Monday, June 11, 2012

Legal Writing

Legal Writing
Jacob De Camillis
2011, 2012 (c)

A more uncommonly considered specialization within technical communication is legal writing – the research, writing, editing, and maintaing of legal literature such as copyright discourse, legal information, criminal investigation and forensic reports, contracts, and intellectual property etc. Legal writers are employed in intelligence, the military, private investigation, government/civil services, the police, courts of law, patent offices, law offices etc.

What makes a good legal writer?
  • A firm academic background in law, criminal justice, accounting, the sciences, medicine, or philosophy would be an advisable base. Training in court reporting, policing, or private investigation is even better.
  • Natural inquisitiveness, plus the ability to be methodical, analytical, and persuasive.
  • Basic communications-related training post university study. Take courses in English and writing or consider doing a graduate degree or certificate programme in technical communication.
  • Seamless written fluency in a second (and possibly third) language wouldn’t hurt if working internationally or within officially multilingual bodies (i.e. Canada, Belgium, the United Nations, the European Union, the Hague etc). 
Keep in mind, a legal writer's readership/reading audience can range from highly experienced legal professions to Joe Average. The point being is to be mindful of who you, the writer, is writing to. Language must be concise, clear, and accurate to the slightest shade of meaning – in turn, have a natural vocabulary that exceeds a dictionary.  However, never write beyond the reader nor beneath the reader.

A note for legal writers dealing with international clients and especially translators, footnote every minute detail about the legal system backing your document(s) to make sure that rendering of information is thus equally accurate.  

I cannot stress enough, depending on the instance, a legal background may be an absolute qualification prior to specializing as a writer. It can be illegal by federal law to write or edit legal contracts and reports unless one is licensed prior (i.e. as a paralegal).

A massive ethical note concerning legal writing is confidentiality. Although no-less-than-exact use of language is a must, the content of legal discourse is (more often than not) cloaked as being highly classified. Therefore, one must be especially prudent of not openly discussing any aspect of your work as well as making sure all computer files and paper trails pertaining to your writing are well guarded.

Depending on your background and interest, legal writing is in itself broad and can be highly specialized: medical-legal, real estate, corporate, contracts, tort law, municipal law, import/export, international law, etc.   

Your best resources depend on where and under whom you are (planning to) working for. You would be wise to contact law offices, local city halls, court houses, law schools within universities, as well other major institutions with respective communications and legal departments.


"Kaplan Technical Writing: A Comprehensive Resource for Technical Writers At All Levels"; Martinez, Diane; Peterson, Tanya; Wells, Carrie; Hannigan, Carrie; Stevenson, Carolyn. pp 498 - 501.  Kaplan Inc., 2011, 2008.

What is Technical Communication

What Is Technical Communication?

The following is a short video clip titled "What Is Technical Communication" posted by the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). A fantastic definition of the profession indeed, enjoy!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Building a Winning Portfolio | Olga Kostiouchina

Building a Winning Portfolio
A Guide for Tech Writers with no Work Experience
by Olga Kostiouchina

Table of Contents

1. Why have a portfolio?
2. Content creation strategies
3. Revising and editing for quality
4. Assembling the portfolio


This short guide is created as an aid for anyone wanting to break into the technical writing field but finds oneself in a catch-22 position of “To get experience I need a job, and to get a job I need experience”.

One of the ways to get yourself out of this predicament is to create something that will show your potential as a technical writer – and not just in the form of a couple of lines in the resume or CV.

This something is a portfolio!

1. Why have a portfolio

A great portfolio may convince an otherwise hesitant employer to hire you instead of someone boasting tons of experience but having nothing to show for it.

Even if the job ad doesn’t ask for a portfolio – bring it to the interview; you’ll demonstrate your being proactive and make a favorable first impression. Send a link to an online version along with you cover letter and resume when first applying for the job; you’ll immediately gain advantage over other applicants because the employer will have an opportunity to look at what you’re capable of even before the interview.

A portfolio is your chance to brag! Make the most of it and reap the rewards!

This means you should always have your portfolio ready and current.  Even if you’ve never held a technical writing position, you can still come up with an impressive portfolio. Let’s get to it!

2. Content creation strategies

What to write about?

This is probably the hardest question you’ll have to answer before you can get to work.

I suggest that you take a long serious look inside and figure out what field of specialization really interests you. After all, why would you sweat over the software manual if this is not what you want to do as a technical writer?

I -- Create new content!

Select an industry you’d like to target and a topic you’d enjoy exploring. By doing this you’ll be more diligent and enthusiastic when researching the subject and writing about it. And you’ll still be able to show off your skills, whether it’s a cookbook, a business proposal, or an installation guide.

Here are a few suggestions for potential documentation you may create, just pick what strikes your fancy and document it:

II -- Find an open source software title even if it’s already documented (it’s as easy as going to and downloading any free program).
  • Installation guide
  • Quick reference guide
  • Online help
  • User guide
  • Technical glossary

III -- Pick a business you’re familiar with (or do the research and get familiar with it). You may try to approach a real business and offer pro bono or discounted work. This way you may score some testimonials or recommendations as well.
  • Operations manual
  • Training guide (how-to procedures and such)
  • Process description
  • Specification of a product
  • Marketing brochure
  • Business proposal
  • Flowchart
  • Style guide and templates

IV -- Pick a device – any kind really, as simple as a stapler, or as complex as a turbine.
  • Technical description
  • User manual
  • Troubleshooting guide
  • A set of diagrams with callouts  

This approach should cover much of the industry-specific documentation and you’ll have a nice collection to demonstrate your knowledge. Try using a combination of authoring tools and make sure to include some diagrams, screenshots and charts.

Other methods often recommended for creating new content is writing for the web, specifically for how-to websites and Wikipedia.

V -- Use academic work!

Now go through your school work.  You’ve written a lot for your homework assignments, so go ahead and select some of the best (or promising) pieces and get to work. Rewrite the not so good parts, expand if the piece is very short, and add visual elements if there are none.

VI -- Use your current or previous jobs to find content!

Try to find any documents you may have written at your places of employment, such as business letters, marketing materials, and procedures. If you’ve done some training of other employees – try to document the process as a training guide. Try to re-create your company’s policies yourself. Same goes for process descriptions. If you have access to existing company documents, try editing them for grammar and style and use the before and after versions in the portfolio. Make sure you obtain a permission to use whatever materials result, and erase any evidence of proprietary content.

Now you should have a good idea where to get the content for your portfolio. Let’s move on to the next step.

3. Revising and editing for quality

Once you’ve written or re-worked the documentation you want to include in your portfolio, you have to proofread it.

Go through each document and follow this checklist:
  • Spelling. Spell check is good but it will miss many of the common typos, such as “form” instead of “from”. This means you have to read and find and fix these. No typos allowed!
  • Grammar. Use a good grammar reference when in doubt.
  • Plain language. Avoid slang and jargon, write in short concise sentences.
  • Consistent terminology. This is one of the more important attributes of quality documentation.
  • Style. Are you writing for the specific audience? Make sure it’s apparent.
  • Format. Use different styles for formatting to present your work well.

4. Assembling the portfolio

Now that your documents are polished, it’s time to assemble them in a meaningful way.

There are several approaches to organizing your portfolio. Some examples are:
  • Chronological order (from oldest to newest)
  • Genre (categories of documents – graphics, web content, training guides)
  • Specialty or subject (medical writing, business writing, user support)
  • Development (from brief and first draft to a final document)
  • Team and individual projects

Most portfolios combine all of the above and then some, choose the way that you think will work best for the particular job you’re seeking to get.

Make sure you include the following items along with your writing samples:
  • A cover letter
  • A current resume, updated for the specific job you’re applying
  • A table or numbered list with brief descriptions of each sample. It’s very important to include a brief description of each portfolio piece, outlining what exactly you’ve done when creating the document (write, edit, create graphics, layout) and which tools you’ve used (authoring or editing software, programming languages, any other specific tools).
  • A CD/DVD, containing an electronic version of your portfolio

Once you’re clear on the structure – create a TOC and include it at the beginning.

Now start assembling the portfolio. Always use high quality paper for your printouts, especially resume. Find a nice looking 3-ring binder, put your documents in clear sheet protectors (2 pages per protector), and insert them into the binder. You may want to use some page separators to make it easy to go from one document to another. This is your master portfolio. You can add and remove the documents easily depending on the position you’re applying for. Just don’t forget to update your TOC each time accordingly.

You might want to create a light version of it as a leave-behind. Use a nice presentation folder that can hold loose leaf paper and select the best and most appropriate samples. Do not use sheet protectors, but make sure to include your resume. After the interview, offer to leave this portfolio with the employer.

In addition to the paper based version of your portfolio, I recommend creating a CD/DVD version, which you may also use a as an inexpensive leave-behind, and an online version as well and making sure your potential employer is aware of this. You will look great if you can give them the link to your website with an online version.  As a bonus, an electronic version will allow you to include any media content you might want to use, such as training videos.

Copyright © June 2011 
Edited by Jacob De Camillis

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Kaplan's Technical Writing: Book Reccomendation

Kaplan's Technical Writing
by Jacob De Camillis

Just a quick note, whether you're a student or long-time professional technical writer, a fantastic reference, revised and updated, has entered the market that I feel serves as technical communications guru: "Kaplan's Technical Writing". The book is multi-authored by six American women and is written in two parts, including appendicies, part one being a formal training manual -- the principles of technical writing, part two being a beyond-the-basics development concept:

Part I: Introduction To Technical Communication
Chapters 1 - 8

  • Defining Technical Communication
  • Purpose, Audience Analysis, and Context
  • Forms of Technical Writing
  • Research
  • Planning, Organizing, Drafting, and Stylizing
  • Document Design and Visuals
  • Revising, Editing, and Proofreading
  • Presentations

Part II: Technical Communication In The Workplace
Chapters 11 - 20
  • Collaboration in the Workplace
  • Longer forms of Technical Writing
  • Proposals
  • Grant Writing
  • Writing and Designing Training Materials
  • Writing in Digital Environments
  • Research in Professional Contexts
  • Testing and Usability Issues
  • Oral Presentations
  • Writing in Specific Fields
  • Jobs in Technical Communication
  • Professional Development in Technical Communication
et. al. 

I find this book to be beautifully written, well organized, and it serves all audiences. You can purchase the book online at any major book chain, Amazon, Chapters, Barns & Noble etc. 

  • Paperback: 672 pages
  • Publisher: Kaplan Publishing; 2 edition (December 7, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1607147092
  • ISBN-13: 978-1607147091
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 7.8 x 1.4 inches

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Writing for the Web | Olga Kostiouchina

Writing for the Web
by Olga Kostiouchina

Content is king” as the old (or not so old) adage goes, and many technical writers choose to specialize in creating content for the web.

Indeed, as the web has become a major information resource for anyone who uses it, many of us turn our heads to it in hopes to contribute and make a living at the same time.

What do you need to know and do to become a web writer:

Ground rules! Writing for the web is different from writing for print. Review the “Writing for the Web” course that was part of the Technical Writing program at BCIT to freshen up your knowledge. In addition, check out the multitude of resources on the web that explain the best practices for web writers.

Keep a blog.
Blogging is not a new phenomenon any longer, it’s a huge online force that keeps people with similar interests connected. If you keep an interesting blog and contribute regularly, you will be found, linked to, may become popular, or even go viral! This will increase your exposure as a specialist (if you position yourself as one), will improve your writing skills, promote these improved skills, can become part of your writing portfolio and much more.

Comment on other blogs.
To further increase the exposure and speed up your blog’s popularity growth, be sure to find other bloggers (people or businesses), who have interests in the same areas as you, make thoughtful comments and include a link to your own blog, too.

Use social media tools.
Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and many more tools available for socializing through the web also provide excellent networking opportunities. If you’re active in social media you immediately position yourself as web savvy.

Learn about SEO.
Since  web writing goes hand in hand with marketing, it’s very likely that whoever hires you to write web copy will be looking for content that promotes their business on the web. And you can’t promote anything on the web without at least a basic idea of Search Engine Optimization. Take out a good book from the library, find Internet resources, you’ll be ahead of the crowd if you add SEO knowledge to your skill set.

If you become a web writer, there’s a good chance you’ll have to upload and format the content yourself. Therefore, some knowledge of main front-end web development tools will come in handy. Take an introductory web development course and you’ll be on your way. Practice using the new skills to become more confident and creative.

Copyright ©  June 2011 || Olga Kostiouchina
Vancouver, British Columbia
Editor: Jacob De Camillis

Business Writing | Olga Kostiouchina

Business Writing
by Olga Kostiouchina

A technical writer is often called to the duty of writing many business related documents for companies. By creating a comprehensive set of documentation that describes and assists in every aspect of the business a technical writer does an invaluable service to the company. As a result the business runs more efficiently, all processes are handled on a highly professional level, eliminating miscommunication between departments and increasing productivity.

If you acquire skills in this area of specialization, almost any business can benefit from hiring you.

What do you need to know to become a business writer?

It’s good if you have general knowledge of how businesses operate, however, no business degree is required. If you’re not confident, a couple of specific courses could help you get some pointers in the right direction. Some available and very useful courses at BCIT will teach you the basics of marketing and business operations, rules of business correspondence, writing proposals and much more. You might want to look into the document control processes as well, specialists in this area are hard to come by. Interdepartmental communication plays a vital role in how smooth the business runs, and document control is one of the main ways to improve it.

What are the examples of business writing?

Business documentation can include anything that directly relates to how the business is run:

  • Letters
  • Business and grant proposals
  • Reports
  • Meeting minutes
  • Business plans
  • Operation manuals
  • Policies
  • Procedures
  • Templates
  • Training materials
  • Process descriptions
  • Various flowcharts and graphs
  • Annual reports

How can you improve your portfolio in order to apply for a business writing position?

If you have a job, try writing the procedures and policies you’re familiar with from scratch. Create a few graphics that show the processes used in the business.
If you’re unemployed approach a business, such as a non-profit organization, and offer to write documentation on a pro bono basis or for a small fee.

If you took a course in Proposal writing - include academic samples from that course.
If you’re self-employed, you’re bound to have some procedures in place on how you run your own business. If they’re not in the form of existing documents and templates -  it’s time to put them in writing now!

You’ll gather enough samples to include and show off the skills you possess when applying for that a job.

Further reading and resources: : lots of good concise advice both on technical and business writing best practices : an excellent educational resource on technical and business writing with many examples : an enhanced textbook version of the above resource by the same author

Copyright ©  June 2011 || Olga Kostiouchina
Vancouver, British Columbia
Editor: Jacob De Camillis

Writing for Information Technology | Olga Kostiouchina

Writing for IT
by Olga Kostiouchina

The continued rapid development of the software industry prompts the creation of many positions for technical writers. Writing for IT is probably what the vast majority of technical writers does. They document the software, create API for programmers, often serving as liaison between the developers and end users.

What do you need to know for specializing in IT:

You don’t need a degree in Computer Science to start writing for an IT company; however, there are a few useful things you could learn to improve your chances of landing a job and do better in this field.

Take some courses in web development; many employers require experience with HTML authoring.

Get acquainted with some of the more popular programming languages as well as databases; job descriptions often list the ability to understand the source code and create database queries as an essential and required skill.

Knowledge of XML is especially useful and not just for working in an IT company, it’s essential for structured authoring, single-sourcing and using such technologies as DITA for creating a broad range of documents from a single master document.

You can learn all this part-time at BCIT. You can also learn on your own using books and online videos.

Oftentimes the programmers use the auto-generated documentation which you as a technical writer would have to clean up, organize and bring it to its final publishing stage.

The specific knowledge will help you better understand your SMEs and decipher whatever documentation may have been already created in the software development process.

What can you expect to write in IT industry:
Here’s a sampler of what kind of documentation you may be creating as an IT technical writer:

  • Installation guides
  • User guides
  • Quick and thorough reference guides
  • Troubleshooting guides
  • Online help
  • Glossaries
  • APIs  (Application Programming Interface)
  • Training modules
  • Various manuals for end users, system administrators or technical support stuff
  • Marketing materials explaining what exactly the software does

If you decide that writing for software industry is your cup of tea, make sure you include appropriate samples in your portfolio. Pick an open source software program and try to create as many documents from the list above as you can. If the software is complex, pick a few aspects that you can document thoroughly, and include something like a quick reference guide.

The usual rules for technical writers apply and are strongly encouraged: consistent terminology, concise language, usage of style guides.

Copyright ©  June 2011 || Olga Kostiouchina
Vancouver, British Columbia
Editor: Jacob De Camillis