Note: Attendees will meet for the first three sessions as 1.5 hour live sessions from Noon-1:30 PM EST. The last four sessions will be asynchronous (self-paced).
Technical communication is a field filled with opportunities and potential for personal and career satisfaction. Technical writers come to the field from different career backgrounds and educational perspectives, yet nearly all technical writing centers on making information understandable and usable to a given audience. What this information is, how it is presented, and for whom it is intended will differ from one situation to the next. Part of the challenge for the technical writer involves not only communicating information in writing, but also understanding audience needs, interpreting data from multiple sources, making use of the available tools of communication, advocating for users’ needs, and navigating complex organizational structures.
This is a course designed to help technical communicators understand the fundamentals of the profession and common practices of technical communication in industry. Learners will have a firmer grasp of the field, its applications in industry, as well as common skills and knowledge needed to be successful in the field. The primary focus of the course will be on the field and its various functions in industry, audience analysis and common types of communications, software tools, the basics of technical writing style, visual design and layout, technical editing basics, and usability and publication.
- This week will cover technical communication as a fairly broad field, first over viewing common industries, roles, and functions of technical communication, and then providing learners with the opportunity to discuss their own perceptions of the field and what kind of work technical communicators are doing in industry.
- Assignment: A short (250-500 word) profile of a technical communicator in industry. This could be either the learner him/herself (if the person is working in a technical communication-related role) or someone else the person finds through LinkedIn, a web search, or personal connections. The profile will include an overview of the organization where the person works, the person’s educational background, and the job responsibilities the person has. Note: An interview is not required.
- This week will deal with the basics of technical writing style, particularly at the word, sentence, paragraph, and overall communication level. Topics of discussion can include active and passive voice, balancing level of detail with conciseness, transition words and phrases, cohesion, repetition, parallel structure, sentence rhythm, paragraph length, and use of document headings. This week will also see an introduction to audience.
- Assignment: Reflection (200-300 words) on types of audience the learner either (1) communicates to in his or her role currently or (2) sees as being important in future work – or both. Learners will be asked to frame their reflections partly in terms of the type of audience they would like to reach for the course project. How would they describe the questions and concerns they have about reaching that audience? What elements of writing style will be most important for reaching that audience? This reflection will be posted to a discussion board in Moodle and will become part of week 3’s basis for discussion.
- This week will cover the basics of audience analysis and understanding the needs of different audiences and people of diverse backgrounds. Essential types of communication (genres) will be covered, including emails, proposals, reports, instructions, websites, wikis, and social media posts.
- Assignment: Mini-proposal (200-300 words). Each learner will be asked to propose a communication designed to provide important information to a defined audience. This communication will be the basis for the ongoing course project each learner will complete. The “mini-proposal” for the course project will be short and sent via email to the instructor. It will cover a few general points: type of communication, audience, purpose, and early concerns and questions.
- This week will include the major software tools used in technical communication practice. Learners will be asked to download and use at least two of these tools. Some, such as the Adobe Creative Cloud suite, may not be as accessible to some participants (especially if their company does not have it), but others (such as Microsoft Word) are generally more widely available. The purpose of this topic is not to develop a deep skillset in each software tool, but to develop an awareness of the essential software used in tech comm. Possible tools to discuss: Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint in particular), Adobe CC (Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Dreamweaver), free or open source tools (The GIMP, Inkscape, SeaMonkey).
- Assignments: (1) Short video posting (2-3 minutes): analysis of a self-selected software tool. (2) Decision on what software tool(s) each learner will use for the course project (if it’s primarily Microsoft Word, that’s fine).
- This week will deal with the basics of visual design and layout, including the five principles of design discussed by Richard Johnson-Sheehan in Technical Communication Today (balance, alignment, grouping, consistency, and contrast), as well as basic details on typography, color selection, and communication structure.
- Assignment: Using the selected software tools, place one page of the course project into a design scheme. This should take up to one hour, maybe two, depending on how involved the design is. Send it to the instructor and one peer for feedback.
- This week will cover the basics of technical editing: substantive editing, copyediting, proofreading, and editing for intercultural communication and translation.
- Assignment: Perform a multi-level edit of a peer’s communication (from the course). Send edits back to the peer and instructor.
- This week will conclude the course by covering the purpose and principles of usability testing (“user testing”) and a checklist for publication of a polished communication. Usability scenarios in different industries will be covered, as well as ways to advocate for user interests. Different publication methods and tools to facilitate publication will also be discussed.
- Assignment: (1) Perform a brief usability test of the course project as it stands with at least two potential audience members. (2) Using the results of usability testing, publish the polished course project to a platform that other course members can access (even if that is the course Moodle site). The instructor will provide feedback. Learners will be asked to comment on at least one classmate’s project.
Jeremy R. Merritt's career in technical communication began in 2001 when he accepted a contract technical writing position with a pneumatic tools company. Since then, he has worked directly for four different companies and as a technical writing consultant in such industries as manufacturing, health insurance, biopharmaceuticals, software engineering, and metallurgical processing. He completed his master's degree in technical and scientific communication from Miami University (Ohio) in 2011. He is currently performing research on technical communication practice and teaching at the University of Minnesota.