I took some time to learn new skills after I relocated to Vancouver in 2016. As an engineer I was often involved with preparing reports — inspection reports, analysis reports, drawing submittals — so it was only natural for me to settle on enhancing my communication skills. There was one technical writing course taught in my undergraduate degree, which is odd considering how much writing is involved in the day-to-day tasks of an engineer. So I enrolled in the Technical Communication (TCOM) Certificate program at Simon Fraser University.
My Internet searches turned up only one or two short reviews of the program. In an effort to help other students make the choice, I present my course-by-course review of the program below.
TCOM 110: Concepts and Practice of Technical Communication
Completed: November 2016
TCOM 110 presented an overview of writing user manuals and plain language principles. The course modules worked in tandem with the project assignment. I learned how to write and format a technical manual, interview a subject matter expert, and engage in peer editing. My course project can be accessed here.
The reading material and notes were well put together. This was an excellent course to begin the program.
TCOM 120: Technical Writing and Editing
Completed: December 2016
TCOM 120 helped refine the stylistic aspects of writing and editing. I learned how to establish direct and consistent ways to communicate ideas. The course assignment required students to write a procedure manual — how to clean a house or an apartment. The learning focus was shifted to understanding the writing process. By breaking activities down into simple steps, I learned the importance of consistent language and singular ideas. I worked with a writing partner and gained editing experience.
The course notes provided thorough explanations. The workload and short duration of the course were also satisfactory.
TCOM 230: Indexing: An Essential Art and Science
Completed: February 2017
TCOM 230 presented indexing concepts: how to create an index, what is required from an index, and how is an index used. I was able to choose from three indexing software programs to complete the weekly assignments. I chose CINDEX. It is important to note that the software programs offered were all Windows and OS X compatible.
The course was difficult, but not because the material was tough to understand. Indexing is a finely tuned process that requires detailed organization and information skills. I gained an appreciation for the index section of a reference book.
TCOM 210: Research, Analysis and Information Design
Completed: March 2017
In TCOM 210 I learned how to interview a subject matter expert, create a reader persona, and design information. The exercises were simple and light. The main project was designing a patient care booklet for a hepatitis-C patient. I was able to revisit the persona concept when producing my TCOM 410 project.
The TCOM 210 project could have benefitted from some of the page design skills I learned in later courses.
TCOM 310: Advanced Technical Writing Workshop
Completed: June 2017
TCOM 310 helped review the writing process. One of the first activities was to write a formal letter describing my writing process. It was the first chance in the TCOM program for me to analyze and critique my own process. This was an important activity.
The course material dove deep into the writing process. Most of the concepts were extracted (I think…) from Peter Elbow’s book Writing with Power. There was no meaningful project in the course, but it was very informative and I still return to the concepts in my own writing.
TCOM 270: Tools for Technical Communicators
Completed: August 2017
Learning Adobe InDesign was a key skill in the program. TCOM 270 was a crash course on InDesign. The course material was extensive (200+ pages). I don’t think it was necessary to buy the InDesign CS6 guidebook suggested because of the depth of user information available on Internet forums.
TCOM 270 was a fine course. All of the assignments were manageable and challenging. By the end of the course I looked at visual design with a different eye. This course would be a great first course to take in the program.
TCOM 240: Advanced Microsoft Word for Technical Writers
Completed: September 2017
TCOM 240 was a strange course to take as my seventh course. The advanced Microsoft Word concepts taught in the course were already part of my process before the TCOM program and through the TCOM 110 course project. The course requires a Windows based computer, as well. I believe this was because of the track changes requirement and dynamic content. But it seemed like an unnecessary cost given the course material. I did learn how to effectively use SEQ fields to control list numbers.
TCOM 240 would have been a great first course. But as a course in the middle of the program, the content appeared redundant. The course material could be appended to other courses where Microsoft Word is used.
TCOM 220: Design and Production of Technical Publications
Completed: December 2017
TCOM 220 presented visual design concepts. This included production details, such as binding and paper choice. The exercises were basic and developed an introductory understanding of visual design in technical publications.
Supplementing this course with some software skills in Photoshop or Illustrator would have been beneficial. However, it was good practice to work on design skills outside of the software world.
TCOM 260: Fundamentals of Creating Online Documents
Completed: April 2018
TCOM 260 was the second course where a Windows operating system is required. We learned how to use the introductory functions of MadCap Flare. The assignment is simple and builds on itself as a course project. MadCap Flare is an important software program to learn, but the cost makes it fairly inaccessible for an individual. Luckily the course offers a trial version.
I benefited from the course material which presented discussions on information architecture and documentation accessibility.
TCOM 320: Documentation Project Management
Completed: September 2018
TCOM 320 was an intense course on project management. The course material presented project management concepts necessary for large-scale documentation projects. The broad overview of project management principles worked well with the course project. We were required to design a proposal, schedule, and budget for a hypothetical banking system.
The final assignment required creating a document plan from scratch. This was a strong lead-up to the final project course, TCOM 410.
TCOM 410: Final Project: Technical Communication Guided Practicum
Completed: December 2018
In TCOM 410 students were asked to find a client and create a documentation project for the client. The project was to be a student’s portfolio piece upon completing the TCOM program. The timeline was quite aggressive. My project was an educational resource for EITs designing steel beams. Access my final project here. This program was an appropriate ending to the project.
I was able to complete a documentation project and use it for my portfolio in my career. Students were expected to find a client within a week. This deadline seemed strange given that the course was a guided practicum. An improvement on the course: offer a list of industry sponsored projects or even projects within the academic units of SFU. The project took over 240 hours to complete.
Technical Communication Certificate
Awarded: May 2019
I received the official Technical Communication certificate in May 2019. Overall, I would recommend this program to anyone looking to dive deep into a critical analysis of their writing and communication process.