Technical Communication

What is a technical communicator?

Whenever you talk, write, or make a hand gesture, you're communicating information. When you write a procedure for safely operating equipment, draw a diagram to show how a machine works, or explain to someone else how to use a computer program, you're communicating technical information. Technical communication is the literature of science and technology.

Have you ever used a help screen in a computer program? Used a CD-ROM to play a game? Surfed the Web by clicking on your favorite links? Used a safety procedure? Assembled a bicycle? Read an article in Scientific American? Used a diagram to help set up your family's computer? If you have, you've used the product developed by a technical communicator.

The information developed by science and technology must be recorded. Sometimes it must be written in clear, uncomplicated language for nonspecialists in the subject; sometimes it must be presented in great detail for specialists.

Technical communicators produce material that conveys scientific and technical information precisely, accurately, and clearly. The projects that technical communicators work on are as varied as the companies and laboratories that do the research. Although producing online documentation or writing for technical publications may be a communicator's primary responsibility, she may also be expected to produce speeches, news stories, scripts for videos and films, or electronic publications.

What makes a good technical communicator?

If you can express yourself clearly in writing and speaking, and if you are curious about science and technology, you have two important qualities of a technical communicator. You should also enjoy interacting with people and be enthusiastic about learning about new ideas.

You must be able to do research and be persistent in finding facts; able to listen, observe, and verify; and able to separate fact from hearsay or fantasy. You must also be able to think clearly, pick out important facts, and organize separate items into a clear, logical, and accurate whole. And, of course, you must be able to write well.

What is life as a technical communicator like?

A technical communicator is typically a very busy person with many demands on her time. Because much technical material explains current research, introduces a new technology, or provides information necessary for others to do their work, time is an important factor in most technical communication jobs. A technical communicator is often working on several projects at once, some with strict deadlines. Or, as documentation manager, she may be responsible for just one large project - from concept to finished product. A technical communicator may work with many people during the evolution of a product: scientists, engineers, photographers, printers, and other communicators such as technical artists, user interface specialists, production team members, quality assurance people, and other specialists. She does most of her work at a computer terminal.

The rewards in technical communication come from seeing your work published on paper or appearing on-line, from the challenge of taking complex technical information and translating it into a useful product, and from working with other people.

How do I become a technical communicator?

The usual educational preparation for a career in technical communication is a bachelor's degree with emphasis on both writing and science. Many colleges and universities offer courses in technical communication, scientific journalism, and technical art. Many schools have four-year bachelor's degree programs in technical communication, and many universities offer master's and Ph.D. degrees in the field.

In high school you should take as many courses as you can in English, the sciences, math, social sciences, and art. You should make a conscious effort to build your vocabulary and learn to use words carefully and accurately. If the university of your choice does not have a degree program in technical communication, you should consider taking many courses in science and mathematics and courses in composition, literature, journalism, graphic arts, and linguistics. Such a program would prepare you well for selling your talent as a technical communicator.

An increasing amount of technical communication is produced digitally in the "paperless office." The growth of nonprint, nonlinear information, such as that found on the Web, is almost explosive. To meet the demands of rapidly changing technologies and ways of finding and using information, the technical communicator must also be accomplished in using computers and computer technologies.

What/where are the jobs?

The sciences requiring technical literature and art include engineering, physics, mathematics, chemistry, medicine, and the computer industry; but there is a need for technical communication wherever scientific or engineering work is done - at a research laboratory, a university, a chemical manufacturing company, an assembly plant, or a software company. Producing technical material has become a part of business and government. Hundreds of technical journals and Web sites are devoted exclusively to scientific and engineering subjects.

For more information

There are many professional societies for the technical communicator. Membership will prove profitable and pleasant, with the opportunity to share your experiences with others engaged in similar activities. The principal professional society for technical communicators is the Society for Technical Communication. Professional groups for more highly specialized technical communication include Nuclear Energy Writers Association, Association of Petroleum Writers, Aviation-Space Writers Association, National Association of Science Writers, American Medical Writers Association, and American Computing Machinery's Special Interest Group for Documentation. On the Web you can find these and other professional organizations that reflect your own interests.

Peggy Durbin
Los Alamos National Laboratory
E-mail: mdurbin@lanl.gov