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Defining Technical Writing
Technical writing, viewed from a disciplinary perspective, is a specialized form of communication that serves to convey complex information, concepts, and procedures within various professional and technical fields. It is characterized by its clarity, precision, and focus on effectively communicating information to a specific audience. Unlike creative or literary writing, technical writing prioritizes utility and practicality over aesthetic expression.
As a form of professional communication, technical writing is traditionally employed to create documents such as user manuals, scientific research papers, engineering reports, schematics, and business proposals. The overarching objective is to facilitate understanding and enable the user (audience) to perform tasks or comprehend intricate ideas accurately. This approach demands meticulous attention to detail and adherence to specific conventions, ensuring consistency and minimizing ambiguity.
It is crucial for technical writers to understand the diverse needs of their audience, adapt their writing style accordingly, and remain attuned to the evolving technological landscape. The academic discourse around technical writing often intersects with discussions on rhetoric, usability, and design, offering a rich terrain for exploration and scholarly inquiry.
Our approach to technical writing will consider professional discipline over traditional writing done by technical communicators. We assume that all disciplines—professions, careers—have their own technical vocabulary, ideas, procedures, and processes. Every discipline, like the one you likely work in now, fosters its distinctive technical discourse—a lexicon and framework of specialized terminology, concepts, and conventions that facilitate precise communication among experts within that field, and sometimes to non-technical audiences, like a professor making a complex idea accessible to her students or a public relations expert writing marketing materials for the general public. This discourse serves as a means of efficiently conveying intricate ideas, theories, methodologies, and empirical findings to fellow practitioners, ensuring a shared understanding within the community, and often to other interested parties. Often, it is the job of the technical writer to consider less technical users and be able to translate highly technical language to one that is more accessible to a semi- or non-technical audience.
For instance, in the field of literary studies maintains a specialized vocabulary comprising terms such as “metaphor,” “narrative structure,” “intertextuality,” and “dramatic irony.” These terms hold specific meanings within the context of literary analysis and enable scholars to engage in nuanced discussions about literary works. Similarly, in the realm of composition, concepts like “rhetorical situation,” “audience analysis,” and “argumentation” form the foundation of technical discourse. In the sciences, technical discourse manifests through discipline-specific jargon and terminology that encapsulates scientific principles and discoveries. For example, in physics, terms like “quantum entanglement,” “relativity,” and “particle-wave duality” have distinct meanings understood by physicists. In the realm of computer science, languages like Python, Java, and C++ serve as technical discourse, facilitating communication among programmers and software engineers. You get the idea.
In a way, we are all likely already technical writers to some degree.
Ken Hyland, a prominent scholar in the field of applied linguistics, has made significant contributions to our understanding of technical discourse and how it varies across different disciplines. His work, particularly in Disciplinary Discourses: Social Interactions in Academic Writing, considers the nuances of how scholars from various disciplines use language to communicate and negotiate meaning within their academic communities. Hyland’s research is grounded in the concept of “discourse community,” which refers to a group of people who share a common set of communicative practices, values, and goals. Each discipline constitutes its own discourse community, and members of these communities develop a shared understanding of how to communicate effectively within their field.
Hyland’s analysis goes beyond merely identifying discipline-specific terminology; he examines how disciplinary values and beliefs shape language use. For example, he discusses how certain disciplines might prioritize objectivity and impersonal language (such as in scientific writing), while others emphasize subjectivity and personal engagement (such as in literary studies). Hyland highlights the ways in which disciplinary discourse is dynamic and evolving. Disciplines respond to changes in research methods, technological advancements, and shifts in cultural contexts, which in turn influence how scholars communicate their ideas. He also emphasizes that disciplinary discourse is not static; it can be influenced by interdisciplinary exchanges and borrowing of terminology and concepts from other fields.
Technical Writing in Discourse Communities
Defining the work of technical writers within the context of “discourse communities” offers valuable insights into their roles and responsibilities. Technical writers, as members of their respective discourse communities, navigate a complex landscape of considerations to effectively communicate specialized information to their target audiences. Here are some of the major considerations that shape their work:
Audience Analysis: Technical writers must thoroughly understand their audience’s background, knowledge level, and specific needs. This analysis informs the tone, style, and depth of technical content. For instance, writing a user manual for a software application requires different language and explanations compared to crafting a research paper for fellow experts.
Clarity and Precision: Technical discourse prioritizes clarity and precision above all else. Writers must convey complex ideas and procedures in a manner that leaves no room for misinterpretation. This demands the use of concise language, well-defined terminology, and step-by-step instructions.
Usability and Accessibility: Technical content is often designed for practical application. Writers must ensure that their documents are user-friendly and accessible. This involves structuring information logically, using headings and subheadings, providing visual aids like diagrams or infographics, and considering factors like readability and color contrast.
Ethical Considerations: Technical writers must uphold ethical standards, which include accurately representing information, giving proper credit to sources, and avoiding plagiarism. This is particularly important in scientific and academic writing, where credibility and intellectual integrity are paramount.
Document Design: The visual layout of technical documents plays a crucial role in aiding comprehension. Writers need to make thoughtful design choices, such as font selection, spacing, and formatting, to enhance readability and highlight key points.
Cultural and Interdisciplinary Awareness: Depending on the context, technical content might be accessed by a global audience. Writers need to be sensitive to cultural differences in language use, imagery, and symbols. Additionally, interdisciplinary collaborations may require the adaptation of technical terminology to facilitate communication across fields.
Revision and Feedback: Technical writing is an iterative process. Writers must be open to feedback from peers, subject matter experts, and end users. This collaborative approach ensures accuracy and relevance of the content.
Adaptation to Technological Advancements: As technology evolves, technical writers must stay current with emerging tools and platforms. This includes adapting content for online formats, mobile devices, and interactive media.
Legal and Regulatory Compliance: In certain industries, technical documents must adhere to legal and regulatory standards. Writers need to ensure that their content complies with relevant laws and guidelines.
Continual Learning: Disciplinary discourse is not static. Technical writers need to engage in continuous learning to stay updated with advancements in their field. This might involve attending workshops, reading scholarly articles, and participating in industry conferences.
In essence, technical writers serve as communicators within and beyond their discourse communities, bridging the gap between complex subject matter and intended audiences. Their considerations are multifaceted, requiring a mastery of language, design, and subject knowledge to convey information accurately and effectively.
- Hyland, Ken (2000). Disciplinary Discourses: Social Interactions in Academic Writing. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P.
|Written: 2002, 2022; Revised: 09-14-2023; Version: Beta 0.7