Archive for the ‘writing sample’ Tag

A Day in the Life of a Technical Communication Student

Editor’s note: Samantha Miranda is an enthusiastic new member of TechWhirl’s Special Writers Unit. For many professionals in our field, the life of a technical communication student is a distant memory or perhaps even a total guess. Samantha’s chronicle of a typical day reminds us how much—and how little—has changed for university students, and how much we can learn from a novice.

technical communication student jugglerToday is a fairly busy day for me. I need to be in class and to work on assignments, I have a little bit of time devoted to work as well, and I plan to spend a little bit of time socializing in order to stay sane.

8-9:30 AM, Roll Out of Bed and Get Going

I’m more productive when I get enough sleep, so I usually get up early when I have more work to do. I eat a granola bar on my way to the library (breakfast might be the most important meal of the day, but sometimes you have to work it in on the run). This morning, I have to print out an assignment written about what Media Studies chapter I’m interested in exploring then presenting and why.

9:30-10:45 AM, Media Studies

Successfully turned in the assignment. Though I chose books, I look forward to learning more about other forms of media such as newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, video games, and more. Most people chose different chapters, but a few people ended up in groups of two. In today’s lecture and discussion, we analyzed some advertisements and touched on the social scientific and cultural approaches to media research.

11 AM-12 PM, Lunch/Homework/Reading

On good days, like today, I can spend more time on lunch than homework or reading.

12:30-1:45 PM, Professional Writing Workshop

Class today focused on a discussion of usability before we broke off into our small groups to work on our sections of a classroom technology manual–the big project for the first half of the semester.

1:45-3:30 PM, Directed Teaching

Once I complete this class, I’ll have enough credits for my education minor. The class itself involves a lot of reading and reflective essays, and I have to observe and then work up to teaching in a classroom for two hours per day for three weeks. My mentor teacher is finishing up a unit on energy and the kids were excited about preparing for tomorrow’s heat transfer lab: making ice cream.

4-5 PM, Work

I work part time at the Writing Center. Since there weren’t very many students coming in for writing tutoring (it’s still the beginning of the semester), I could work on my own homework and get started on some grading.

5-6:15 PM, Web Design

The assignment I submitted today was a group assignment to analyze a poster for the use of line, shape, texture, value, and color; and then to redesign it. Today’s lecture topic was typography. During class, I received next week’s assignment; I need to work in a group to design a poster on typography.

6:30-7:30 PM, Homework/Reading

I had to cram a lot into this timeslot since I still need to practice Spanish, continue reading chapter on usability (14 pages), and get started on the next section for Web Design on design principles (12 pages). But first, I had to discuss typography poster with my group.

8-10 PM, Dinner and Trivia

I’m lucky to see some of my close friends once a week, so competing at a weekly trivia contest is a good excuse to see some of them. Plus, most of the time my team comes in first or second!

10-11 PM, Winding Down

I managed to make more blocks of time available to work on homework tomorrow, so I’ll just finish a few things and start getting ready for bed.

Other than the all-important technical communication content, one of the things I’m learning in college is time management: I need to do the important things before they become urgent, and find the right balance between work and life. According to my friends and colleagues who have recently completed internships or graduated and become professionals, time management is an important skill for all technical communicators.

Originally published on January 30, 2013, at Tech Writer Today Magazine (


Interview with Brenda Huettner

What Every Technical Communicator Should Know About Accessibility

Brenda Huettner is currently a technical writer and webmaster for, owner and president of P-N Designs, Inc., a senior member of IEEE, and an STC Fellow. She has a variety of experience including usability, accessibility, and web design.

accessibility via international symolsFor technical communicators, accessibility is a topic that appeals to the principles of professionalism, quality, and legality. In a storied career that includes web design, technical writing, usability and accessibility consulting, Brenda Huettner constantly focuses on a central tenet—advocating for the user. Her experience in usability and accessibility gives her a unique perspective on developing content for users. In this interview, we hope to clarify myths and misconceptions technical communicators often hold about accessibility guidelines.

A Short Introduction to Accessibility for Technical Communicators

Brenda Huettner is primarily a technical writer, and, as a technical writer, she has always been an advocate for users. “The minute you try to use something,” Brenda says, “you are experiencing usability!” In her world, usability, accessibility, and web design pretty much encompass everything.

Surprisingly, 65% of the population has some sort of disability that may influence how they interact with documentation or interfaces. For example, it’s easy to identify a large number of people who have trouble reading fine print. Brenda believes keeping the user in mind is important for many business reasons, such as the potential implications of accessibility strategy to the organization’s sales/marketing and legal departments.

Implications of Accessibility

According to Brenda, the organization’s strategy for accessibility has sales implications. “From a business standpoint, why would you want to exclude any percentage of your potential audience? If I can sell even a small percentage more widgets by making my product accessible, the ROI is easy to calculate.” Designing for accessibility helps technical communicators include more potential audience and increase profits.

Increasingly, a strategy for accessibility also has legal implications. “From a legal standpoint, we have ADA regulations. The biggest example, of course is the Target case, where their refusal to make their site accessible to the blind landed them in court (and they lost).” Ensuring e-commerce websites are accessible will help prevent companies from being subject to expensive legal actions.

The Target case that Brenda cites occurred in 2006, when the National Federation of the Blind filed a class action lawsuit against the Target Corporation. The claim that blind people could not purchase items from Target’s website independently and that that fact violated the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) was upheld by the courts. This case set a precedent for the ADA regulations applying to e-commerce websites.

Accessibility Guidelines

Technical communicators should have and follow accessibility guidelines. However, contrary to what many technical writers may believe, the idea that accessibility guidelines increase usability for everyone is an overgeneralization. “Accessibility guidelines alone do not increase usability, but compliance with guidelines often does,” Brenda explains.

To further illustrate the concept of compliance with versus mere presence of guidelines, Brenda comments on the top things to remember about accessibility guidelines. “First, there are lots of types of disabilities – including temporary ones like loss of mobility due to, say, a broken bone. Or situational things like working on a factory floor where there is too much noise to hear a laptop tone, or in a place with too little light or too much glare that can impact visual issues.

“Secondly, accessible content tends to be easier to translate, and even if not translated, it tends to be easier for non-native speakers to understand and use.” In other words, making content accessible to people with disabilities may make content easier to understand overall, whether or not it is translated.

Brenda cautions, “be careful with blanket statements like ‘increasing usability for everyone.’ Sometimes increasing usability for one group actually reduces usability for another. It is always a balancing act.”

accessibility guidelines and content developmentIn fact, the accessibility balancing act has been around for many years, getting some of its impetus from the 1998 Section 508 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Brenda believes that Section 508 is pretty straightforward, and serves as a good set of guidelines. However, “the thing that most people don’t realize is that the law does NOT say that everyone must comply with 508.” The law actually states that “the U.S. government won’t purchase technologies that aren’t compliant.” Therefore, only organizations that sell to the US government must comply with Section 508.

Brenda encourages people in technical communication to apply more recent guidelines such as Web Accessibility Initiative – Accessible Rich Internet Applications (WAI-ARIA) is another set of guidelines, and as Brenda states “more people need to use the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).” She makes this recommendation because “WCAG has been through several passes of international review, and is currently released as a technical standard version 2.0 (whereas ARIA is still in draft form).”

In considering how to create technical content that is accessible to the widest range of potential users, it’s worth noting this quote from Mark Boulton, a UK-based designer, publisher, and speaker. “Design has been viewed as being aesthetic. Design equals How Something Looks. You see this attitude to design in every part of society …. I think design covers so much more than the aesthetic. Design is fundamentally more. Design is usability. It is Information Architecture. It is Accessibility. This is all design.”

Recommended Accessibility Resources



  • Henry, Shawn Lawton. Just Ask: Integrating Accessibility Throughout Design. ET\Lawton, 2007. (highly recommended)
  • Rutter, Richard et al. Web Accessibility: Web Standards and Regulatory Compliance. friendsofED, 2006. (especially the Understanding Web Accessibility chapter)
  • Thatcher, Jim et al. Constructing Accessible Web Sites. Apress, 2003.
  • Stephanidis, Constantine, editor. User Interfaces for All: Concepts, Methods, and Tools (Human Factors and Ergonomics). CRC Press, 2000. (especially the Everyone Interfaces chapter)
  • Paciello, Mike. Accessibility for the Web. CRC Press, 2000.

Author’s Note: I’d like to thank Brenda Huettner for taking the time to answer my questions. I’ve learned a lot from this interview. Accessibility is a fundamental part of technical communication. As we design our documents, web pages, and other media, technical communication professionals have a responsibility to consider how to create content that is accessible to as many users as possible.

Originally published on January 7, 2013, at Tech Writer Today Magazine (

A Technical Communication Student’s Letter to Santa

Dear Santa,

Santa gets cookies and cocoa from technical communication studentMy name is Samantha and I am a technical communication student. This year, I have been very, very good. I’ve been going to class and doing my homework. All my hard work must have paid off because I got straight “A”s this semester! Also, I’ve been eating my vegetables.

This year for Christmas, I’d like:

  1. Adobe Creative Suite 6
  2. A subscription to The Chicago Manual of Style Online
  3. The Copyeditor’s Handbook, by Amy Einsohn
  4. Conversation and Community — The Social Web for Documentation, by Anne Gentle
  5. The Secret Life of Word, by Robert Delwood

These will be great for the upcoming semester and when I get that first job.  If you can see your way clear, an endless supply of chocolate and caffeine would be good too, at least that’s what all the professionals in technical communication tell me.

Santa, I also want to tell you to keep warm and drink plenty of hot chocolate with Mrs. Claus. I’ll leave some treats out for you and some carrots for the reindeer. Say hi to the elves for me.


Technical Communication Student

Originally published on December 23, 2012, at Tech Writer Today Magazine (

TC 101: Final Overview

The purpose of this memo is to recap my experience in Orientation to Technical Communication. Throughout the course, many different perspectives regarding career paths in technical communication have been presented. Guest speakers shared advice based on their experiences. Each guest speaker had a distinct job title and career path. This memo will include information from a public information officer, a technical writer, a graphic designer, the bureau of geology director, a computer scientist, and an assistant professor.

Public Information for a National Observatory
Presented by Dave Finley

Dave Finley talked about the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), his functions as a public information officer, and his background and training. NRAO is a facility of the US National Science Foundation with parts located across the continent and globe. Established in 1956, NRAO is a taxpayer funded user facility with instruments that are extremely flexible. As a public information officer, Mr. Finley’s three main roles involve media relations, public education, and community relations. He ensures NRAO has regular coverage in major media and local/regional media. Mr. Finley works on gaining visibility in science and astronomy magazines as well as tourist travel media. Dave is also working towards growing visibility in social media. With regards to public education, Mr. Finley is responsible for tours, lectures, and brochures. When it comes to community relations, Mr. Finley works with funding agencies, government officials, and civic organizations. In his many roles, Dave Finley is always aware of his audience and caters his message to the audience’s needs and level of expertise; his experience with science, journalism, and politics prepared him for his current job.

Technical Communication: My Paths, My Tips
Presented by Valerie Kimble

Valerie Kimble was a nontraditional student who graduated with a BS in technical communication from New Mexico Tech in 2001. Her career path was the most winding of the guest speakers. She majored in journalism at the University of Arizona until an entry-level journalism instructor ruined her childhood dreams. Valerie then left school to waitress full-time. Later, she returned to New Mexico, went to UNM, got married, went to Tech, got divorced, remarried, had two children, and the rest is history. Her first career was as bookkeeper at El Defensor Chieftain where she had to learn photography by default. She later became a staff writer and photographer. Ms. Kimble worked as editor for five years but found that that job did not suit her. She “retired” from the Chieftain after the birth of her second child but then returned to work part-time and then full-time. At the age of sixty, Ms. Kimble was ready for a change. New Mexico Tech faculty suggested technical communication and that major suited her just fine. Technical communication has something for the left brain and the right brain. Valerie Kimble left us with the following advice: be open to change, explore your options, and beware of limiting beliefs.

Bad Clients Are the Ones Who Don’t Pay
Presented by Kimberly Zuidema

Kimberly Zuidema wanted to study landscape design, but then the American Academy of Art didn’t offer the program, so she decided to study graphic design. She started her career at an ad agency in Chicago and also worked for a pharmaceutical company. Ms. Zuidema got an internship for an animation company with “I give good Mac” written in crayon. As a side note, older businesses often have Macs for design work and expect designers to be comfortable using Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign. After Kim’s internship, her career path changed slightly based on location and family obligations. Ms. Zuidema worked doing ads for a furniture store in Socorro when her husband got a scholarship to NMT and then she became an explosion photographer at EMRTC. One final piece of useful advice that this guest speaker shared is to only show clients your top 3 choices of design work because they’ll probably pick one of the designs that aren’t what you’d consider the best work.

Ten Blocks to Effective Written Communication
Presented by Greer Price

Greer Price, the director of the bureau of geology, intended to make a list of ten blocks to effective written communication but ended up with a list of 18+ tips. First, use acronyms the reader will recognize and define them right away if necessary. Second, avoid inserting your opinion. Third, use fonts and graphics wisely. Fourth, always have an outline. Fifth, use proper grammar and syntax to improve readability. Sixth, have an appropriately narrowed focus. Seventh, avoid unnecessary jargon. Eighth, analyze your audience. Ninth, capitalize and punctuate correctly. Tenth, submit the required length. Eleventh, use good sentence structure–place the main idea in the sentence core and begin paragraphs with topic sentences. Twelfth, only include information directly related to the topic at hand. Thirteenth, use abbreviations appropriately–make sure they are correct and your audience will know them. Fourteenth, use references properly. Fifteenth, use words appropriately. Sixteenth, don’t excessively embellish your prose; additionally, use PowerPoints effectively. Seventeenth, give your writing a variety of sentence structure and vocabulary. Finally, make your writing parallel.

(Not) Just a Technical Writer
Presented by Cynthia Veitch

Cynthia Veitch has a BS in technical communication and an MS in computer science. She talked about her internships and her real-world job experiences. Additionally, Ms. Veitch talked about the definition of technical communication and what a technical communicator is. During her first internship, Cynthia wrote “Categorizing Threat: Building and Using a Generic Threat Matrix.” During her second internship, Cynthia wrote about army-wide best business practices on the use of removable USB storage media; unfortunately, that paper was no longer usable when an attacker used removable USB storage media to threaten security. Cynthia’s internship at Los Alamos didn’t work out well. She expected to do research but was relegated to data entry and offered a job as a secretary instead. Cynthia’s fourth internship, at Sandia, was a good fit for her and resulted in full-time employment. In her current job, Ms. Veitch is a scientist who knows how to communicate, but not all technical communicators are scientists. Cynthia Veitch’s final advice is: know your audience, sell yourself, and try something new.

International Professional Communication
Presented by Rosario Durão

Dr. Rosario Durão talked about how she got to international professional communication and why she believes in it. Dr. Durão started her career as a translator at a metallic mechanical company mostly completing literal renditions. Then she became a professor of specialized translation. During dinner with a translator from Australia, Professor Durão learned about the high-paying field of translation as communication that involves understanding the material and having cultural awareness. Professor Durão’s Ph.D. dissertation was about bachelor programs in scientific and technical translation and communication. Dr. Durão spent so much time discussing international professional communication and how she got to it that she ran out of time to go into as much detail about why she believes in it. Dr. Rosario Durão concluded her presentation about international professional communication by emphasizing its importance because the world is increasingly interconnected and complex. People who can communicate are critical assets to any company or organization.

Management Paper: Reducing Stereotype Threat

(This post consists of my excerpts from a team paper on perception and attribution.)


This paper is about “Stereotype Threat at Work” by Loriann Roberson and Carol T. Kulik in Chapter 10: Perception and Attribution in the 9th edition of The Organizational Behavior Reader. This article will be summarized, analyzed, and discussed with regards to understanding management and organizational behavior. First, the major points of the article will be summarized. Second, the content will be analyzed and critiqued in regards to its completeness in tackling the issue and how well it supports its arguments. Third, the application of the article with regards to modern science, technology, and engineering management will be discussed. Through the complete analysis of this article, this paper will provide a cohesive look at the ideas provided in the article and create a broader view of major issues in perception and attribution.


Stereotype Threat at Work

Kray, Thompson, & Galinsky (Roberson and Kulik in Osland and Turner 2011, 272) have an excellent definition of stereotype threat: “Stereotype threat describes the psychological experience of a person who, while engaged in a task, is aware of a stereotype about his or her identity group suggesting that he or she will not perform well on that task. . . . This awareness can have a disruptive effect on performance—ironically resulting in the individual confirming the very stereotype he or she wanted to disconfirm.” When stereotype threat is present, employees feel more motivated to prove themselves; however, this motivation does not provide better quality work. Since many stereotypes exist, most people are susceptible to stereotype threat. Here is a list of stereotypes from the article that can affect an individual’s performance regardless of actual ability (Roberson and Kulik in Osland and Turner 2011, 274-275):

  • Blacks lack intellectual ability.
  • Latinos lack intellectual ability.
  • Low SES students lack intellectual ability.
  • Women have weak math ability.
  • Older people have bad memory.
  • Gay men are dangerous to young children.
  • Persons with a head injury history experience a loss of cognitive performance.
  • Whites are racist.
  • White students have less mathematical ability than Asian students.
  • Men are less capable than women in dealing with affective (emotional) information.
  • White men have less athletic prowess than Black men.

Token individuals (people who are the only one of their kind) are quite aware of situations in which stereotypes exist. The problem is that these individuals care so much about performance that they may either try too hard or make overly cautious attempts at work.

What are the conditions necessary for stereotype threat to exist? Any time an employee believes a trait linked to stereotypes about groups is necessary for quality performance is an instance where stereotype threat may exist. First, stereotype threat occurs when the task is challenging. Worrying about the views of others decreases performance. Second, stereotype threat is likely to occur when an individual identifies as someone who should have expertise in the given task. Lastly, stereotype threat is likely to occur in contexts where employees perceive stereotypes to be operating.

Stereotype threat can disrupt performance but Roberson and Kulik have some recommendations for reducing the effects of stereotype threat. How can managers and interrupt the stereotype threat process? Managers can provide a successful task strategy by explicitly telling employees what behaviors they need to use to succeed. Managers can remind employees of the importance of skills without stereotype relevance. Managers can explain that stereotype threat may make employees feel anxious about the given task, but the stereotype is not related to the individual’s ability to do well. If at all possible, managers could arrange work to remove people from token situations. Reducing stereotype threat contrasts from diversity management. In an effort to reduce stereotype threat, stereotypes are addressed directly and the onus is shifted from the manager’s potential prejudice to the effect of the environment itself.


Critique of Stereotype Threat at Work

Roberson and Kulik effectively summarize research findings on stereotype threat. They provide a useful working definition of stereotype threat, compile examples, outline steps in the stereotype threat process, and provide strategies for interrupting the stereotype threat process. Very little of the article is devoted to the concrete benefits of applying stereotype threat reduction techniques to diversity management.

The concept of stereotype threat may seem obvious in hindsight, particularly to those aware of intersectionality among multiple groups; however, some managers and organizations might not realize how important the issue is. Those familiar with the concept of the Yerkes-Dodson law could easily see why the idea of stereotype threat could be a factor affecting performance. People suffering from stereotype threat care about the outcome of the task to the point of reducing performance. Over a dozen years of research shows that stereotype threat is common in the workplace and there are things managers can do to minimize its effects.

People of privilege may not be aware of how much a problem stereotype threat really is. Roberson and Kulik do mention that men, whites, and white men sometimes suffer from stereotype threat, but they fail to emphasize how much of an issue stereotypes are for the rest of the stereotyped individuals. Being seen as racist, having poor athletic prowess, and having difficulty with emotions do not come with the same stakes as being seen as posing a threat or lacking intellectual ability. Furthermore, the stereotypes applied to some groups may be in areas that aren’t as valued as the stereotypes applied to other groups. Lastly, people that are not marginalized are unlikely to be placed in token situations. However, these concepts may apply to more people as companies move towards globalization. For future work, I think it would be beneficial to do research on the cost of stereotype threat in domestic and international contexts.


Application of Stereotype Threat at Work

Stereotype threat in modern science, technology, and engineering management is very likely going to need to be addressed. As women, minorities, and other diverse individuals start to become token individuals in science and engineering companies, it is important to understand stereotype threat to reduce deviant behavior and turnover. Once companies start to have a reputation as a good place to work for diverse individuals, companies can attract more and more diverse talent.

Overcoming stereotype threat at work is important so managers can empower all employees to succeed. Some of the suggested strategies would be beneficial for training individuals from stereotyped groups and non-stereotyped groups. Successful task strategies could benefit new employees acquiring new skills. Reminding employees of why they were hired as a good fit for the team may be good for motivation. Witnessing others being appreciated for who they are may be good for the whole team’s morale.

Interrupting the stereotype threat process can have a significant impact on productivity in multiple settings. Some potential benefits have been discussed and more research can be done on how reducing stereotype threat can reduce potential costs. If managers fail to effectively utilize a diverse workforce, much potential value could be lost to companies with effective diversity management programs. In competitive global markets, all resources, including human resources, must be effectively managed to stay in business.


Judging people based on what they look like or other identifying characteristics unrelated to ability is a dangerous and costly mistake. To do so would be to attribute false meaning where meaning does not exist. Some people who behave in stereotyped ways do not represent the whole group. The problem with stereotypes is that people who act in a way that confirm the stereotype are remembered and people who disconfirm the stereotype are considered exceptions. Performing poorly due to anxiety from fear of confirming stereotypes continues to provide people with inaccurate information. Fortunately, Roberson and Kulik suggest strategies for reducing stereotype threat.

Management Paper: Video Response

Leadership and the New Science discussed four key areas. First, Dr. Wheatley entreated us to get comfortable with chaos. Second, she stated, “Information informs us and forms us.” Third, she stressed the importance of relationships. Finally, Dr. Wheatley discussed vision—an invisible field. While watching the video and discussing it in class, I tried to make connections to what we’ve been learning. I saw many connections to several different topics we’ve discussed in class; what’s more, I saw many clear connections to articles that dealt with managing conflict effectively.

As the video discussed chaos, I saw a distinct analogy to conflict. Functional outcomes can emerge from conflict. Rather than traditional views of conflict suggesting dysfunctional outcomes, with the new science and more recent theories on conflict, better solutions can emerge from chaos/conflict. Not all interactions must be zero-sum; many situations can be negotiated as win-win. As managers and organizations come to accept chaos/conflict, individuals and organizations can use more organic and creative problem-solving processes.

Once people are comfortable with chaos, they must ground their beliefs and actions on information that is in touch with reality. Companies that are data-driven outperform companies that don’t rely so heavily on facts. Additionally, information must be shared across functions and departments for better results. Some management experts call this concept avoiding silo mentality. If an individual with a hammer sees all problems as nails, he or she is going to miss many alternate options. Getting as much information as possible and relating that information to experience can help managers and organizations make better decisions.

In an effort to share information and increase efficiency, leaders are advised to develop a diversity of relationships. Dr. Wheatley states, “Relationships are all there is.” In order to do business and work as a cohesive team, relationships are fundamental. Without relationships, there is no team. Getting along with coworkers not only leads to increased productivity, but also it can lead to increased job satisfaction and better stress management.

Vision was a topic that was a little unclear to me. The video had the aurora borealis analogy, but I don’t think they went into enough detail about it. If we’re talking of vision in terms of an underlying goal and culture that influences behavior, I can see how it can be called an invisible field. Some parts of nature are invisible to the naked eye but they are still necessary for models on how the world works. I believe a big part of leadership is effectively communicating a vision and empowering others to work towards common goals.

In this paper, I wrote about chaos, information, relationships, and vision and how these four topics relate to conflict and other ideas discussed in class. Coming from a technical background, these ideas make a lot of sense. Fundamental science concepts apply to management. Understanding and applying this information can help us become better leaders. The challenge will be in taking these ideas and translating them from how we do science to how we lead and manage.