important Skills Technical Writers Need for Success (Part 2)

I’ve compiled a list of skills that are important to be an effective technical writer and technical communicator. In the first post of this multi-part series, skills discussed were grammar, usage, editing, and the ability to turn data into information that a reader can use to create knowledge. In part 2 we look at additional skills technical writers need for success.

Know Your Target Audience

An underrated skill in technical writing is being able to determine your audience and understanding how to write for them. This starts with a basic overview of the primary audience. Are they the general public or a specialized smaller group such as scientists? Is the target audience all ages over 18 such as a medical provider or is there a specific targeted age group? As a writer define the primary reader for the document and then determine the secondary audience. Who else might read the material either in the future (will the document be archived) and what do they want from it?

Determining targeted information is a great way to write for your reader. Knowing the audience will allow a writer to target the proper age group and education level and increase the readability of a document. A reading index is a great tool on grade and reading level for readability.

Knowing the target audience is key to writing a great document.

Understanding Complex Concepts and Processes

This seems like a basic principle. A technical writer needs to be able to grasp technical concepts, clearly and concisely. In the classes I teach on technical communication, students know I always comment on how clear and concise their work is. Clear and concise writing is extremely important.

How can a technical writer write about a concept if they don’t understand it clearly and concisely?  If a concept isn’t clear to the writer, it will come out in the writing. If the writing isn’t concise, you will lose the reader. Remember, more isn’t better in the case of tech writing. It is just more. Too much explanation usually means the tech writer does not understand what they are writing about.

Quality and Accuracy

Writers need to be concerned about quality. To be more precise, accuracy is important. There are times where the work must get out and so some quality is sacrificed. Accuracy should never be sacrificed, otherwise, there can be issues or failures related to the document. This in turn can be catastrophic in a safety or critical process. Injury, harm, or damage can occur to people and property. Can you imagine a mistake on a technical manual for a nuclear power plant or Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for an industrial chemical process?

Accuracy is important to technical writing.

Style Guide Knowledge

Style guides are important, especially if a technical writer creates documents for conferences, symposiums, or academic white papers. The use of a particular style guide varies depending on a client/employer, conference, symposium, academic paper, or knowledgebase article. Technical writers should know the difference between APA, CMOS, MLA, and other guides. I’ve even seen the AP style guide used depending on the technical writing assignment.

Did you know there is a style guide for Physics? It’s called the AIP style guide. AIP Style refers to the citation format established by the American Institute of Physics. There are other style guides by the American Mathematical Society, Geological Society of America, American Medical Association, American Chemical Society, and more. Remember, style guides are your friend. They give clear guidelines on how to write for publications and companies. Do some research and see.

Interviewing Skills, SMEs, and Researching

A very handy set of skills any technical writer can possess includes interviewing, interaction with subject matter experts (SMEs), and research. I have met too many people who think writers of any kind sit pensively thinking out the perfect document and work alone, producing masterpieces all by themselves. Too many beginner tech writers feel they can do it alone in the first draft for manuals and then are shocked to find their materials are flawed, grammatically incorrect, or missing information. I have yet to find the perfect assignment handed in after more than a decade of teaching tech writing. Writing just a single draft is not going to lead with quality or accuracy.

The idea of a lone writer is silly. In many of the jobs I’ve held, I was the only writer but I always worked in teams with experts, inventors, engineers, management, certification consultants, and dozens of other stakeholders. So interviewing skills, especially with experts is important. Learn how to interview people. Practice is the best way to learn.

Here’s where research comes in. Not only is research necessary for documentation, but a technical writer should do their homework and research the topic they are interviewing the SME for before the interview. That way they don’t ask basic questions they could find the answer online and waste the short amount of time allotted with the SME. An SME may get frustrates and end the discussion early, refusing to discuss more. That situation makes technical writing more difficult.

Research is an important skill in your technical writing toolbox.

Ethics

Ethical obligations are a part of technical writing. A big part. Ethics is in everything from representing technical information efficiently, clearly, and concisely so that the reader doesn’t feel like they have been tricked to avoid major safety concerns and potential loss of life. I consider ethics a skill because not only do you use common sense, a technical writer needs to learn legal implications as well as corporate culture in the organization that they work for to apply a broad scope of ethics.

Think about all the considerations there are for certifications in hazardous environments and what a business or technical writer needs to learn to work in certain industries. Diligence in making sure information is accurate affects all industries from pharmaceutical, oil and gas, nuclear, chemical, utilities, baby furniture, car seats, automotive, etc. Can you imagine incorrect procedural documents in the utilities or nuclear industries? There are also obligations to keep employers’ trade secrets, to the environment, the public, property, copyright, and liability laws. This list can go on and on. Remember, there can be legal repercussions to the technical writer if ethics are ignored.

Ethics is important to consumers as well as organizations and industries.

This wraps up the two-part series on important skills technical writers need for success. There are other skills like software but the type of software used varies from organization to organization. So every writer must decide what they need to learn.

Check out part 1 of Important Skills Technical Writers Need for Success.

Lu Kondor has worked as a technical writer for more than 20 years for major corporations. She has a Doctorate in Business Management and has worked in a large variety of organizations including entertainment, software, electric utility, manufacturing, oil and gas, chemical, and nuclear process industries. She is an adjunct lecturer in Advanced Technical Writing as well as Information Design for more than 14 years.

Important Skills Technical Writers Need for Success (Part 1)

In this multi-part series, I’ve compiled a top list of skills that are important to be an effective technical writer and technical communicator. This isn’t an exhaustive list but a basic outline of what most employers look for. Don’t underestimate simple concepts. Keeping things simple makes your job easier.

Don’t underestimate simple concepts.

Many people think they are really good writers but are they? Some writers are masters of prose, others are skilled in non-fiction and essay writing. That’s fine to think of oneself as a really good writer, but not all writing is the same. Anyone who writes for a living across multiple types of writing will tell you that. What you have to ask yourself is; can you write well as a technical writer?

Technical writing is different than prose or fiction. It is also different than business, textbook, or essay writing. Why? The goals of technical writing are different. Even though all types of writing have some things in common, the goal of what is being written is important. The goal of technical writing is to take data, whether raw or correlated, and decide what is important (and order of importance) and what isn’t important. Then turn it into coherent and cohesive information in a clear and concise written manner so that the reader can gain the knowledge they need. 

The goal of technical writing is to take data, whether raw or correlated, and decide what is important (and order of importance) and what isn’t important.

Excellent Writing Skills Are Important

I am often asked by students what kind of skills they need to be a technical writer. The first thing I say is “A technical writer requires excellent writing basics.” This covers two aspects or sub-skills.

  • Grammar and usage (including ability to edit)
  • Ability to turn data into information that a reader can use to create knowledge so that the final outcome is to perform a task, learn, or make a decision

The first is grammar and sentence structure. This is basic and almost anyone could guess why good grammar is important. Knowing grammar and sentence structure is the first step to writing a great document.  It also allows a technical writer to be able to edit material that comes to them as well as edit what they write themselves.

Do you know what an Oxford comma is and when to use it? What’s a run-on sentence? What is a gerund? These should be simple questions to answer. Remember, employers may ask about your skill sets, or even better, they will test you on it.

Catching Mistakes

Catching mistakes on documents is especially important in situations where catastrophic failure can result in injury, loss of property or life. For every poorly written technical document, there are repercussions even if there isn’t a catastrophic issue, an organization can still suffer a loss of revenue because of deficient documentation. If you have ever bought a product because you read it could do something, and then the product failed to follow the listed specifications, you understand.

The second is the ability to turn data into information that a reader can use to create knowledge. The outcome for the reader is to have enough knowledge to perform a task, learn, or make a decision. The ability to convert data into information for a targeted audience so they can skim for basic information, scan for a particular piece of information, or read word-for-word to learn as much as possible takes practice. All of these methods provide knowledge to the reader. The reader applies that knowledge so that they can decide how to take action. That action may be as simple as performing a task, learning something new, or making a decision.

Performing a task can be simple. How to load software on your computer, assemble a piece of furniture from the local box store, or execute a standard operating procedure (SOP). It can also be complex, such as a SOP that provides a safe method for taking a boiler offline for maintenance, learning what instrument readings to monitor to prevent an explosion, or setting up a temperature transmitter in a hazardous environment.

Learning can take many forms and can be tied to task performance or decision-making. Learning can stand-alone as well. A person can learn for the sake of learning or to build future skills. For example, reading on updated industry certification standards for equipment or learning a new computer network technology. Learning can easily be tied to a variety of technical writing formats. Learning can also come from video, interactive applications, podcasts, or other media. Have you ever watched a video on a newly released phone, tablet, or device just to learn what all the buzz is about? Then you have watched technical writing in action.   

Decision-making for a reader is probably one of the more complex aspects of document usage in technical writing.

Many users will need to make a decision on spending money, procuring a service, or taking (or not taking) an action. For example, many process industry engineers read specification sheets to determine if they will recommend the purchase of a particular brand and model of safety device. CTOs may read up on particular enterprise-wide software or hardware investments. Organizational leadership receiving an environmental report passing EPA requirements for environmental hazards may decide no further action is necessary until the next required testing. Still others such as human resources could read a SOP and determine it is missing a newly updated safety standard required by regulators and will take action to have the document adjusted.

Many users will need to make a decision on spending money, procuring a service, or taking (or not taking) an action.

There are a number of reasons why users need to make a decision, perform a task, or learn something new. This concept ties in with knowing the target audience of the document and their needs. That is why the best way to begin is to start with the basics. A technical writer that has a strong knowledge of grammar, sentence structure, and the ability to take a broad range of data and organize it in a coherent and readable fashion is at an advantage. But remember, a document needs to be designed not just for the readability of the document’s target audience, but it must adhere to any rules, regulations, and ethics required to make the document clear, concise, and accurate for the user. Lives may depend on it.

Coming up: Part 2 of Important Skills Technical Writers Need for Success includes a style guide discussion, knowing your target audience, quality control, interviewing subject matter experts, and more.

Lu Kondor has worked as a technical writer for more than 20 years for major corporations. She has a Doctorate in Business Management and has worked in a large variety of organizations including entertainment, software, electric utility, manufacturing, oil and gas, chemical, and nuclear process industries. She is an adjunct lecturer in Advanced Technical Writing as well as Information Design for more than 14 years.

Usability Testing is a Great Way to Understand if Your Technical Writing Works

Usability testing is one of the best ways of evaluating the quality of a document. A technical writer can use usability testing to ensure user-centered writing. Testing validates documentation by examining successful task completion, identifying any critical errors, determining the time it takes to complete a task, reader satisfaction using the document, and collecting recommendations for necessary improvements.

Usability testing is a great way to understand what works and what doesn’t work in a document.

The metrics defined and collected by the technical communicator will determine how to evaluate successful comprehension and task completion. These metrics are generally both qualitative and quantitative depending on how the information is collected and measured. Set up goals for data collection, metrics, and analysis before usability testing. Consider that documentation can be tested using a variety of delivery methods such as smartphones, tablets, computers, printed versions, web pages, etc. Ask yourself how will your end-user most likely use the document?

User observation can be collected using qualitative methods letting a test administrator see how a user will react to the instructions in the document. Are they struggling and need to scroll back and forth? When the tester provides feedback, are they reflecting this in their observations on your document? Each person who tests your document may, or may not, feel that a qualitative aspect is important.

A user’s reaction to document use is important because some users may stop using a document if they need to scroll or turn pages constantly. Others may not. Observation of a document tester is especially important if you are using only a single tester. The smaller the test group, the higher the risk that feedback can be myopic and not reflect all readers’ experiences.

A user’s reaction to document use is important.

Unfortunately, we don’t always have time or the resources to do usability testing depending on project size, project milestones, release dates, and type of technical documentation. Nevertheless, new technical writers and students should consider even single user basic testing scenarios when they can. Usability testing is a great way for new technical writers to understand what works and doesn’t work in their documents.

Large documentation projects may employ usability testing, especially if there is a lot at stake. Usability testing requires buy-in by management to be successful because of the allocation of resources and stakeholders. Not all management buys into usability testing. Unfortunately, most technical documentation projects are quickly written, updated, or reviewed by someone who may not be an editor, and the document goes out to the intended audience without testing. This isn’t a big deal on a small document but can lead to quality issues in large documents. The importance of testing does depend on the document, purpose, and intended update schedule if any.

One of the best ways to think about the value of usability testing is that you are doing a test run with readers to catch catastrophic issues. This is particularly useful with standard operating procedures (SOPs) or any step-by-step instructions for dangerous occupations, hazardous locations, or safety-related situations. Any document can benefit from usability testing, but technical writing failure is particularly visible with SOPs or instructions. This is critical in industries where a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of data and information can lead to catastrophic failure (loss of finances, loss of property, or loss of life).

To start testing, recruit a pool of participants that fit the profile audience of the readers you are writing for. This provides the best results. The usability testing participants, if possible, should perform the testing under the same conditions a reader would use the document. Even a single qualified participant can help identify any clarity issues a document has.

Recruit a pool of participants that fit the profile of the audience.

For students, new technical writers, or small businesses who decide usability testing is for them, I stress using a single reader to save money and time as long as the reader is similar to the intended audience. Only an organization can judge whether they need a large testing sample based on their own usability testing practices and the complexity of their document.

Whatever an organization decides to do with usability testing, remember it is a team effort with all stakeholders. No one works in a vacuum, especially technical writers. The testing process needs both management and the technical communicator’s buy-in to work. Students should use it in their work as often as they can until they get used to writing for a variety of audiences. Remember, if there is a team of technical writers and graphic artists that are designing a document, usability testing can save money by allowing any identified readability problems to be corrected quickly and efficiently before document release. Poorly written documents can reflect negatively on an organization, the technical writer, and ultimately can place a user at risk.

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Lu Kondor has worked as a technical writer for more than 20 years for major corporations. She has a Doctorate in Business Management and has worked in a large variety of organizations including entertainment, software, electric utility, manufacturing, oil and gas, chemical, and nuclear process industries. She is an adjunct lecturer in Advanced Technical Writing as well as Information Design for more than 14 years.

New Semester at CSUDH – Study Technical Writing!

The Advanced Tech writing class starts Tuesday May 26th, 2020. The course is completely online and I look forward to meeting all new students. For this class, I allow students to take it even if they have not completed the Intro course. We work on putting together a portfolio as well as learning advanced technical writing techniques. This program is approved for funding through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). Find out more on the CSUDH link below. #csudh #technicalwriting #technical #documentation #technicalwriter #writing

CSUDH Program Link

Check out more information at: Technical Writing Courses & Schedule

Learn Technical Writing at CSUDH

Try Technical Writing by Taking the Advanced Tech writing Course at CSUDH

IMG_0720 Do you like to write and would love to do it for a living? Try technical writing. No need to be a ‘techie’ or scientific guru. With practice, you can find out how technical writing is a great tool in a writers tool box.

Students who want to take the Advanced Technical Communication course so they can get right to creating portfolio pieces (before they take the Introduction course) are welcome to do that. The class is immersive. I teach the Advanced course and we focus on creating a portfolio of pieces (which is normally requested by potential clients and employers) and are a great way to learn how to write even if you want writing as your secret weapon in your job. We write a lot.

Some of the things I cover in the advanced class include presentations, reports, proposals, and step-by-step instructions. Check out my FAQ page for answers to the most asked questions I get in the course. The class is totally online and you will come away with several portfolio pieces. I’ve had students get jobs before they finish the program.

For more detailed info, check out California State University Dominguez Hills’ web site at:

http://www4.csudh.edu/ceie/Technical-Writing/

Welcome to the New Year and check out classes at CSUDH

It’s a new year everyone and I wanted to take the time to wish everyone an exciting and fresh start. I’d also like everyone to know that a new semester at California State University Dominguez Hills starts next week on 1/12/15 and I will be teaching classes for the College of Extended & International Education.

If you are looking to kick off the new year with adding new skill sets in your writing, getting a certificate or just a refresher and would like to learn online instead of driving to a University then check out the classes offered in the completely online certificate program in Technical Communication at CSUDH.

I teach the Advanced Technical Communications course and the Information Design course where we work on portfolio pieces providing the student with samples to present to potential employers as well as practical learning experience. I’ve had the privilege of having both international students from other countries such as Russia and Japan to local SoCal students so please take a moment to check out our program.

CSUDHLu Kondor has worked in engineering and technical writing at major visual motion picture and visual effects studios with more than 25 years experience in the entertainment industry. She is a member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, Society for Technical Communication, the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, and Delta Mu Delta International Honor Society in Business. Lu holds a doctorate in business management and has taught as adjunct faculty at CSUDH since 2007.