Re: software for a newbie

Subject: Re: software for a newbie
From: Tim Altom <taltom -at- IQUEST -dot- NET>
Date: Tue, 4 Mar 1997 13:18:44 -0600

At 11:21 AM 3/4/97 -0600, you wrote:
>Ryan Bangerter wrote:
>>
>> I suppose, I'm really not a newbie, but a wantabe tech writer. Story is =
>> I am a MA student in English, wishing my program offered technical =
>> writing as an emphasis. Until then, I try to learn all I can about =
>> what's new in the field. I'm wondering what type of software I should =
>> learn to really compete in the technical writing job search. What are =
>> employers looking for in entry-level technical writers?
>
>In terms of bang for your buck, in descending order:
>1) Any standard word processor (Word, WP, Ami/WordPro)
>2) Any top-flight Desktop Publisher (FrameMaker, Pagemaker, Ventura)
>3) Any Hypertext system (HTML, Frame Hypertext, Acrobat)
>4) Any WinHelp authoring tool (Robohelp, HDK, DocToHelp)
>5) Any Vector graphics tools (Illustrator, CorelDraw, Freehand)
>6) Any Multimedia authoring system (take your pick)
>
>I put them in generic categories because, frankly, if you learn one tool
>in the category, you can usually figure out all the others.
>
Oh, no! Not another "what tool should I learn to be one of you?" question!

Okay, a touch of overreaction. I'm over it now. Almost.

The comment about "learn one, you've pretty much learned 'em all" is true,
but only if you've already mastered the fundamentals in each category.
Hypertext tools don't make a hypertext author. Hypertext knowledge does.
Ditto layout, multimedia, and so on. Layout isn't just the ability to put
stuff on a page. WinHelp isn't just computer-based text. All of the listed
items take sweat, time and diligence to learn correctly. That's what Ryan
should be shooting for, a by-the-numbers learning experience in
human-to-human communication. English is a great first step (just look at
how many of us have a degree in English). But beyond that, the tools come
after the further education, not before.

Ryan, if you're reading this, you didn't say what college you're attending,
but if there's a student STC chapter, by all means join it. If there's a
standard chapter nearby, attend it faithfully. Talk to people there. Ask
around in your area for tech doc departments and pay them visits, asking
only for the chance to follow people and ask questions. Read back issues of
the STC Journal. Get into the profession's lobby as soon as possible.

As for what employers want...well, most of them want dedication, especially
in an entry-level position. How organized are you? How inventive? How much
time and effort have you put into things besides classroom attendance? Are
you a self-starter? Can you find things out on your own?

Then put lots of time in learning the fundamentals of the profession,
including tours of duty in computer science, writing (which presumably
English provides), journalism (including layout techniques) and such
technogeeky classes as logic and mathematics so you can talk the talk. Pay
special attention to how people communicate in all their varied ways. See if
the school has a computer lab with Word and see if they'll add things to
Word to help you out, things like Internet Assistant, a WinHelp compiler,
and so forth. It's the cheapest way to learn a tool, although it may not be
the best toolkit in the world. Produce things both on paper and online and
get them critiqued by people who know what they're talking about. Volunteer
at the campus computer center to write manuals for special software.
Anything to bolt together a portfolio and get real experience.

By that time, you're just about ready to start worrying about tools. And has
been noted, the pressure to worry about tools won't be as severe, because
you'll have the knowledge to tackle any tool. And I agree totally with the
ranking of subjects. You'll see more word processors than layout packages,
and more layout than hypertext, and so on down the line.

Tim Altom
Vice President, Simply Written, Inc.
317.899.5882 (voice) 317.899.5987 (fax)
FrameMaker support ForeHelp support
FrameMaker-to-HTML Conversions
HTML Help Consulting and Production

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