Sunday, July 18, 2010

Technical Communication: What is it Anyway?

Behind any written document there exists a synthesis of three components: the author, the subject, and the audience (or reader). All three elements work together to create meaning and each has responsibilities in this relationship.

Different genres of writing emphasize different relationships between the three components of a document. A novel emphasizes the relationship between the author and the audience while an informative essay (like this one) concentrates on the exploration of a subject by an author. Technical writing emphasizes the relationship between the subject and the audience; the author or authors are secondary in this dynamic. In many ways, a technical document can be confusing to the reader if the author is too prominent in the text.

To illustrate how this relationship between the reader and the subject works in a technical document consider the user’s manual for you car. You may glance at it when you first buy your vehicle but most often you only refer to the manual when you want information—and usually in response to some question or problem. As the reader (or user), you require information. Perhaps your brake lights are burnt out and you need to replace the bulbs so you consult the user’s manual. Even the title of this document privileges the relationship between the subject and the audience in that no byline is found on your user’s manual for your vehicle! You don’t care who wrote it, you just need information—now!

Defining Technical Writing

This genre of writing has many nuances that are reflected in the multiplicity of terms used to label it including technical communication, professional writing, technical rhetoric, and professional communication to name a few. There are two major dichotomies at work when anyone tries to define this discipline: professional/technical and communication/writing.

Initially, technical writing evolved out of a need to transmit specific technical information to users who did not understand the jargon of engineers. Every academic discipline and industry arena possess certain terminology or uses of words that are either unique to that community or used in a unique manner that the general public does not explicitly understand. Soon after WWII, Americans were able to buy the first televisions, transistor radios, kitchen appliances, and other products of technology that were new to the thinking of the general populace. Engineers were more concerned with creating new products than to communicate to non-engineers how to use them. Someone needed to translate and thus technical writing became a recognized profession.

Soon other professions and industries began to notice that they could also benefit from this kind of specialized skill. Writers were hired to transmit information from not only scientific and electronic industries but also those of medicine, pharmaceuticals, computers, software, and education began to use specialized writers to convey instructions, write internal reports, and craft grant proposals. Technical writing soon transcended technology and pervaded other professions; in essence technical writing is now just one genre within a multiplicity of professional writing contexts.

In addition to multiple professions using specialized writing to convey specific information through print, another need was soon realized: a need to reach specific audiences through other means than the written page. More and more specific information is being disseminated orally and visually to audiences of different cultures and in different settings. Managers had to present findings to higher levels of management, new medicines had to be explained to global communities, and instructions for products and services had to be understood by customers with different expectations and learning contexts. Professional writers are moving beyond solely written media (whether printed or computer screen) to the arena of holistic communication.

In order to illustrate this point, consider our earlier example: your car’s user manual. If you were to consult the manual for directions to change a burnt-out bulb in your taillight, chances are that you will encounter other symbols than just written text. Most manuals have illustrations designed to convey information to a specific audience—you. You see pictures with step-by-step instruction including visual representations of parts and arrows that portray movement. In addition, you may encounter colors such as red or yellow, which may have other meanings in other cultures. Writing specialists now have to understand how icons or figures can transmit specific directions outside of written text.

We are now in the position to define technical (or professional) communication: to provide specific information to a specific audience for a specific purpose or use. Undoubtedly you noticed throughout this article my repeated use of the term “specific.” This qualifier is vital to our understanding of this discipline and merits a closer examination.


If you remember, technical (and professional) writing emphasizes the dynamic between the subject of the document and the reader of that document. More than any other pairing (author/subject or author/audience), this presupposes a sense of urgency. A novel or an essay can wait; a burnt-out taillight cannot. This urgency is seldom experienced in a general way and results from a specific problem to be solved on the part of the reader. You are the one with the burnt-out taillight and you need to know how to change it. You are a specific person with a specific problem that needs a specific solution.

To solve this specific problem, you need specific information that is clear, concise, and presented in such a way that you can access and use it. If the information is crafted with technical jargon or obscure language, it is at best time consuming to translate and at worst useless to you in your situation. You are the specific user; you bought the car and they gave you that manual. Technical communicators specialize in analyzing what specific kinds of people would buy that car and in what specific contexts you would need to use the manual. Taillights burn out and clear information should be constructed in anticipation of that specific need.

Another, often unspoken, aspect of a technical document is that of a specific shelf life. Novels and essays are often written for broader audiences and with a sense of timelessness. Most genres that emphasize the author in the dynamic aim for longevity. Technical documents are tied to a specific audience with a specific purpose. When the audience is informed and the purpose fulfilled, technical documents lose urgency; they lose relevance. Cars rust and are junked, computer software quickly becomes dated, and instructions are learned and no longer needed. Technical documents form from urgency and that urgency creates contexts of specificity by which all technical documents are judged useful, confusing, or irrelevant.


I have defined technical communication as providing specific information to a specific audience for a specific purpose or use. Technical documents are used with urgency that creates contexts of specificity that encompass usability, clarity, audience, intent, and shelf life. In a world where the boundaries of countries, language, culture, and industry (even workscapes) continue to overlap and even, perhaps, disappear, technical communicators will become more valuable and pervasive within other contexts of specificity and utility in other professions and industry. I leave you with these questions to consider: How can technical communicators influence future conventions of technology? Paper is portable; computers are accessible through ubiquitous networks. How are future contexts of specificity going to be addressed by technical communicators in the light of future urgency?

-Safari Bob

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