Tech Writer Develops Skills For a Mobile World at UCSC Extension


- Scott Copeland, Technical Writing & Communication Alumnus

Term : April, 2015
Department : Business and Management
Program : Technical Writing & Communication

Scott Copeland had been working as a professional technical writer for a few years when he decided to pursue certification. His manager referred him to UCSC Extension’s Technical Writing and Communications program, which he found to be the most rigorous and comprehensive program of its kind in the Bay Area. He writes instruction guides for APIs, maintains an online help system for a user interface, and writes user guides for a Bay Area company. He completed his certificate in fall 2014.

What appealed to you about the program?
I did my own research on tech programs, and UCSC Extension has the greatest number of tech writing courses in the Bay Area; even more than UC Berkeley. It’s also run by a former president of the Society for Technical Communication, which is a good sign. My employer was willing to reimburse me for it, and I was able to take all of my courses online, which I appreciated. It was a really positive experience and I’m really glad I did it. I learned a lot.

What courses stood out to you?
The “Grammar and Style for Technical Communicators” stood out because it was the most difficult. I’m not a trained writer, but I like to write, and I thought I knew more about grammar than I did. It was good because it forced me to really use the rules.

“Mobile UA” was a good course. My company is starting to go into the mobile space, and currently my user guides are written in a pdf format, so some of our customers have complained that it is not an ideal format for viewing on a phone. I used some of the knowledge from that class and collaborated with my colleagues to develop a better way of publishing that document. I got the most direct benefit from that class.

The “Content Management” course helped you look at everything as a data element, from the guide to the code to the user interface. It teaches you to see that everything you use is a data element contained in a database that helps you see the big picture. The “Final Project: Preparing Your Job Search” class was very helpful for people new to the field.

What skills or knowledge have you applied to your work?
When it comes to user interface, one of the things I learned in this program was how to write from a task-based approach. Instead of explaining what something is and what it does, you describe the tasks that you can perform in the interface. I also learned that there are three kinds of information: reference data, which is purely referential; explanatory information, which is prose; and procedures. I learned that it works best when you separate those elements and cross-reference between them. You might start with an explanation, then a procedure, and then provide reference information.

What challenges do technical writers face today?
The mobile experience is a new challenge; it requires truncated information, to save space. You have to be really terse when writing for a mobile audience. I work in software, and in software you have to get the information from the developers as they are making it, so your documentation has to be ready by the time it’s released. It helps to know something about how software companies produce their products so you can match their timeline. Being a tech writer is like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. You’re documenting something that doesn’t exist yet, so you have to be proactive about it. It helps to talk to developers and cultivate subject matter experts.

What’s your dream job?
I’m so happy where I’m at. I’d love to get promoted to senior tech writer. I work for a really great company; I want to stay here forever.

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