There’s an old joke about a doctor and a novelist making small talk at a party. The doctor says, “You know, I’ve always thought I’d like to write a book when I retire.” The novelist responds, “Yes, and I’d like to try brain surgery.”

The joke illustrates the attitude that some have that writing is something anyone can do. While that’s certainly not the case, it is true that you can enhance your writing abilities through study and practice.

If you’re looking for a place to brush up on your writing skills, you might try the Business Writing Center. We took a look at the site’s offerings and spoke with Dr. R. Craig Hogan, the Center’s director, to find out about the benefits the Center can offer IT consultants.

What are consultants writing?
Consultants often have to present their skills and solutions on paper. A recent TechRepublic Quick Poll, for example, showed that 62 percent of the IT consultant audience handles documentation work for clients (Figure A).

Figure A

Some consultants have also added technical writing to their list of contract work to further use the knowledge they already have and increase their income. Every company that creates a product needs some sort of documentation, whether internally or for end users. Consultants are particularly well suited for this task because of their practical knowledge but only if they have the writing know-how to do the job well.

The Business Writing Center can help consultants refresh their writing skills or learn business-writing basics. The Center, located in Normal, IL, offers online learning, on-site workshops, and individual evaluations for each student.

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Training for the individual
The Center currently offers 23 courses that students can either complete online or at workshops held at the student’s company. Hogan said the following courses might interest IT consultants:

  • Writing Computer User Manuals and System Documentation
  • Business Writing Skills
  • Writing Effective Business Letters
  • Writing Effective Workplace E-mail
  • Writing Skills for Technical Support Center Representatives
  • Basic Writing Skills Tutorial
  • Individualized Writing Skills

The Individualized Writing Skills course is developed based on the students’ needs and goals for their writing skills. The instructor can “diagnose” their writing and develop an individualized course of study to achieve those goals.

There are also several courses for people who speak English as a second language and want to learn to write it effectively.

Each course costs $295 plus a variable cost for texts that ranges from nothing to $50. Online students have up to six months to complete a course.

Group training sessions
The Business Writing Center will also customize courses for groups at no cost. The group rate for training is $245 per participant. Shorter versions of some courses can be made available to companies for $175 per trainee, Hogan said. The customized courses are presented on the Web, and workshops are presented at company sites.

“Our students are most often employed by a company sponsoring the training,” Hogan said. “Many of our students are in IT.”

Hogan teaches the on-site courses and has taught writing for 33 years. He may be particularly in tune with IT consultants due to his prior experience as a senior staff writer in a consulting company, writing for Fortune 500 companies; the director of a company specializing in writing computer-user support materials; and the managing partner in a firm writing manuals, reports, and advertising materials.

Consulting firm Ernst & Young (E&Y) hired the Business Writing Center to train new hires and others interested in improving their writing skills. Companies such as E&Y, who purchase training for widely dispersed employees, can monitor employees’ progress through an online report.

Organizations may also choose to have in-house personnel train its staff using materials purchased from the Center. The site offers a request form to review the materials if you’re planning to use this option.

Free samples
While most of the site provides information regarding the training available for a fee, there are some free sample lessons from the online courses that provide some valuable information. The sample lessons include the following:

  • Write Concisely, from the Business Writing Skills course
  • Edit Paragraphs for Emphasis and Variety, from the Editing Skills course
  • Write an Informative Beginning, from the Effective Workplace E-mail course

Additionally, a free copy of the Center Guidelines for Effective Workplace E-mail is available for download, and Hogan said that the document could be reproduced as long as the copyright information remains with the text.

More online learning options
The Web has too many offers of online learning to count. Here are a few sites that provide online writing courses:

Any recommendations for online training?

If you’re an IT consultant who has used an online training company, we want to know about your experience. Send us an e-mail and tell us your best or worst experience or post your comments below.