The Technical Writer

Technical Writers are often the link between engineers, marketing associates, developers and external users of a product or service.

When I have taught undergraduate classes in technical writing, something I have to address with students right away is their definition of technical writing. In many people’s minds, writing that is “technical” is complicated, full of jargon and difficult to read. But in fact, the goal of the technical writer is exactly the opposite. It is usually to make technical subject matter less complicated and easier to understand and use.

In my undergraduate technical writing classes (which are considered advanced writing courses) we combines current theory with actual practice to prepare students as technical writers. They analyze complex communication situations and then design appropriate responses through tasks that involve problem solving, rhetorical theory, document design, oral presentations, writing teams, audience awareness, ethical considerations and ethical issues.

When I teach at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), my students are engineers, computer scientists, architects and scientists who often dislike writing and are used to only academic writing. Unfortunately, much academic writing is students demonstrating their learning to a professor who already knows the subject. In most real technical communication, the writer is the expert and the readers are the learners. In professional life, you may be writing for supervisors, colleagues or customers. You might be explaining a problem, a product, an experiment, or a project, and the format may be a proposal, abstract, report, email or manual.

When I teach technical writing at a more comprehensive university, such as Montclair State University, the students are more comfortable with writing, but less comfortable with the technical part.  That is because they don’t think of technical writing as being a part of every field. For education, biology, art, music, and other science and liberal arts students, they need to rethink the technical aspects of their studies. For example, I have had art history majors who wrote technical documentation on art restoration.

My graduate students in professional technical communication are often dealing with social media, documentation, video presentations and a variety of real world tasks. NJIT offers a Technical Communications Certificate that attracis primarily professionals who intend to learn/expand their careers as technical writers, editors, trainers, website designers, and documentation specialists.

I don’t know that being a technical writer at Google is typical of that job, but this video gives you a little taste of technical writing and life at Google.

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Why Teach Social Media?

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I teach social media courses. They are graduate courses in a communications program and most of the students are working in some related field (technical writing, graphic and web design). Some older friends who are not educators have expressed surprise that there are courses in social media (SM). They view social media as something “all kids know about” these days and don’t think of SM as a very serious subject.

Of course, SM is very serious business in the marketing and advertising sense. I have written earlier about what some feel is a social media skills gap. That term, “skills gap,” is itself an important one for colleges. The Chronicle of Higher Education has called it “The Idea That Launched a Thousand Strategic Plans” (the article is unfortunately for subscriber access only) because trying to fill in gaps in skills that employers say they need has become a way to build programs and therefore colleges’ plans for the future.

There are educators that question that kind of planning because it makes assumptions about the role and purpose of a college education. Is college meant to train employees in skills and job-specific areas, or is the mission something much larger?

Some social media consultants have said that 90% of workers don’t have the skills to leverage social media as a business tool, so it would seem logical that there would be a “market” and interest in higher education to fill in that gap.

Yes, more social media courses are being offered at colleges – generally in marketing and communications programs. But for just-in-time training, current employees are also looking to online courses, MOOC offerings and free on-demand resources.

Hootsuite is one of those providers, but it also offers a Student Program that provides educators and their classrooms free access to social media tools and resources. They have a Hootsuite Academy, which obviously uses their own Hootsuite dashboard which is a widely used platform for social media management. They also offer free certification for students who complete the program.

Because I teach social media courses at a university, and I also do social media consulting, I looked into the Hootsuite Student Program as another way to integrate hands-on activities into NJIT’s online MA program and also its graduate certificate programs.

Social media is just one part of this larger gap, but the “meteoric rise” of social in U.S. over the past decade to more than 2.3 billion active social media users worldwide can’t be ignored.

Some of the materials in the Hootsuite program were topics that I have always included in my curriculum for designing social media. For example, having students conduct an online reputation audit on a real local gives students a better idea of creating a strategy for a brand versus their personal accounts. Students do research and present an analysis in order to create a strategy to improve their client’s social marketing. They research target audience, popular content channels and types, competitor social media use, and make recommendations for future social media marketing activities.

I have students create a social media campaign with objectives, target audience, and metrics. It no longer surprises me that my students often make very little sophisticated use of social media themselves, and have a very limited understanding of how organizations are using it.

One gap I have been attempting to bridge this past year is the lack of knowledge (and interest) in social media ethics and law. That gap is not only in students but in those currently working in social media.

I also see frequent mentions online about a broader “digital skills gap” with employees who don’t know how to use, or are not aware of, the technology available to them. According to a Harris poll survey in Entrepreneur, only one in 10 American workers have mastered their employers’ tools and this gap “Bleeds $1.3 Trillion a Year From US Businesses.”  I believe that this learning process in my social media courses has value beyond making students just being able to do marketing via social media. Activities like creating a social strategy through research, analysis and application, and doing it in a digital world can help bridge a number of skills gaps.