The social network for technical communicators
You all seem to be pretty competent technical communicators. Let me pose a question...
As far as my own aptitudes and propensities go, I'm much more adept at writing, and much more into it. The technology side of things comes with some pain.
As more of a nerd than a geek, then, I need to learn to use, and become adept at using, technology. I want to learn those things that are most conducive to a good career in technical communication.
What have you found to be essential technology to learn in the field of technical communication? What software is essential? FrameMaker? RoboHelp? Should I learn to write code or design sites?
I'd advise honing your writing & composition skills as much as possible, and become a ruthless self-editor. The fundamentals are timeless. I'd also suggest working on interpersonal skills such as the ability to interview people in regard to what they do and how they do it, and learn how to apply that to written instructions--this is invaluable.
While comprehension of technology is important, I don't consider it the be-all/end-all for technical communication--the technology is always changing, and today's software will be outdated in the near-future. At a minimum, I'd suggest knowing Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat Professional with a comfortable level of expertise--make the most of those from a minimalist angle. (Microsoft Visio is a nice flowcharting program to learn if possible.) The problem with other programs such as FrameMaker, InDesign, etc. is that they're forbiddingly expensive to purchase for home use in typical situations; those are the sorts of programs that are simply purchased by companies/agencies, and you're not apt to get access to them otherwise. As long as you understand the fundamentals, you can always learn the software that's the flavor-of-the-month.
I feel a flair for writing is the most important requirement.
Framemaker, snagit and Robohelp definitely are very good tools that aid in the end result of documentation.
As far as writing codes is concerned, it seems you are moving to a developer's side.
Just stay on one side only.
RoboHelp has been popular for web publishing, and it pretty much demands understanding one or more protocols XML/HTML to resolve issues related to browsers. There are dozens of affordable or free collaboration tools (like Wikipedia/Wikimedia) that support web-based documentation. An aptitude for understanding XML/HTML is fundamental competency. Likewise, a knowledge of Visio is useful for generating graphics that support documentation, and Adobe is useful for sizing and optimizing text and graphic content.
Having a (thirst for) knowledge of the technology you are writing about and an ability to plan and estimate are core competencies for a technical writer. Documenting software or hardware typically requires a knowledge of programming languages and platforms, and most assignments require code samples that programmers or testers rarely have the time to provide (they're writing and debugging code based on specific requirements).
Writing is the smallest part of technical writing, I think -- research, editing, tools usage, interviewing -- all are likely going to be seen more often than writing.
Remember your English 101 teacher guiding you in choosing a topic for the 500 word essay? "Write about something you know."
If you're getting paid to write about something, you should know as much about as possible -- if the pain is worth the paycheck, well, that's a decision that each individual makes themselves, yes?
Your question sounds eerily familiar. I started working at a software company with no software experience and no technical writing experience. I could check Facebook and email just fine, but knew nothing about software.
I am still in the process of learning what feels like an entirely new language. Luckily I'm a full-time employee and therefore am in full language immersion. I have become significantly more tech savvy by using every resource I can get my hands on. I send emails, organize lunches and use Google search constantly. After a while, I started to find which people to ask which questions and when to just do a Google search.
There have been many days where I felt like I was banging my head against a wall but I would eventually break through... only to find another wall which I would then break through. Persist! It will begin to make sense if you work at it long enough.
You can never be too knowledgeable - be it domain/subject matter knowledge, knowledge of technical communication concepts and theory, tool knowledge, and of course, knowledge of the vocabulary and grammar of the language in which you write. That's a tall order, and not something I would expect from someone just starting out or new to an industry, but even in those cases, I'd expect either one or two of those.
Of those, my preference would be for someone strong in concepts and theory of our field and a strong writer. Tool knowledge, in my opinion, receives too much attention because it is easy to define and easy for employers to require. However, I find tool knowledge makes the least impact on the job of the four I cited.
As there are four items in my list, I like to think of them of as the "legs" which support us as technical writers. If one is lacking, the table of our technical writing expertise is a little off-kilter and needs to be propped up. Can a three-legged technical writing chair stand on its own? Only if it's a stool.
So do what you can to gain knowledge of the industry or domain in which you're working. It will make all communication with subject matter experts easier and will give you confidence in what your produce. Educate yourself (which you're already doing by participating here, but never stop seeking to know) on theory and concepts of our field. Use your tools well, know which to pick for the job and why. And write it right, that's ultimately why we do what we do.
A big thank you to all the contributors to this discussion. You've all helped me gain perspective on this issue.
For me, learning to write technical material (in my present case a software blog) has proved to be kind of like acquiring a new taste. If required, it's kind of hard to face at first, but then it grows on you. I'm reminded of my coffee appreciation.
When I was 15 I got a job that required getting up at 4 am several days in a row. But I loved doing the work and it paid well. I hated coffee, but then, alas, it seemed required. Of course today I love coffee, and am making a cup right now.
Doing the writing part of it all is good stuff, and audience analysis is really stimulating. I'm finding recently that just forcing myself to get the high tech subject matter learned isn't all that bad. In fact, it's kinda cool!
Technology is more than computers and software. Technology is also everything from machine tools to welding equipment to CNC programming to knowing what tool to use to take a retaining ring out of its groove. Lots of writers don't do blogs or write code, they work with lab technicians and engineers and machines to learn how to install, operate safely, troubleshoot, and repair all kinds of equipment. Don't limit yourself to the software world. Don't worry about the tools of the writer's trade, most are easily learned. Learn instead how to get the information you need to write what you need to write. Learn to understand the technology behind whatever you are writing about. Learn how to turn words into pictures that explain at a glance how to do a task. Even if you are not an artist, if you can tell the artist what you want your products will be that much better.