Should you take a technical writing course?

TLDR: No, I don't recommend taking a technical writing course.

In January, I wrote an article comparing technical writing to knowledge translation, and in it, I mentioned enrolling in a technical writing program. I realize now that I should have called it a course, not a program, because it was only a single online class spanning 6 weeks. But — ignoring that for the moment — I finished the course last week, and I want to talk about whether I found it valuable.

Why I took a technical writing course

The course I enrolled in was a 6-week Fundamentals of Technical Writing course that was offered online through a local university. After completing the course and passing the final exam, I was presented with a digital certificate recognizing the achievement.

I enrolled in the course because:

  • I wanted some credentials to support my position at work.
  • I received a significant alumni discount on the course.
  • There is always something new to learn, and I enjoy learning.

I did not enrol in the course because:

  • I was asked by my employer to do so.
  • I felt I needed the education for my job.
  • I wanted a new job or a promotion.
A girl watching a virtual lecture on her laptop

What did the course look like

The online course was 6 weeks long. Each week included 2 lessons that were made available on Wednesday and Friday (i.e., 12 lessons in total). Each lesson included written material, links to supplementary material, a short ungraded multiple choice quiz, and an optional assignment. The course concluded with a graded multiple choice examination that I was required to pass to receive the certificate.

The 12 lessons were:

  1. Technical writing overview
  2. Preparing to write
  3. Gathering information
  4. Writing skills
  5. Technical writing conventions
  6. Graphics
  7. Document formatting
  8. Paragraph styles in Word
  9. Document templates
  10. Creating indexes
  11. Editing and proofreading
  12. Publishing your document

Each lesson also included a discussion board to either ask questions of our instructor or fellow students, share comments or anecdotes on the material, or post the optional assignment material for feedback.

How much of the material did I actually do

I read the written material for each of the lessons, though for some of it I just skimmed. I did the short ungraded multiple choice quizzes for each lesson. And I did the final examination, obviously.

I did not click on many of the supplementary links. I did not participate much in the discussion boards. And I did not do any of the optional assignments that asked us to apply the written material. For example, for lesson 8, the optional assignment was to create a document in Word and apply paragraph styles, make new styles, modify existing styles, etc.

A survey showing three options: good, neutral, and bad

What I liked about the course

There were many aspects of the course I liked. These included:

  • The written material. I found the material interesting, and I appreciated how the instructor weaved her personal experiences in.
  • The course length. I wasn’t looking for some extensive technical writing program, and I felt that a 6-week, 12-lesson length was sufficient.
  • The certificate. Upon completing the course, I wanted something that recognized my achievement, even if it was only a digital image of a certificate.

What I disliked about the course

However, there were also many aspects of the course I disliked. These included:

  • The written material. Yes, I am putting this twice. That’s because, while the material was interesting, a lot of it I already knew, or I thought was unnecessary.
  • The discussion boards. I used the discussion boards a handful of times to ask specific questions that I wanted the instructor to answer, but she never did.
  • The final examination. The final exam included questions on unnecessary material. For example, ‘What programming language was named after a female mathematician?’

A bit more context

Most of the written material of value to the career of a technical writer was stuff I already knew. And the material that I found interesting was of no career value, like the history of technical writing. After all, you’re not likely to be asked during a job interview, ‘Who is considered to be the first technical writer?’ For someone who is new to technical writing, though, they likely got a lot more value out of the material.

While some students regularly posted in the discussion boards, I didn’t find them that useful, largely because I knew all the material. The few times I did use the discussion boards, I asked questions related to challenges I was having at work. Such as, ‘What style of page heading works best for a large document with changing page orientations?’ I had hoped the instructor would respond, given her many years of technical writing experience, but she didn’t.

The final examination suffered from two problems I have experience often during my many years of university education: (1) questions on material of no significant career value, and (2) questions on very specific material that, again, is of no significant value. This is especially frustrating when the course is for professional development. If I were to fail the exam because I couldn’t answer ‘What is the name of the first technical document?’, I would be very annoyed.

A man thinking

Conclusion

Should you take a technical writing course? Well, like most things, it depends.

Based on my experience, I’d recommend taking a course if:

  • Your employer is recommending that you do (duh).
  • You know very little about technical writing.

I do not recommend taking a course if:

  • You already know the basics of technical writing.
  • You think you need the course to get a job.
  • You don’t want a career as a technical writer (duh).

It also depends on the breadth of the course you are thinking of taking. If the course includes a lot of in-depth material on topics of interest or value to you, especially if it means improving a skill that jobs require, then it is a no-brainer: take the course. For that reason, it is important to thoroughly research the course before enrolling.

I haven’t seen any technical writing job postings requesting some sort of technical writing credentials. But, they will often require experience. Therefore, it is more essential to actually put yourself out there. Find a job (even if it is something small), write a lot (even if it isn’t of a technical nature), read about technical writing best practices, and prepare samples of our work to share with potential employers.