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How did someone with an Arts background become a Technical Author?

(published in the ISTC newsletter, Oct 2012)

A great deal of the literature surrounding technical authorship makes the career path seem out of reach to those without a strong technical background or qualifications in science, engineering, or information technology . Even just a quick glance at job descriptions for the role will highlight this. As well as seeming unsuited academically for these professions, Arts students could be excused for assuming that there would be nothing of interest to them in such a role due to the emphasis on extensive industry knowledge and experience.

I write this article as someone who is more into Charlotte Bronte than Chemistry and Biology, who would prefer to read Phileas Fogg than a Physics Blog, who knows more about Alan Bennett than Alan Turing, who is more into Charles Dickens than Charles Darwin and who has read everything by Stephen Fry and not a word by Stephen Hawking.

I also write this article as a Technical Author in the Semiconductor field.

My pathway to Technical Authorship has not been conventional and I would like others to be able to see that it is not a career solely for engineers with an average of 15 years of industry knowledge.

My degree was in Italian, and I followed this with postgraduate study in Translation Studies during which time I avoided the Technical Translation options like the plague in favour of much more flowery literary translation. I then went into the Children’s Book Division in publishing.

It was a move home to Wales that resulted in me applying for a job as a Technical Author. The job description asked for a degree in engineering but I was fortunate to be offered the role based on previous experience in a publications department, good qualifications in English at ALevel, publishable English from the Translation Studies course, and my agreement and enthusiasm to study for a Diploma in Technical Authorship and to undergo product training.

Having been in the role for almost two years, upon reflection I can see how nearly all of the skills that I learned as a translator are utilised daily. My main area of postgraduate research was in the area of crossing cultural boundaries. In translation this means conveying the message from one culture to another and using appropriate language for the target audience in order to get the message from the source text across despite an assumed lack of understanding of the source culture. Transferring cultural references requires only some knowledge of the source culture, but extensive knowledge of the target culture and audience. Similarly, technical authoring requires the transference of the Subject Matter Expert’s knowledge to the target audience according to their knowledge and requirements. This also requires only some knowledge of the industry (source culture) and extensive knowledge of the target audience so as to make the end result comprehensible.

In translation, the target audience is the deciding factor in any choice of word that is translated, and we cannot simply choose the style of language that we like or think sounds nice. We as translators are the portal between the two sides. Instead of a foreign language, we are dealing with complex engineering procedures, and instead of literary English the target language is comprehensible instructions, tailored to the audience’s education and experience.

I am close to completing the second part of the Technical Authorship course and I have discovered that I enjoy many elements of commercial writing. It challenges me and I am always learning something new. My aim is to complete the course and do as much freelance commercial writing as possible. I find it varied and am enjoying the balance between creativity and fixed structure.

The specifics of the content required for technical authorship and commercial writing can be learned, and it is the communication skills, an aptitude for precision in document production, an eye for detail, and enjoyment of writing that will prove successful in this career. I am in no way disputing the fact that hands on experience in the desired field, combined with study of Technical Authorship or strong English skills, is a very appealing combination for an employer, but it is also very true and often overlooked that one can be taught how a piece of machinery is assembled but it is harder to impart an aptitude with language and experience in producing accurate publishable pieces of work.

In light of this, and my own experience, I would like Technical Authorship and Commercial Writing to be more accessible to those with an Arts background.

My Other  Life (published in ISTC newsletter March 2012)

Chatting online to victims of bullying, and taking someone with Asperger’s Syndrome out for lunch seems to bear no relation to writing manuals and bulletins for an engineering company. On the surface it seems as though my life outside work bears no relation to the work that I do during the day, and that the Third Sector is a million miles away from the engineering and manufacturing industry.

It was not until completing the Certificate in Technical Communication Skills with the ISTC, and however, that I realised, on closer inspection at the communication skills involved, that there is a great deal of overlap between the two facets of my life.

My full time job is as a Technical Author for SPTS Technologies Ltd, which is a semiconductor fabrication equipment manufacturer. I am responsible for the distilling of bulletins and manuals for customers and internal support staff. Being relatively new to this line of work I rely on communicating with the SMEs (subject-matter experts) for content clarification.

In order to create manuals and bulletins we currently use Adobe Framemaker and Acrobat, with the graphics created by two in-house technical illustrators,  using Photoshop, IsoDraw, and CorelDraw. For online sharing of documents  we use Sharepoint.

I work in a team of 5 and our role as a Technical Publications department is to provide support not only to the customer but also to the internal customer support team and the customer support staff out in the field, as both customer and support staff are required to provide support and maintenance of the of the tool at the customer site. As a result, the intended audience is always forefront in my mind with any communication, and the content of relevant documentation amended accordingly.

In order to achieve the best possible results, the company were keen for myself and another Technical Author in the department to train with the ISTC, and we recently both passed the Certificate in Technical Communication Skills. As a result have enrolled on the second part of the course, the Diploma in Technical and Commercial Authorship, which we hope to complete in the next 12 months.

During our study we learnt about the six Cs of communication and how communication must be:

Clear, Concise, Constructive,  Correct, Courteous, Complete.

Other communication skills involved in my role include the understanding  of how people absorb information, and the ability to grasp complex issues and distil them into good operational instructions,  and having a consistent approach to all communication. A closer look at my work outside of Technical Authoring will highlight how transferable these communication skills are. Other than my job at SPTS Technologies, I work part time in the evenings for Bullies Out and volunteer on the weekends for The National Autistic Society.

Bullies Out

I started volunteering with this antibullying charity as on online mentor in 2008, and have since spent two evening shifts a week chatting to victims of bullying in the designated chat room. The issues that we as mentors are required to deal with often include talking online to children who are considering suicide or who are in hospital recovering from suicide attempts. When communicating with depressed or suicidal individuals it is imperative to be clear in what you say, and concise in your message. It is definitely essential to be courteous and constructive, as well as being correct, proving all the necessary information about further help that they could get and organisations they could contact.

Often we need to research police and social worker contact details, and various procedures such as how to report various domestic abuse claims, and this information has to be gathered and distilled quickly and accurately while the child is online. There are many rules about data protection  that have to be adhered to and ethical considerations, so the mentors must constantly think about what they are communicating and the different audiences, whether it be the child or their foster carer. Confidentiality  is also factor, which is also a consideration  for a lot of the documentation produced as a Technical Author, where other customers’ details are concerned.

As well as continuing to mentor, I have recently been appointed as the Online Mentor Manager, which involves managing the scheme as a whole and maintaining communication pathways between the mentors and the CEO of the charity. The main aspect of the role is to monitor the chat room, and each evening I request summaries of the session from each mentor who was online, collate this information, decide what is relevant to and produce a summary to circulate to the rest of the charity staff so that they can be kept up to date with what issues were discussed. This requires a concise and consistent approach, and to collate writing from all different styles into one concise summary. Another main part of the role involves writing procedures for new mentors to follow and compiling  case studies for training.

National Autistic Society

My other role for charity is as a befriender for the National Autistic Society, which involves meeting with a girl who has Aspergers every week and to help them with their social skills. Communicating with a person on the Autistic Spectrum requires clarity above anything else, and the aim is to be concise and not ambiguous. It is a good idea to use Simplified English where possible, and not to be overly verbose.

The girl I meet with struggles with long sentences and with sentences that include metaphors, similes or ambiguous words, or if the sentence goes off track at all.  She benefits from a consistent approach and courteous communication that is positive and constructive.

In order to help with my volunteer work I completed an Introduction to Counselling module with The Open University, and the overlaps between counselling and technical communicating are many. Above all, the communication must be clear and concise, with the communication tailored to the situation.

I hope that both aspects of my life will continue to assist the other, with constant reflection of the communication techniques required.