If we don’t learn, we wither. New trends, new tools and technologies, new techniques. Even just new skills for the job. Continuous education is a key to longevity in the world of technical communication.
As a freelancer, though, getting educated can be a bit of a problem. While many full-time employees have access to at least some job-specific training paid for by their employers, freelancers must shoulder the costs themselves. And training isn’t always cheap.
So, how do freelancers stay current and stay sharp? Here are a few suggestions.
You can’t get any more old school than taking a course. Whether at a community college, a university school of continuing studies, or with outfits like the O’Reilly School of Technology and Learning Tree, there are a variety of opportunities out there to pick up new knowledge and skills. And they can be done in courses lasting a few days or a few weeks.
The biggest impediment to taking course like that is that cost, which ranges from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. There are free options available (and I’ll talk about those in a moment), but a number of people out there prefer and learn better in an environment in which an instructor leads the group.
Conferences are a great place to learn about new trends in technical communication, as well as how our fellow tech comms are using newer or older technologies to get the job done. And conferences are a good place to network.
The drawback, though, is that attending a conference is expensive. If it’s not in your neck of the woods, you need to pay the conference fee, for transportation, and accommodation. That all really adds up.
Of course, if you can get invited to a conference as a speaker you can (depending on the conference) get a free pass. This isn’t true of all conferences; some only offer a discount . Some conferences, like the DocTrain series, offer speakers a free conference pass to give to co-workers or colleagues. If you know someone who is speaking maybe you can cage a pass …
Try the STC
While I’m not the biggest booster of the STC, I have to admit that many chapters really make a strong push to provide educational opportunities for their members. The Toronto chapter, for example, has regular education days. They’re reasonably priced, and there are some interesting courses and seminars.
If you’re a member of the STC (or even if you’re not), it might be worthwhile to check out the Web site of your local chapter. You never know what you might learn.
The Web can be a great place to learn. For the most part, you probably won’t find many (if any) courses related to technical writing. Then again, there’s more to technical communication than just writing. There are a number of other skills and bits of knowledge involved, too. Like basic UNIX, scripting, HTML, CSS, XML and XSLT, graphics, and more.
There are a number of sites out there that offer free course or content on a variety of subject that are relevant to the job. Check out W3Schools, Wikibooks and Wikiversity, and OpenLearn You might even be able to find something worth studying at the MIT Open Courseware site.
I used to love Barnes & Noble University (the online learning venture from the large American bookseller). In fact, I learned the basics of Perl and shell scripting from BNU. But, sadly, it’s no more. You can, however, discover more distance learning (for free and for pay) options here
While there aren’t (as far as I know) any ongoing courses specifically for the technical communicator, a number of companies offer some solid, free webinars. MadCap Software, for example, has been holding some excellent webinars lately. And there are more to come. Other companies — like Adobe, Atlassian, and JustSystems — also regularly offer webinars that are tailored for the technical communicator.
Digging into dead trees
Nothing quite beats the book for truly self-paced learning. You just have to go to the computer book section of a large bricks-and-mortar store, or check out an online bookseller, to see that there is a lot of IT-related information out there. All you have to do is choose what you want to learn about and get a book. I’ve always been partial to various books from O’Reilly, the Visual QuickStart series from PeachPit Press, and some of the Teach Yourself books from SAMS.
Books are great, but they can be expensive. You can probably use them as a business expense, though. But don’t discount your library. While many of the technical books they have may be out of date, some offer free access to O’Reilly Media’s Safari Books Online. You can read more about that here.
Continuous learning and expanding your skills takes a lot of effort and discipline. It doesn’t have to cost money, but it will take up some of your time. In the end, though, the more you know the more you can learn.
As a freelance technical communicator, how do you keep up with trends/technologies and expand your skills? Feel free to leave a comment.