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Introduction to Technical Communication

The Nature of Technical Communication

Did you know that you probably read or create technical communication every day without even realizing it? If you notice signs on your way to work, check the calories on the cereal box, email your professor to request a recommendation, or follow instructions to make a withdrawal from an ATM; you are involved with technical, workplace, or professional communication.

So what? Today, writing skills are more important for professionals than ever before. The National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools, and Colleges (2004) declares that writing today is not a frill for the few, but an essential skill for the many. They go on to state that much of what is important in American public and economic life depends on strong written and oral communication skills. A survey by the Workforce Solutions Group at St. Louis Community College asserts many employers are concerned at the large number of college graduates applying for jobs who lack communication skills (White, 2013).

Good communication skills, particularly in writing, are essential for your success in the workplace and in your personal life. The working world depends on written communication because, within modern organizations, almost every action is documented in writing. Furthermore, many kinds of writing, including correspondence and presentations using visuals like PowerPoint, technical reports, and formal reports are prevalent in most workplaces. And the writing must be good, accurate, clear, and grammatically correct. Kyle Wiens (2012) writes in an article in the Harvard Business Review: “If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me. . . I have a zero-tolerance to grammar mistakes that make people look stupid.”

 

Check out this video for more ideas about the kinds of writing that will be expected of you, especially if you are in a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) field.

 

So How Do we Define this Kind of Writing?

In this text, the word “document” refers to any of the many forms of technical writing, whether it be a webpage, an instruction manual, a lab report, or a travel brochure.

Technical communication is the process of making and sharing ideas and information in the workplace as well as the set of genres such as letters, emails, instructions, reports, proposals, websites, and blogs, which comprise the documents you write. The Society of Technical Communications (STC) defines technical communication as a broad field that includes any form of communication that is about technical or specialized topics, uses technology such as web pages or help files, or provides instruction about how to do something.

Specifically, technical writing involves communicating complex information to a specific audience who will use it to accomplish some goal or task in a manner that is accurate, useful, and clear. Whether you write an email to your professor or supervisor, develop a presentation or report, design a sales flyer, or create a webpage, you are a technical communicator.

Where does it come from? According to the Society of Technical Communication, technical communications origins have actually been attributed to various eras dating back to Ancient Greece (think Rhetoric!) and to the Renaissance. However, we can date writing that communicates technology back to the earliest civilizations, as they documented weather patterns, tool creation and usage, and livestock numbers, but what we know today as the professional field of technical writing began during World War I. The occupation of technical communicator stemmed from the need for technology-based documentation for military and manufacturing industries. As technology grew, and organizations became more global, the relevance of and need for technical communication emerged. In 2009, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recognized Technical Writer as a profession (STC).

What does technical communication or workplace writing look like? For an example, check out this page from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about climate change. As you look over this document, consider the following questions.

  • Who is the target audience?
  • What information does this document provide?
  • What task or goal will it help to accomplish?
  • What elements of this document do you think make it useful?
  • Does it solve a problem?
  • What about the style of the writing in this government document?
  • Is it concise and accurate?
  • Notice the annotations in the margins of the document. Based on these notes and your answers to the questions above, would you say that this is an effective document?

This is just one example of the many kinds of technical documents you will work with in this course. Read on for further discussion about the characteristics of technical writing.

Characteristics of Technical Writing

Mike Markell (2015), Sidney Dobrin (2010), Sam Dragga (2012), and others all identify similar characteristics of technical writing and emphasize that it must adhere to the highest standards.

Focused on audience: Technical and workplace documents address a specific audience. The audience may be an individual or a group, and they may or may not be known to the writer. While there is always a primary audience addressed, there may be a secondary audience. Thus, an understanding of the reader or user of a technical document is important.

Rhetorical, persuasive, purposeful, and problem-oriented: Technical communication is all about helping the reader or user of a document solve a problem or compel others to act. For example, the syllabus of your calculus class informs students what is expected of them; the university’s website provides information to potential students and current students about educational, financial, and personal resources. Identification of a specific purpose and audience are the first two steps of technical writing.

Professional: Technical communication reflects the values, goals, and culture of the organization and as such, creates and maintains the public image of the organization. Look back at your university’s website to see what public image it conveys. To better understand this, consider this example from the United States Government:

On October 13, 2010, President Obama signed into law the Plain Writing Act of 2010 (the Act) which is designed to promote clear government communication that the public can understand and use. The Act calls for writing that is clear, concise, and well-organized. Check out this resource on Plain Language.

Design centered: Technical communication uses elements of document design such as visuals, graphics, typography, color, and spacing to make a document interesting, attractive, usable, and comprehensible. While some documents may be solely in print, many more use images such as charts, photographs, and illustrations to enhance readability and understanding and simplify complex information.

Research and technology oriented: Workplace demands often require technical and workplace writing to be created in collaboration with others through a network of experts and designers.  This teamwork depends on sound research practices to ensure that information provided is correct, accurate, and complete.

Ethical: Technical communication is ethical. All workplace writers have ethical obligations, many of which are closely linked to legal obligations that include liability laws, copyright laws, contract laws, and trademark laws. You’ll learn more about these in the next chapter, “Ethics in Technical Communication.”

Socially just: Finally, technical communication should consider social impact and perspective. Since technical communication is used to convey technical ideas and influences the way in which people communicate through and about technical media, it is hard to deny that our work is not a form of social justice. We are presenting ideas to a myriad of audiences, many of whom are not subject matter experts, which means that we do not always know the resources, education, and ability that our readers can access and understand, to assume their background and knowledge are unethical. Technical communicators have the opportunity to make information and knowledge accessible and understandable, and to choose not to do so is not only oppressive but also prevents unheard voices from taking our progress a step further.

Accessible: A foundational exigent for technical communication practices is to create access to information and instruction for all users. We use our document design expertise such as word choice and organization as well as our knowledge of software tools to develop avenues that make information easier to understand and use. However, historically this work has been targeted to audiences of the dominant population. With the move to digital communication formats, technical communication practices have had the increased opportunity to consider the access needs of all users across the ability and identity spectrum. Technical communicators are uniquely positioned to use their tools and expertise to continue to develop inclusive environments.

What Standards Should We Observe to Make Writing Successful?

As a member of an organization or team, even as a student, you want to produce the absolute best writing you can. Here are the standards you must follow and some tips to help you. You will also have a tremendous advantage in the workplace if your communication and design skills meet these standards.

  • First and most important, your writing must be honest. Your trustworthiness in communication reflects not only on you personally but on your organization or discipline.
  • Your writing must be clear so that your reader can get from it the information you intended. Strive to make sure that you have expressed exactly what you mean and have not left room for incorrect interpretations.
  • Next, good writing is accurate. Do your homework and make sure you have your facts right. There is no excuse for presenting incorrect information.
  • Also make sure you have all the facts, as your writing must also be complete. Have you included everything that your reader needs? Are you addressing all their potential comments, concerns, and access needs?
  • Your audience has neither time nor patience for excessive verbiage, so simplify and cut any clutter. Good writing is always concise writing.
  • Your document should be attractive and pleasing to look at. Just as you wouldn’t eat a hamburger from a dirty plate, your reader will not be moved by a document that is not carefully designed and professional.
  • Finally, your document should be considerate of all your possible audiences. Clear, well-researched, just, and thoughtful writing is the best way to reach anyone who might come across your document.

In professional contexts, grammar, spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure must be correct in order to be respected. It is also important to recognize these grammar expectations are not stagnant nor inclusive to all writing situations. As with any writing element, grammar, spelling, and punctuations are part of the design choices technical communicators make to develop effective and equitable access to information. Therefore, depending on the context, a single grammatical or spelling error can cause your reader to dismiss you as not professional, as not caring enough to edit carefully.

What’s next? Let’s get started!

Technical or workplace writing is intended to solve problems, seek solutions, and provide necessary information that workers find usable. And to do those things well, you, as the writer, must do several things well.

How do you ensure that your document will be useful to your readers? Of course, you will make sure that it adheres to the standards of excellence suggested in this chapter. But for now, let’s get started with some strategies to make your writing accessible, useful, and excellent!

Here are a few simple things to practice right now. Jakob Nielsen (1997) observes that readers, or users, won’t read content unless it is clear, simple, and easy to understand. The late William Zinsser (2006), author of On Writing Well, emphasizes the same points when he states, “Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmick to personalize the author. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength.” (Zinsser, 2006). As you write, consider the language you are using. Could someone outside of your field understand this wording? Are you providing enough context?

First, make sure your writing is legible. Is the font large enough to be read by a variety of audiences? Is it an easy to read font style that is appropriate for the content? If you are writing for digital distribution such as through email or on a website, these considerations are especially significant including considerations of access to assistive technology such as screen reading devices. If there are problems with legibility or accessibility in your document, it will be of little use to your reader.

Then, make sure your writing is readable. If you have identified and analyzed your audience, you are off to a good start. Readable means your document can be easily understood by your target audience, and refers to the formula whereby words, sentence length, and sentence complexity determine how hard or easy your sentences are to read. If your readability is too high for the audience, then they will either take more time getting what they need from your writing, or it won’t be of any use to them at all. If the readability is too low, you may come across as condescending, if not a lousy writer.

Your writing may be legible and readable, but how well can your audience comprehend, or understand it in the way you intended? Is the reader able to use the document in the manner you meant? To enhance the reader’s comprehension, use language and terminology familiar to the reader, and limit paragraphs to one main idea. Strive for brevity if your users will be reading on tablets or mobile devices. Use visuals such as charts or diagrams to present a lot of information in a graphic format. You can evaluate how easy your document is to comprehend by getting another set of eyes on it.

Regardless of how legible, readable and understandable your writing may be, if your reader cannot access it, it doesn’t matter what you create. Accessibility is a major element of the document design process. Whether you plan to distribute your writing through print or digital avenues, the way your reader will access your writing must be a consideration throughout the writing and designing process. Although accessibility is often discussed in terms of guidelines and checklists attached to compliance with legal policies such as the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), or Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, accessibility means ensuring all users have an equal opportunity to engage with your writing. As you write and design your documents you need to consider not just the words but how your reader may engage with your writing. For example, a reader may use their eyes to read your writing or they may use a screen reading device. Your reader may need to use a translation device to access your writing.

The tips and standards of excellence detailed in this chapter merely skim the surface of what it takes to be an effective technical communicator. Throughout this text, you will be introduced to strategies and tools to help you write and design documents that are available to a wide spectrum of diverse users and encourage these users to act Your work as a technical communicator has already begun, so let’s build the skills you already have and learn new ones that will make your work easier and more effective!

Activities for Students

Here are a few questions for you to reflect on after reading this chapter:

  • What are some ways you use technical communication every day? In your personal life? In the workplace? In school?
  • What writing skills do you hope to practice in your technical writing course? What skills do you have confidence in?
  • In your future job, how might you use technical communication?

Is there anything in this chapter that didn’t make sense to you? What would you like to know more about?

 

References

Adams’ S. (2014).The 10 skills employers want most in 2015 graduates. Forbes. Retrieved from http://forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2014

College Board. (2004). Writing: A ticket to work…or a ticket out. A Report of the National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools, and Colleges. Retrieved from http://www.collegeboard.com/prod-downloads/writingcom/writing-ticket-to-work.pdf

Defining technical communication. (n.d.). Society for Technical Communication.  Retrieved from http://stc.org/about-stc/the-profession-all-about-technical-communication/defining-tc

Dobrin, S., Keller, C.,Weisser, C. (2010). Technical communication in the twenty first century (2nd. ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Markell, M. (2015). Technical communication (11th ed.). Boston, MA: Bedford/St.Martins.

Nielsen, J. (1997). How users read on the web. NN/g Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved from http://www.nngroup.com

United States Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2016). Technical writers. Occupational outlook handbook. Retrieved from www.bls.gov/ooh/media-and-communications/technical-writers.htm

What is technical writing? (2016). Techwhirl.  Retrieved from http://Techwhirl.com/what-is-technical-writing/

White, M. (2013). The real reason new college grads can’t get hired. TIME.com. Retrieved from http://business.time.com/2013/11/10/the-real-reason-college-grads-can’t-get-hired.

Wiens, K. (2012). I won’t hire people who use poor grammar: Here’s why. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2012/07/i-won’t-hire-people-who-use-poor-grammar

Zinsser, W. (2006). On writing well. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

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An Introduction to Technical Communication by sherenahuntsman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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