An STC Alberta Member’s Perspective on Certification

-by Ken Schatzke, STC Alberta volunteer

“Anybody can write.”

As a technical communicator, you’ve probably heard this sentence—or words to the same effect—many times in your career. And you’ve probably seen the results when “anybody” writes a manual, a report, a script for a training video, or other technical documentation: frighteningly wordy prose, unnecessarily complex descriptions, incomplete or incorrect procedures, and a headache for you as the person who has to clean it up and get it out the door by the end of the day.

We technical communicators have been battling against the anyone-can-write (or -edit or -illustrate or – train) mindset for decades. STC’s Certified Professional Technical Communicator (CPTC) program is a new and potentially powerful weapon in our arsenal.

The CPTC program was originally launched in 2011. Along with several other technical communicators, I applied for certification. We needed to compile and submit an annotated portfolio that demonstrated competence in nine areas of technical communication:

  • Project planning
  • Project analysis
  • Content development
  • Organizational design
  • Written communication
  • Visual communication
  • Reviewing and editing
  • Content management
  • Production and delivery

An anonymous body of our peers evaluated the portfolios and awarded certifications to applicants whose portfolios met minimum requirements. I received my CPTC certification in October 2012.

Unfortunately, the design of the original CPTC program made it difficult for STC to manage and to scale for the needs of the profession. STC was forced to suspend the program as a result.

STC has since redesigned the CPTC program. The program now consists of three levels:

  • Foundation
  • Practitioner
  • Expert

As of December 2015, the Foundation level is open to applicants. It will serve as a prerequisite for the other two levels, which will open in the future. Applicants will need to pass an examination to show competence in the same areas of technical communication defined by the original CPTC program.

To ensure technical communicators certified by the CPTC program keep their knowledge and skills up-to-date, they will need to obtain a minimum number of continuing education points over a two-year period. Technical communicators can earn these points through a variety of means, including attending STC summits, webinars, and other educational events.

I believe—and I hope you agree—that the new CPTC program will help ensure a minimum level of competency in our profession. This will result in a better understanding of our profession by employers and co-workers and, ultimately, better paying and more fulfilling work for us.

However, you might feel that certification isn’t for you, particularly as a technical communicator working in Alberta. Many of us in the province work as lone writers (or editors or designers), often on a contract basis, and often in sectors like oil and gas that don’t have the same best practices and expectations for technical communication that exist in software or manufacturing. However, based on my own experience with certification, I believe the CPTC program is broad enough to support technical communicators regardless of their work situation, role, or industry. It’s true that you might not practice all nine areas of technical communication defined in the CPTC program. For example, many of us aren’t directly involved in the visual design of our documentation. However, holding a minimum level of competence in all of these areas can make us better, more well rounded technical communicators and will make us more employable as a result.

If you’re interested in the CPTC program and would like to learn more, check out the January 2016 issue of Intercom. And the next time someone tells you that anyone can write, ask them if “anyone” is a Certified Professional Technical Communicator.

One thought on “An STC Alberta Member’s Perspective on Certification

  • April 23, 2016 at 5:22 pm

    Thanks, Ken. This is an excellent observation. Anyone can say that they are a technical writer. Another method to achieve official recognition, in my opinion, is to take an accredited course from a recognized post-secondary institution. Keep in mind that the meaning of certification is now becoming blurry with the appearance of “diploma mills” where just about anyone with a computer, credit card, and an undetermined amount of time, can get a certificate in technical writing. I’m hoping that a recruiter or HR specialist can weigh in on this topic to shed some light on what they look for under the “Education” heading of our résumés.

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