Professional Development

Most technical writers understand that they’ve signed up for a lifetime of learning. But aside from the content of your job changing every year to every five minutes, there are opportunities to learn things that improve your ability to contribute to your field, your business, and your personal development.

Web Surfing
Okay, the web gets a bad rap sometimes, but there is a lot of good information out there, and a lot of it is worth learning. You’re more likely to identify trends in the tech writing field on a website than a hard-copy book, which makes sense because anything on paper is often outdated before the ink is dry. There are professional websites to be found on technical communication, graphic design, information design, modeling and simulation, writing for the web, and other hot topics. Google is your friend.

Books
Hard-copy, dead-tree books are still my favorite way to obtain information, but as previously noted, they are not the place to go for the “cutting edge.” Books are the route you take if you’ve got a little time and want to absorb a topic in-depth. For instance, books on theories and practices of information design or writing are always worth your time. And while I don’t have nearly as much leisure time as I once did to enjoy it, paper has a few aesthetic and personal advantages over electrons–glowing screen, Kindle, or otherwise. Paper is quiet. It doesn’t require electrical power, it won’t crash, it’s cheaper than electronics most of the time, and it’s often easier on the eyes.

Networking
If there’s a particular skill you want to learn, hang out–in person or online–with the people who have those skills. Sounds pretty straightforward, but if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve probably already noted that occasionally I have to learn things the hard way.

Side Projects
There’s nothing quite like being forced to do something to get you to learn it. That’s the “throw ’em in the deep end of the pool and see if they learn how to swim” theory. I’ve worked in environments like that, and it’s not entirely bad. If anything, it forces you to get creative in a hurry. But rather than wait for a manager or customer or client to throw you a curve ball, you could always try to do something on your own just to give yourself the experience. Sometimes that requires that you…

Buy New Software
A lot of my software “training” has consisted of buying a new software package and playing with it until I get the results I want. As you learn what doesn’t work, you also learn what other commands do along the way.

Press F1 for Help
Wow, is this a difficult thing for some people! My father, for one, refuses to use the help features on any software product he owns/uses under the assumption that he can call me and I’ll talk him through it. Sometimes he doesn’t know–or I’ll remind him–that I DID press F1. “After all,” I’ll say, “Some other tech writer got paid good money for writing that help menu.” To which he’ll inevitably respond, “Yeah, but I’ve got you.” Touché.

Seminars or Workplace-based Training
Depending on the size of your organization, you might or might not have opportunities to learn on the job or through your organization’s training department. NASA, being on the large side, has its own training department and offers web-based courses as well as classroom experiences on everything from software to regulatory compliance to space environments and spacecraft design. If you’re an independent contributor/consultant, it’s my understanding that you can write off work-related conferences as business expenses. Be realistic and prudent in what you try to itemize, though. Uncle Sam doesn’t have much of a sense of humor about such things.

Return to Academia/Get Another Degree
I did this when I was in my late 20s/early 30s. I wanted to get a serious job in the space biz, and the space companies weren’t going to hire an English Literature major who’d only ever worked at Walt Disney World. I could have gotten a certificate in technical writing instead of a full-degree diploma, but I figured, what the heck–I’m there, might as well get the M.A. and be done. Three years, part time, with a full-time job. It can be done.

Attend Conferences on Your Work Topic/Discipline
I don’t get to a lot of conferences, though I’m always glad when I do. It’s a good social experience, it gets me out of the office, and if forces me to get out there and learn what other people are doing–either in the space business or in the communications field. For instance, the local chapter of the Society for Technical Communication has a partial-day conference tomorrow at University of Alabama-Huntsville that is free to members (dagnabbit, I need to renew eventually!). Another plus side of conferences is the opportunity–if you’re so inclined–to look for work. I’ve never gotten a job through a conference myself, but You Never Know, right?

So if you find yourself with an urge for a little self-improvement, there are plenty of options out there. Go get yourself some learning done! 🙂

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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