Introduction to Technical Writing

Note: There are a fair amount of links embedded directly within the text below. These are meant to either show the reader from where the ideas came or to direct the reader to explore more information on the topic at hand. While students are not accountable for reading everything linked out on this site, it is suggested that students take it upon themselves to click on each and make note of what is there.

Rather than preface this course with a tiresome treatise outlining every detail and corner of the field of technical writing, it is instead more productive to explain simply what technical writing is in a way that is accessible and uncomplicated. Let’s start with this one [1], which defines the field:

The field of technical communication is concerned with how professionals communicate complex information with specialist and nonspecialist users in order to solve practical problems, often using communication technologies, multi-modal documents, or complex documents.

This provides a strong starting point that helps address questions you might have, such as what is technical writing? and why study it? And while it might seem like this definition is too broad or all-encompassing to be useful, the fact of the matter is that technical writing is broad. It has to be. There are too many contexts, audiences, and technologies covered in professional settings to move in the fences of our definition. Let’s break down the important aspects of the above definition, word by word, for the purpose of highlighting the key aspects of the field of study as well as the work that people who call themselves “technical writers” do:

the field of technical communication: Did you notice that this definition uses “technical communication,” whereas the name of our course is “technical writing”? This distinction doesn’t really make a difference in practice and reflects more the progress of technology (communication happens more than just through writing, now) as well as the complicated histories of how English departments are organized. In the professional organization of technical writers (,”communication” is the preferred nomenclature. You can visit their “about” section for more information on the value technical writers bring to organizations as well as a list of job titles that students with a degree in professional or technical writing might pursue. For now, just know that professional organizations and academic journals refer to the field as “technical communication” while coursework and job titles still use “technical writing” quite often.

professionals: After reading the definition, you may have asked: but what type of professionals are we dealing with here? Any professional? accountants? biologists? nurses? Quite simply, yes. The lack of specificity should indicate to you that technical writing can take place in pretty much any work setting.

communicate complex information: This is traditionally the home base for technical writing as it has long been associated with taking something complex and filtering it down to make it more accessible, useful, and meaningful to a given audience. This ranges from instructions on how to use a blender to manuals you might find in your vehicle’s glove box to messaging about environmental risks to a given community. In all, given technical writing’s strong connection to rhetoric, acting as a mediator between a complex set of information and a nonexpert audience who needs it simplified means that choices about content, design, and word choice need to made with careful attention to audience.

specialist and nonspecialist users: That said, not all audiences are nonexpert or nonspecialist. Many instances of technical writing are between one group of specialists and another, such as when one group of scientists need to collaborate on an interdisciplinary project with another group of scientists. See this article on how a certain approach to language helped generate what we now know to be the autism vaccine controversy.

solve practical problems: Technical writing has been defined as a problem solving activity [2]. And it is, at its core. Even the most banal of genres (say, a microwave user manual) helps an individual solve a problem: how to use a microwave. As do documents released by the CDC on educating the public about a given threat. As do voter ballots. As do YouTube tutorials on how to get you hair to look a certain way. While not all problem solving activity is technical writing, most all technical writing documents do help solve a problem for an individual, group, or organization.

using communication technologies, multi-modal documents, or complex documents: As already stated, not all technical communication happens through traditional notions of what “writing” is. This is why the phrase technical writing has fallen a little out of vogue. So much of what communicators do in technical contexts involves visual communication, although complex written documents certainly are still a core part of the many people’s work. And given the wide range of technologies professionals use to communicate on a daily basis, attention paid to how technology shapes the way we communicate is of great concern to the field. In all, it is good to keep in mind that technical writing, with its close allegiance to technology is and always has been changing, specifically during times of great technological advancement, such as World War II or the internet age of the 1990s as new technologies get introduced and humans need to learn how to use them.

It is useful for you, now as a student of technical writing, to understand the expansive scope and purposes of technical writing. This will help you better understand why you will be doing the projects you will be doing this semester. This course is not designed to test you on knowing the textbook definitions and histories of technical writing, but is designed to have you dabble a fair bit in the various topics, genres, and modalities constituting the field. This involved both the theoretical and the practical. For those who do not wish to be a writer after graduation, these projects will prepare you to communicate in a wide range of contexts by challenging you to think about genre, design, and ethics; for those who do wish to be a writer, these projects will give you a strong foundation in the type of work to be expected of you.

Let’s talk a bit more about the projects, then.

This course is divided into five segments, each about a broad theoretical topic related to technical writing: ideology, the user, design, genre, and curatorship. The reason why the course is broken up by theoretical topic rather than by types of documents (e.g., memos, reports, proposals) is because each and every successfully written artifact has to have some degree of attention to all five topics. For each document, writers must attend to the politics (ideology), audience (user), style (design), form (genre), and choices (curatorship) involved in making it. This involves knowing about the existing theories of each and being able to apply them. To illustrate, see what I am calling the praxis cube:

Blue cube showing icons symbolizing each project.
Praxis Cube

I created this visualization so that students might get a more conceptual understanding of what is going on in this course. Let’s break it down:

The Heart: This symbolizes topic one (ideology), specifically the notion that attention to people and an ethic of care is what underlies strong technical writing.

The Street Sign: This symbolizes topic two (the user), specifically the idea that technical writing directs people to do certain things over others.

The Graph: This symbolizes topic three (design), specifically the importance of visualizations in effective communication.

The Book: This symbolizes topic four (genre), specifically referring to reports as a type of writing that help solve high level problems.

The Third Dimension: The depth of the cube reveals that theory and practice must work together, and shows that students will be reading about theory and be asked to apply it.

The Cube Itself: This symbolizes topic five (curatorship), as students will have to take their work done throughout the semester, reflect on the intersections of theory and practice, and present it strategically for public viewing.

More details about each project can be found on the project pages, accessible by clicking on the three-lined icon to the left of this page title at the very top of the screen. For now it is important you see the conceptual underpinnings of the course design.

• • •

Perhaps after all of this, you might need a secondary way of understanding the nature of technical writing and this course. I am inspired by those who are able to explain what they do or what they studied in succinct, lay terms, much like these 18 examples of scientists explaining what they do in simple terms (fun exercise idea: could you do this with your major?). If I were given 10 words and 10 words only to summarize technical writing, both the field and what you’ll  be doing in this course, it would be as such:

Technical writing is the rhetoric of the world of work.

If rhetoric is the art and study of how language influences people, then technical writing is a practice and field of study that is concerned with how language influences people in workplace settings.

Let’s get started.

Dr. Daniel P. Richards