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Crafting your technical writing resume

Note: Although this post is intended for technical writing students who are about to begin the job search process, but the techniques here might be useful for other students as well.

In this blog post, let’s discuss how to craft your technical writing resume.

The most important thing to remember is that your resume is NOT your autobiography. The recruiter does not need to know all that you have done or achieved in your life so far. They have a limited amount of time to go through hundreds of resumes. Your job is to make it easy for them to select your resume from the massive pile in front of them. Use your resume as a rhetorical tool to present concise, clear, to-the-point facts about why you are a good candidate for the position. Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about what the company’s looking for.

Know Thyself

Before you start writing your resume, take a pen and paper, and do a self-inventory:

  • What courses do you like?
  • What type of organization would you like to work for?
  • What are your geographical preferences?
  • What is your employment history?
  • What professional organizations/associations do you belong to?
  • What social/extracurricular organizations/activities do you associate with?
  • What are your accomplishments/honors/awards?
  • What software/hardware/technical skills do you have?
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Know your audience

In the previous post, we discussed why it’s important to customize your job application materials for each job you apply for. I am aware of the fact that this is an inefficient method of job application. But I have a workaround: Create a base resume based on the self-inventory, and then tweak it for every job you apply for.

Build your base resume

In his textbook, “Technical Communication”, Mike Markel discusses the  essential components of a resume:

Identifying information

  • Full name
  • Address
  • Phone number
  • Email address
  • Link to LinkedIn profile

Objective

Education

Include the following elements in the education section:

  • The degree
  • The institution
  • The location of the institution
  • The date of graduation
  • Information about other schools you attended
  • Your grade-point average
  • List of relevant courses

Employment history

Present at least basic information about every job you held:

  • Dates of employment
  • Organization’s name and location
  • Your position or title

Add carefully selected details of your job and experience. Provide at least a one-line description for each position. For particularly important or relevant jobs, present the following details:

  • Skills: What technical skills did you use on the job?
  • Equipment: What equipment did you operate or oversee?
  • Money: How much money were you responsible for?
  • Documents: What important documents did you write or assist in writing?
  • Personnel: How many people did you supervise or work with?
  • Clients: What kinds of, and how many, clients did you do business with in representing your organization?

Note:

  • Be specific when you write your experiences on a resume.
  • Whenever possible, emphasize results.
  • When you describe positions, functions, or responsibilities, use the active voice. The active voice highlights action.
  • Practice your bulleted lists.
  • Use the form <action word><noun><resulting in><action or result>.
  • If you have not held a professional position, list the jobs you have held, even if they are unrelated to your career plans. If the job title is self-explanatory, like waitperson or service-station attendant, don’t elaborate. If you can write that you contributed to your tuition or expenses, such as by earning 50 percent of your annual expenses through your job, include that.
  • If you have held a number of nonprofessional positions, group them together. Example: Other employment: Cashier (summer 2007), salesperson (part-time, 2008), clerk (summer 2009)

Interests and activities

Include information about your interests and activities:

  • Participation in community-service organizations
  • hobbies related to your career
  • Sports, especially those that might be socially useful in your professional career
  • University-sanctioned activities

Additional Information

You can also include:

  • Computer skills
  • Military experience
    • Dates
    • Locations
    • Positions
    • Ranks
    • Tasks
  • Language ability
  • Willingness to relocate

Customizing your base resume for every job application

Once you have your base resume, it’s easy to customize it for every job you apply for. For every job advertisement, identify the keywords in the advertisement. Understand the core requirements for the job. Then customize the following sections of your resume:

Objective:

State only the goals or duties explicitly mentioned, or clearly implied, in the job advertisement.

For example, if your base resume’s objective is “To obtain a position as a software engineer”, then while applying for a Full-Stack Developer position at say, Google, reword your objective to “To obtain the position of a Full-Stack Developer at Google”. Just insert the position title and name of the company in your objective statement.

Focus on the reader’s needs, not on your goals.

Education:

The education section is the easiest part of the resume to adapt in applying for different positions.

Emphasize those aspects of your education that meet the requirements for the particular job.

Your base resume would probably list your courses in a random order. To customize your resume for a particular job, reorder the courses so that the most relevant courses are at the top of the list.

Experience:

Your base resume would include details of all positions/projects you held in equal weightage. To customize your resume for a particular job, rearrange the experience section so that the most relevant projects/positions are highlighted, and others are mentioned briefly.

There you have it. Easy steps to customize your resume for every job you apply to. In the next post, we will discuss how to write a cover letter for each position. Stay tuned!

If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at: hello@amrutaranade.com

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Masters in Technical Communication: How to apply to universities

In the previous post, we discussed how to choose a graduate program. This post discusses how to apply to Technical Communication (TC) graduate programs in the United States.

A seminal resource to study when applying for TC graduate programs is Dr. Angela Eaton’s article. In this article, Dr. Eaton rightly points out why the generic advice about applying to grad schools is so unsuitable for TC grad programs. She then discusses the behind-the-scenes action of how TC application review committees evaluate and select candidates for the graduate programs. She describes the application materials in detail and how to explain any weaknesses in your application.

Dr. Eaton’s advice is particularly helpful for non-US applicants, who might not be aware of the cultural and contextual expectations in graduate applications. I sure wasn’t aware of the expectations. This article proved eye-opening for me. For instance, as an Indian student, I was prone towards opening my Statement of Purpose with a quote or a childhood memory, which is considered a curt no-no in the US academic system. I can’t stress enough how important this article is. Before preparing your application materials, study this article thoroughly. Print it out, annotate it, follow her advice religiously.

In addition to Dr. Eaton’s article, I want to point out the additional steps international students have to undertake before and after applying to TC grad programs in the United States:

Transcripts:

In the Indian education system, we are given marksheets after we pass an exam. I was under the impression that marksheets are the same as transcripts – but that’s not true. I had to request University of Pune to issue my official transcripts – and the process is supposed to take up to 60 days! Thankfully, I got my transcripts in time. Lesson learned: Request your official transcripts well in advance.

Snail Mail:

Most universities require that you send your application materials by actual, physical mail. Make sure you mail the application materials in advance and keep a time buffer to account for international shipping.

Student Visa (F1 Visa):

Once you are admitted into the TC grad program, the university will issue your I-20, which is one of the key documents required to apply for the student visa. This document will be mailed physically to you, so while scheduling your visa interview, ensure you will have received your I-20 by then. The student visa application process is same as that of other majors. The official US Travel site <http://www.ustraveldocs.com> has all the information required for the process.

If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at hello@amrutaranade.com

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CrashCourse Computer Science

Our quest to become tech-savvy can’t have a better start than the CrashCourse Computer Science series:

This binge-watchable series is a fun and interesting introduction to the general world of computing. It starts with the absolute fundamentals of computing and progresses to present-day complex technological applications. I absolutely love this series and make it a point to watch a video everyday with my morning coffee (along with some other tech videos that I will share at a later date).

P.S.: You might want to check out the other Crash Course series as well – they are really good!

How to conduct an effective job search in technical writing

Note: Although this post is intended for technical writing students who are about to begin the job search process,  the techniques here might be useful for experienced professionals as well.

If you have recently graduated or are about to graduate with a technical writing degree – Congratulations! You’ve made it and you have the paper to prove it! It’s now time to enter the professional world.

There are many resources out on the Internet about how to search for a technical writing job. But in my experience, those resources are quite generic, and as a result, ineffective. In this post, I want to discuss the techniques I used to get my job at Cockroach Labs, and the tips I used to share with my tech writing students.

Learn how the job search process works on the company’s side

To conduct an effective job search, you first need to understand the system.

First audience – The job portal algorithm:

When you submit your resume to a company’s job portal, it might not directly reach a human. Especially at big companies, your first barrier is a machine – an algorithm that parses resumes, matches the keywords in the job ad to the words in your resume,  and decides if your resume is relevant to the job posting. So the first step in the job search process is to study each job advertisement carefully, identify the keywords, and customize your resume and cover letter to match those keywords. Don’t stash the keywords in your application materials – after all, a human will eventually read it. However, do pay attention to relevant keywords and strategically use them throughout your résumé and cover letter. Once the algorithm finds the relevant keywords in your application materials, increases your chances of being put in touch with a human.

Second audience – Human resources:

The second level of the recruitment process is the Human Resources folks. Again, they are not the final audience for your job application materials, but they are the gatekeepers. If you stuff your materials with industry jargon that they do not understand, chances of your materials not being forwarded increase. Don’t dumb down your résumé; include an easy to understand summary of what you’re describing and then follow-up with industry jargon if necessary.

Final audience – Hiring manager:

The hiring manager is your main audience. This person is your primary audience and knows what is required for the position. These requirements are specified in the job ad.  Your task is to ensure that your résumé and cover letter clearly explain why you are a good fit for the position based on the stated requirements.

Find the Right Job

A common mistake I’ve observed people making is sending out mass applications. Some people visit LinkedIn or Glassdoor, or some other popular online job search site, and apply for all possible jobs they can find. This one-size-fits-all approach ultimately leads to frustration and anxiety when companies don’t respond. A better approach is to identify your niche and target jobs specifically relating to that niche.

My own job search experience demonstrates the effectiveness of targeted job search. My niche is startups and developer documentation. When I began my job search in Spring 2017, I applied to general technical writing jobs on LinkedIn and startup developer docs jobs at startups on AngelList. I got no interview calls from LinkedIn. However, I got 7 interview calls from the 8 companies I applied to on AngelList. Find your niche and focus your job search in that area. Casting too wide a net causes you to lose focus and use too general an approach for applying for jobs.

Caveat: If you are just starting out in the technical writing field, this advice might not apply to you. At the beginning of your career, you do want to cast a wider net, try out different jobs, and along the way, find your niche.

Consider academic jobs

If you’ve completed a graduate program in technical communication, you can also consider applying to academia.

Portals for academic jobs:

Update: As Dr. Northcut for pointed out of Facebook, “It’s hard to get a really good academic position without a PhD.”

Considerations for International Students

Students in non-STEM university programs can get a one-year OPT after graduation. You have 3 choices:

  • Apply to companies that you know will sponsor your H1B. This pool is very limited and, therefore, extremely competitive.
  • Apply for academic jobs. These jobs don’t have an H1B cap.
  • Decide if you’re okay with having only one year of work experience in the US. This means that you would apply to all jobs knowing that you will probably only be able to work for a year. You can still talk to HR about it during final negotiations.

Prepare Your Application Materials

In the upcoming blog posts, we will discuss how to tailor your résumé, cover letter, and portfolio to reflect the requirements of each job to apply to:

  • Crafting your technical writing resume (Scheduled for 01/17/18)
  • Writing a cover letter for a technical writing job (Scheduled for 01/24/18)
  • Building your technical writing portfolio (Scheduled for 01/31/18)

If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at: hello@amrutaranade.com

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Masters in Technical Communication: Choosing a Graduate Program

Choosing the program that’s right for you is a daunting task. This blog post discusses how I chose the graduate program at Missouri S&T.

As we discussed in the previous post, I had worked for 5 years as a Technical Writer in India. I had worked with multinational companies and startups, on user documentation as well as developer documentation. By then, I had realized my strengths as a tech writer and identified my knowledge gaps.  I realized the need for formal education in writing in general, and technical writing in particular. So I Googled “technical writing degrees,” not expecting to find any. To my utter surprise, Google returned 5,790,000  results.

Thankfully, the search also directed me to Fer O’Neil’s blog post on choosing a technical communication program. In this outstanding blog post, Fer discusses the criteria and selection process he used to narrow down the choice of his graduate program, as well as analyzes several graduate programs. I cannot recommend this blog post highly enough. It is an excellent starting point for anyone serious about pursuing a TC graduate program in the United States.

Studying Fer’s blog post helped me come up with my criteria for choosing a graduate program. The first criteria Fer discussed in his blog post was MS or MA, so naturally, this was the first one I evaluated as well. Being an engineer, I was inclined towards MS rather than an MA degree. I thoroughly researched the programs Fer had listed in his blog post, as well as the programs listed in Dr. Angela Eaton’s article and in STC’s Academic Database. The MS programs seemed to have a real-world focus instead of a theoretical approach to technical communication. I perused the syllabuses and courses of several universities before finalizing the program at Missouri S&T.

The Technical Communication graduate program at Missouri S&T aligned with my expectations – at least from the course descriptions. For example:

  • Help Authoring – I was already doing it all day every day at my job.
  • Web Design – I knew I wanted to make time to learn it while I was working but couldn’t find the time. It seemed like a great opportunity to finally learn Web Design.
  • Visual communication and Usability were topics that were coming up frequently at STC India conferences and other industry interactions.
  • International Technical communication – Localization was taking off in a big way when I was working at Symantec.

I could relate to almost all the courses. I emailed Dr. Wright at Missouri S&T to get more information about the program, and within a few email conversations, I knew I had found the right program for me.

Dr. Wright informed me that I am eligible for a teaching assistantship – I didn’t even know that was an option! An assistantship would mean a part-fee waiver and a monthly stipend. I was mentally prepared to put in all my savings and borrow money from my parents to fund my graduate education, but the assistantship would lessen the burden considerably. (In the second year, the entire fee was waived off. I really hit the jackpot with Missouri S&T).

What sealed the deal for me was Dr. Wright’s response rate. He was always helpful, always prompt – it was almost as if he could sense my anxiety and questions and respond to them. (His empathy and unwavering support would later prove invaluable when he took on the responsibility of being my thesis advisor). Another person responsible for my choice is our brilliant administrative assistant, Ms. Linda Sands. She was an immense help in getting the paperwork in time, signing up for classes, all that good stuff. People usually suggest that you research 10 universities and apply to 5. I didn’t. I was sure about my decision and applied only to the Missouri S&T program. And I am so glad I did!

Though I got lucky with my choice, I now have a better understanding of the factors one should consider while selecting a program:

Location, location, location: One of the factors I didn’t consider at all (because I didn’t know any better), was location. This means finding a school in a location in which you’ll be comfortable. Missouri S&T is in Rolla, a university town at a 2-hours drive from St. Louis. Coming from a crowded city in India, Rolla seemed isolated and empty. It took me a semester to get used to it – and once I did, I fell in love with it. However, small-town universities aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Don’t neglect to research the demographics of the area when identifying graduate programs.

Find Support to Cover the Costs: Many universities offer assistantships. An assistantship is an arrangement between the student and the university where the student is given financial support while teaching or conducting research for the university. Ask if your program of choice offers assistantships.

STEM versus Non- STEM Courses: This is an important criteria for international students that I had absolutely no idea about. International students who complete graduate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) programs in the U.S. can apply for an Optional Practical Training (OPT) extension. The OPT extension allows people who qualify to work in the U.S. for 3 years. Students of Non-STEM courses get an OPT for only a year. FYI:  Most Technical Communication graduate programs are Non-STEM.

Once you decide to pursue a graduate program in Technical Communication and finalize your program selection criteria, go through the following resources to analyze graduate programs:

In the next blog post, we will discuss how to apply to TC graduate programs in the United States.

If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at hello@amrutaranade.com

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Why “be more technical”?

On the topic of how “technical” should technical writers need to be, the Technical Communication (TC) community is divided into two camps: Those who think it is absolutely essential to be tech-savvy to be a good technical writer, and those who think being too tech-savvy is actually a handicap for a technical writer. I belong to the camp that says being technical is a blessing for your career.

The camp you end up in depends on the product and company you work at and your end audience. If the product is a UI-based product, then yes, being technical is not a requirement. You need to explain the terminology and workflows, which does not require technological knowledge. But in today’s usability-focused world, products are getting intuitive and not needing extensive documentation. And to simplify the user-experience, the complexity is moved to the backend. With the rise of modular software architectures and plug-and-play software modules, the need to good technical writers is increasing in the developer documentation arena. Developers now don’t need to tell users how to use the products; instead, they need to tell other developers how to integrate the products with their own. And this is where, in my opinion, the lucrative opportunities for technical writers lie.

My experience so far validates my belief. Granted, my academic background is in engineering, so I am naturally inclined to the technical side of things. However, I think even if I was not an engineer, I would still have learned all things technical that I possibly could. Let me show you how “being technical” has helped me in my career so far:

I started my career as a VLSI engineer at Wipro. There, I was asked to document the Application Notes for the Integrated Circuits we were designing, and thus began my love affair with technical writing. After a year, I switched fields and moved to Symantec as a Technical Writer. At Symantec, I learned the on-the-job skills required for good technical writing. But the job wasn’t technical enough to retain my interest and the engineer in me started cribbing about it. So I moved to Druva as the Engineering Technical Writer and this proved to be the inflection point in my career. At Druva, I documented the software architecture and design of our products for internal developers. I reported to the VP of Engineering and worked closely with the CTO and the developers. The documents I created helped developers understand the overall architecture of the product, know what their colleagues were working on, learn what design decisions were made and why, and helped them better collaborate with their peers. Also, they were relieved that they didn’t have to write the design docs anymore. At most, they would have to write a rough draft and I would take it from there. As a result, I became a valued and highly visible member of the Engineering team. The position opened up several growth avenues for me, one of which led me to the MS in Technical Communication program at Missouri S&T. My work helped me develop an amazing rapport with our CTO – he offered me a summer internship in the California office, which was later extended to a remote part-time internship that lasted throughout my second year at Missouri S&T.

In the last semester of my grad program, I started looking for jobs. I didn’t want to go back to California. This time, my heart was set on New York. As an international student, I knew I would have to prove my worth for a company to take a chance on me. And the way to do that was to build my portfolio. So I researched open source projects where I could contribute documentation and build my portfolio. I came across an interesting project – CourseWorld – and started contributing software design docs to the project. This project helped me demonstrate not only my ability to understand and document technology, but also my knowledge of GitHub and online collaboration tools. In short, it helped me “show, don’t tell”. And it worked! I got interview calls from exciting startups for deeply technical positions. One of the calls that got me super-excited was from Cockroach Labs. After an intense interviewing day, I was hired as a Senior Technical Writer at the New York office and offered a six-figure salary. So you can see why I am biased to being more technical 🙂

I ardently believe technical writers should strive to be more tech-savvy. Being technical has helped me leap through my career. It has opened up avenues of career growth that I didn’t know existed. And honestly, it’s just fun to dive into the inner workings of a product and understand how the magic happens.

Now I know that in the current rapidly-evolving technological landscape, finding a realistic, manageable starting point to learn more about technology is a daunting task. Just the number of programming languages, dev bootcamps, open source projects, cloud technologies out there seem stressful and off-putting. The trick is to start small and build your technical knowledge incrementally. And that’s what we will aim for in this blog series. Each Friday, I will share a byte-sized technological resource that I found helpful and hope that you will too. Stay tuned!

If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at hello@amrutaranade.com

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Stuff I want my students to know

Me at GPACW
Me at GPACW 2017 (Image credit: Dr. Dawn Armfield)

While pursuing the MS degree in Technical Communication at Missouri S&T, I taught a section of the technical writing service course for three semesters. In the course, we discussed all the essentials of tech writing – audience analysis, research and information gathering, drafting, editing, getting feedback, and so on.

Several of my students were interested in pursuing technical writing as a full-time career. They often asked insightful questions about how do you get a technical writing job, what does a tech writer’s typical day look like, what skills can I learn now that will help me succeed in the job and so on. I enjoyed our lively discussions, but more often than not I had to cut the conversations short to focus on the assignment at hand.

Even now, when I am back in the corporate world, I find myself wishing I was still teaching so I could share the techniques and skills I learn at the job with my students.

So this blog series is my attempt to carry on the conversation and open up the discussion to a larger audience.

Every Wednesday, I will post about one topic that I want my students to know about applying for and succeeding at technical writing jobs. In January, I will post my experience of getting a job at Cockroach Labs, resources I found useful, and sample documents. The posting schedule is as follows:

  • How to conduct an effective job search in technical writing (Scheduled for 01/10/18)
  • Crafting your technical writing resume (Scheduled for 01/17/18)
  • Writing a cover letter for a technical writing job (Scheduled for 01/24/18)
  • Building your technical writing portfolio (Scheduled for 01/31/18)

Once we discuss how to get a job, we will move on to things to do on when you land a new job, productivity techniques for surviving at a technical writing job, and so on.

If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at: hello@amrutaranade.com

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Masters in Technical Communication: Introduction to the series

Graduation
Graduation Day! (Image source: Missouri S&T English and Technical Communication Facebook page)

In May 2017, I earned my Masters degree in Technical Communication at Missouri S&T. Since then, I have often been asked about my experience of pursuing the degree, if I find the degree worth the time and effort required, and how it helps me in my current role as the Senior Technical Writer at Cockroach Labs. This blog series is my attempt to answer the questions and open up the conversation to a broader audience.

To understand the impact of the graduate program on my career, we first need to discuss my professional background.

The Story So Far…

I graduated in 2009 with a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering from University of Pune, India. After a year-long stint at Wipro as a VLSI designer, I switched fields and moved to technical writing. I worked as a Technical Writer for 5 years: first at Symantec (a multinational company where I worked on user documentation) and then at Druva (a fast-growing startup where I worked on developer documentation and created software architecture and design docs). I presented at several national STC conferences and participated in numerous workshops. By February 2015, I felt as if I had learned all that the Indian tech writing community had to offer. I was beginning to feel stuck at this stage of my career when I had a chance meeting with a friend who was considering pursuing a Masters degree in her field. I wondered if there are any graduate programs in Technical Communication. So naturally, I googled it. I was blown away by the number of graduate programs in Technical Communication! Thus began my journey halfway across the world to pursue a Masters degree in Technical Communication.

The whole process of getting serious about applying to Tech Comm grad programs and starting my program in the United States took less 6 months. In those 6 months, I did all of the following:

  • Researched the Tech Comm programs
  • Prepared the application materials (Statement of Purpose, Letters of Recommendation, Transcripts, and so on)
  • Studied for and took the GRE and TOEFL exams (got good scores, thankfully!)
  • Applied for the program at Missouri S&T
  • Was offered a Graduate Teaching Assistantship
  • Applied for and received my student visa
  • Packed everything I owned and moved across the seas to the United States.

Since then, I have completed ten graduate courses in Tech Comm, successfully defended my Master’s thesis, did a summer internship in California, continued with same company as a remote part-time intern during the second year of the graduate program, taught a section of the technical writing service course to undergrads for three semesters, and moved to New York to join Cockroach Labs.

Pursuing a graduate program has made me a better technical writer. My industry experience as a technical writer helped me answer the “what” and “how” questions of technical writing, but the graduate program taught me “why” we do what we do. The program helped me develop the foundational skills and theoretical approaches to technical writing. It also opened my mind to new aspects of Tech Comm that I hadn’t been exposed to before: research in technical communication, teaching technical communication, proposal writing, cultural contextual theories in international communication, visual communication, usability and accessibility, history of the field, and so on. I got the chance to meet my tech-comm heroes: Dr. Kirk St. Amant, Tom Johnson, Dr. Lisa Meloncon, and many others.

I also discovered the treasure of academic research in Tech Comm, and the prominent academic journals: Technical Communication, Technical Communication Quarterly, Journal of Business and Technical Communication, IEEE Transactions of Professional Communication, and several more. I was introduced to the academic ecosystem of Tech Comm, which is a whole different career path in itself. I have found brilliant mentors in the field: Dr. Northcut, Dr. Wright, and Dr. Malone (my professors at Missouri S&T), and a very supportive and welcoming community of ATTW and CPTSC (professional organizations in the academic sphere).

The graduate program gave me much more than I could have asked for. It justified my decision to give up my steady career and comfortable life in India and move to the United States. I genuinely believe that more technical writers should opt for a formal education in Tech Comm, and I hope this blog series inspires you to consider pursuing a graduate degree in Technical Communication. Stay tuned for the upcoming posts:

  • How to choose a Technical Communication graduate program (Scheduled for 01/08/2018)
  • How to apply to universities (Scheduled for 01/15/2018)
  • MS in Technical Communication Program at Missouri S&T (Scheduled for 01/22/2018)
  • Graduate Teaching Assistantship at the Missouri S&T program (Scheduled for 01/29/2018)

If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at hello@amrutaranade.com

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Shut Up and Write meetups

Of all the exciting events in New York, the one I look forward to every week is the Shut Up and Write Meetup. Every Wednesday, at 7 PM, about 20 writers meet at a cafe near the Columbus Circle. Before the writing session begins, we introduce ourselves and the projects we are working on. Then we write for one hour. And after the hour is up, we hang out for a bit or head home.

We have a plethora of writing projects and genres in the group. We have a TV screenplay writer, historical fiction writer, a memoir writers, a sci-fi writer and so on. Each person comes in with their own project and spends the hour working on some aspect of the project. The skill-set of the writers varies as well. We have the dabblers, who want to write but not sure about the topic. We have people who are working on specific time-bound projects. And then we have writers who have dedicated years to their projects. I once met a writer who is working on her book for the past five years! I am in awe of her dedication to her writing project.

I find the meetup to be inspiring and relieving. The meetup helps me focus on free-writing instead of editing every sentence as I write. I observed that most writers in the group write in their notebooks instead of laptops. I tried it during one writing session and could see why that was an excellent strategy. I spend almost every waking moment in front of a screen: either my laptop or smartphone or Kindle. While writing on a laptop, I always have my internet browser open to research something or check social media. Writing in the notebook helps me disengage from technology and deep-dive into my thoughts. It also helps me play around with the writing project in a manner that a computer doesn’t allow for. And most importantly, it helps me indulge in the joy of writing as I used to as a child – just me and my notebook and my favorite pen, lost in my own little world.

Another wonderful benefit of attending the meetup every week is that it allows me to let myself off the hook for the rest of the week. Once I put in the hour on Wednesday, I can be at peace knowing I put in my writing time for the week. And I can get a surprising amount of writing done in one hour. I write about 7 to 8 pages per writing session, whereas I struggle to write even 3 to 4 pages on my own.

I highly recommend the Shut Up and Write meetups. Give them a try and let me know what you think!

Volunteering with New York Cares: Computer Education program

This is a follow-up to my previous post: Volunteering with New York Cares: The Orientation.

On Wednesday, June 7th, I volunteered for the Computer Education program for senior citizens in Upper West Side. It was the most productive activity I had participated in since moving to the city. Around 20 senior citizens and four (or five, I think) participated in the program. I had expected to help the participants with basic computer-related tasks, like creating an email account, browsing the web, and so on. After all, those were the kind of tasks I had helped with when I volunteered in India. Little did I know, the session was going to be an eye-opener and a crash course in usability and accessibility.

I was assigned to assist three senior citizens: A 70-year old lady, a Chinese gentleman, and an Indian gentleman. The lady had already created her own fitness video for senior citizens, created her own YouTube Channel, and was now looking to add more tags to the video to increase viewership. After I helped her add the tags, she wanted to know how to send the video link as a message to her followers on Facebook. She had already set up two Facebook pages and was actively managing them both. I was blown away at how enthusiastic she was about learning new technology and most importantly, using the technology to further her fitness and commercial goals.

The Chinese gentleman wanted to learn how to set up his Gmail account on his smartphone. He already had an account, but could not configure it on his phone. After he configured the account on his phone, he asked me to help him install a translation app on his phone so he could work on his English conversational skills.

The Indian gentleman was an amazing poet who was working on his own book of poems and wanted to learn how to use MS Word’s layout functionality to design his own book of poems.

As a technical communicator, I found the event to be a real-world lesson on usability, accessibility, and audience awareness:

  • Audience awareness: I had incorrectly assumed the technological literacy level of my audience. The participants were much more tech-savvy than I had imagined.
  • Usability: When the event started, the lady was trying to add tags to the video. She kept telling me she had done it previously, but could not do it this time, and that frustrated her. She showed me the left-hand menu bar and told me that’s where she had added the tags previously. I clicked on her video’s edit button and scrolled down to locate the tags window. I think YouTube changed their interface since the time she had last attempted to add tags. For me, a digital native, it was very intuitive to click around and look for stuff, but that did not occur to her. I found this to be a very important insight for UX designers: Changing UI interfaces frequently can cause problems for the digital non-natives. One solution I can think of is tiered-versions of the software. Companies can create a basic, tier-one version of the software with critical functionality and leave it untouched or update it less frequently. And a tier-two version of the same software can have all the bells and whistles and can be changed as frequently as desired.
  • Accessibility: The Chinese gentleman faced issues because the size of the keys on the keypad on his  smartphone was smaller than his fingers, so he kept hitting the wrong key. I helped him increase the key size, but again, that is because I knew the functionality existed. There is no point of providing accessibility options if people are not aware of it, let alone know how to use it. Making the accessibility functions more intuitive and educating users about the existence and usage of accessibility functions is important.

I wish I was still teaching at Missouri S&T (I miss it already), so I could share the experience with my students. I would sincerely encourage every technical communicator, UX designer, and developer to volunteer for the Computer Education program at least once.