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Time for my two cents. I apologize now for ranting way too much.
In many ways, I think Technical Writing programs are like Journalism
programs. You learn a little theory, get a little "practical experience"
using FrameMaker or the higher functions of Word, maybe a bit of RoboHelp or
DocToHelp. However, you never really understand the job until you're doing
One of my favourite journalists (Alan Fotheringham, keeper of the back page
in Maclean's) often rants about how these "journalism schools" are merely
money-making outfits. Much the same can be said for tech writing programs.
It's not out of the ordinary for such programs to be scrambling in the few
days before school starts trying to find teachers for different courses...so
you might not be getting the best quality instruction for your money. "Hey,
can you teach FrameMaker." "Well, I've seen the box in the store." "Great,
you start Tuesday!"
True, you can learn a lot about technical writing in a technical writing
program. And true, you sometimes have to get the piece of paper that states
"passed the technical writing program", especially if you are changing
careers. It might be hard to justify to an employer that 10 years in
accounting is a fabulous segue into technical writing.
However, sometimes you find that the stuff you learned in said program is
not entirely practical. You took a course in RoboHelp but your first job is
only producing FrameMaker paper and pdf documents. Next thing you know,
RoboHelp has released two new versions and your skills are gone.
I have a B.A in Rhetoric and Professional Writing (has it been 5 years
already?). That did NOT prepare me for this job. Not even close. I learned
more about writing in the first three months of my first job than I learned
in four years of university. They tried to teach us some practical stuff,
but it didn't really work out.
Ok, enough ranting, here's my advice:
By all means, take some courses. I think it would be best to take something
that genuinely interests you (online help, some solid writing and editing
courses). Try not to specialize too much, that should come later with a few
years of experience. Also, do your best to download free demos of software,
too. RoboHelp, ForeHelp, DoctoHelp, WebWorksPublisher etc all offer free
demos to try the products. Use that to create some projects on your own.
Beyond that, get to the local STC meetings, surf incessantly and find some
small contracts (technical or otherwise). A lot of people manage to start
off doing smallish projects and finding themselves getting bigger and better
gigs quickly after. Once you have a few contacts, the world gets much
Again, I apologize if this rant makes no sense or is not really what you
were looking for. It's just very hard to plan a career in a field that has