J. TECHNICAL WRITING AND COMMUNICATION, Vol. 9(1), 1979
TECHNICAL WRITING: WHAT IT IS AND WHAT IT ISN’T
CHARLES R. STRATTON Department of English University of Idaho
The author of this article directs his remarks primarily to teachers of literature who may be considering the teaching of technical writing. He shows the similarities existing among the forms of creative, expository, and technical writing. He then cites some of the differences: the interactions of writer, subject, and the audience; the use of graphics; and the emphasis of the practical rather than the aesthetic.
As teachers of literature and composition you are technical writers. Every one of you. The kind of writing that you have been doing for the last two, five, or eight years is what we in the trade call technical writing. And if you want to become teachers of technical writing, all you have to do is show your students how to write what you write as you write it. Procedure manuals, technical reports, proposals, letters and memos, and feasibility analyses: heavy stuff? Foreign terms? Cant and jargon? The course outline and syllabus you prepared for English 321 is basically a procedure manual. It tells students when and how to submit papers, what to read and study for the course, and generally what you expect them to do in order to succeed in your class. The article on Joyce you recently sent off is essentially a technical report. It presents the results of your data gathering and research, suggests an interpretation of the data, analyzes alternatives, and presents arguments in favor of your solution to a problem. The position paper you drafted for the departmental curriculum committee on changes at the I00 and 200 levels: it is a 9 0 1979, Baywood Publishing Co., Inc.
doi: 10.2 190/N664-6J52-WGB I -RYLX
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proposal. Lord knows, you write enough letters and memos. And if that statement you appended to your recommendation of Dr. Fonzit for tenure isn’t a feasibility analysis, I don’t know what it is. But, you say, that sort of writing isn’t technical. Let me suggest the following: (And the suggestion is not original with me; the OED had a hand in it.) Technical, as an English adjective, is derived through French from the Greek Technikos, “technic,” or “technique.” Whenever you are dealing with things characteristic of or pertaining to a particular art, science, discipline, or trade, you are dealing with things technical. Every field has its techniques. Now, our colleagues in engineering and chemistry would have us believe that they have a comer on writings technical, and that for something t o qualify it must be filled with numbers, symbols, and acronyms and be generally obtuse, if not downright unreadable. I submit t o you that any writer of literary criticism can be just as obscure and unintelligible as any engineer! Technical, indeed.
WHAT IS TECHNICAL WRITING?
So then, technical writing: what is it? Basically, it is the kind of job-related writing that one does in his profession or discipline. It is a pragmatic sort of writing that is designed to elicit some overt behavioral response on the part of one’s readers. It is writing where information is more important than the writer’s attitude toward it. In sum, it is writing as an act of communication rather than writing as an act of self-expression. Technical writing is not creative writing. Although a technical writer must be creative, a report is different from a poem. When I write an ode or lyric, I am centering my attention on the relationship between myself and my subject. The reader is present but out of focus. I do my thing with my subject and hope my reader likes it. (Or maybe I don’t even care whether the reader likes it or not.) Technical writing is not expository writing. Although a technical writer uses description, narration, and argumentation, a report is not an essay. When I write an essay, I am centering on the relationship between myself and my reader. The subject is there, but my principal concern is t o bring my reader to an appreciation of my point of view about the subject. The stress is on the Elationship between writer and reader, and the subject fades somewhat into the background. We can view these relationships graphically by regarding the writer, reader, and subject of a writing situation as the vertices of
WHAT IT I S AND WHAT IT ISN’T / 11 SUBJECT
Figure 1. The communication triangle.
an equilateral triangle (see Figure 1).Each mode of writingcreative, expository, and technical-has its principal domain along one of the sides of the triangle. Creative writing, as represented by the poem, highlights the link between writer and subject (see Figure Z ) , while expository writing, as represented by the essay, highlights the link between writer and reader (see Figure 3). What of technical writing, then? When I write a report, it is I as writer that must fade into the background. The focus must be (see Figure 4) on the relationship between subject and reader. As SUBJECT
Figure 2. Creative writing focus.
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Figure 3. Essay writing focus.
technical writer, I must be willing to efface myself so that the light of my writing shines fully on the relationship between information and audience. To teach literature is to show students how the writer approaches his subject. To teach composition is to show students as writers how t o approach their audiences. To teach technical writing is to show students how to help audiences approach subjects. In all three, we am concerned with the interactions of writer, subject, and reader, but in each we foreground a particular pair of these SUBJECT
Figure 4. Technical writing focus.
WHAT IT IS AND WHAT IT ISN’T / 13
and background the third. The thing that makes technical writing unique-and somewhat intimidating, I might a d d i s that with technical writing it is self as writer that must be given a secondary role. To move from teaching literature t o teaching technical writing is to move around the triangle-not out of it. Technical writing is writing. All that you know about organization and development, about unity and coherence, about words, sentences, and paragraphs is germane to the teaching of technical Writing. The similarities between the critical essay and the technical report far outweigh what differences there are. Teaching technical writing is teaching. All that you know about increasing student awareness, developing skills, stimulating curiosity, and instilling pride in a sense of accomplishment is germane to the teaching of technical writing. You are all technical writers and you are all teachers. It is a small step t o become teachers of technical writing. A FEW DIFFERENCES Lest I overemphasize the similarities, let me stress a few differences. For one thing, technical writing is not advanced freshman composition and should not be approached that way. Freshman comp underscores writing skills important t o a person while he is a student; technical writing emphasizes-or at least ought to emphasize-writing skills important to the professional on the job. J. C. Mathes and Dwight Stevenson make this point nicely in the preface to their text [l] :
. . . the writing experiences of most engineering students in cdlege do not prepare them to write as they must in industry and government. They may have learned to write as students in the classroom, but they have not learned how to write as professionals employed in complex organizations. . . . In college, students write for an audience of one p e r s o n a professor; in industry, they must learn to write for a large, diverse audience in an organization. In college they write for a reader who knows the field and probably knows more about their technical material than the writer does; in industry, they must learn to write to people who perhaps do not know the field or who almost certainly know less about the material than the writer. In college, they write for pedagogical purposes-to demonstrate to a professor their mastery of concepts, processes, and information; in industry, their mastery is assumed, and they must learn to write for instrumental purposes-to help people in an organization make judgments and act upon the results they present. In short, even though engineering students may have written quite a bit by the time of graduation, little in their college
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writing experiences prepares them for the communication situations they face as professionals.
Another significant difference between technical writing and other kinds of writing taught in English classes is, of course, the roles of self and audience. Freshman comp stresses the importance of self and self awareness in essay writing. In Writing with a Purpose, for instance, James McCrimmon defines purpose as “your awareness as a writer of what you want to do, and how in general you want to do it.”  He goes on to say that “. . . a paper that expresses your observations, your ideas, and your values . . . will be worth writing and reading.” [2,p. 91 Other writers of freshman comp texts make similar observations: “You, as writer, are acting. You are expressing your personality, your insight, your experience, your ability to perceive. You are also interacting with all the other parts of the triangle at once. You are getting something from reality. . . . At the same time you are thinking of your audience.”  “You know that your prose is expected to make contact with a reader’s feelings and carry him along with a deueloping idea of your own. . . .” * “The essential thing is to keep pressing toward clarity, trying to meet the reader’s expectations while remaining in touch with your feelings.” [ 4, p. 41 In other words, the successful essay starts with a clear presentation of the writer’s position vis-a-vis a subject and then draws the audience toward that position. Technical writing, on the other hand, deemphasizes the role of self in the communication process. Nell Ann Pickett and Ann Laster in Writing and Reading in Technical English make the following observations: It is important to know who will be reading the explanation and why. It is important to be fully aware whether a particular background, specialized knowledge, or certain skills are needed in order to understand the explanation [ 51. Keep the intended reader in mind. Be considerate of the degree of his knowledge and understanding of the subject. “Talking down” to the reader should be avoided as much as assuming that the reader has certain needed knowledge or skills when he does not 15, p. 7].4
Other writers of technical writing textbooks stress even more strongly the dimunition of self as writer: Emphasis his. Emphasis mine. Emphasis mine. Emphasis theirs.
IS AND WHAT IT ISN‘T / 15
Technical communication must be done with a definite reader or listener in mind. You are communicating with someone, usually trying to have some definite effect on them or to elicit a definite response from them. What looks or sounds good to you is not enough; it must also look or sound good to your audience [ 61 Too many reports are written in a vacuum. Writers write for themselves instead of aiming at an uninformed reader, and then wonder why their reports fail to communicate [ 71.
The successful technical report starts with a clear understanding of where the reader is and then carries the subject matter to the audience. Another salient difference between technical writing on the one hand and creative or expository writing on the other is that technical writing makes extensive use of graphic communication to complement verbal communication. The poem, the essay, and the short story, however, are almost exclusively verbal. The next time you are in the library, riffle through a number of scientific or technical journals. You will find illustrations, tables, and charts averaging nearly one per page-a marked contrast to Shakespeare Quarterly or English Literary History. Technical writing emphasizes the practical rather than the aesthetic. Let me emphasize emphasizes. Technical writing is not without its aesthetic appeal; what it does is insist that aesthetics further the pragmatic goal of effecting some overt change on the part of the readers. It is, in Dwight Stevenson’s words, instrumental writing. On the same theme, freshman composition-and indeed literature as well-rninisters to the whole man, with some emphasis on leisure man. Technical writing, however, ministers principallyperhaps exclusively-to productive man: that lesser fraction of our existence that is measured by the Gross National Product. To sum up then, technical writing is first of all writing. All of the conventions of structure, organization, and style that are important for the critical essay are important for technical writing. But beyond this, technical writing is instrumental writing-writing designed to get people to do things. It is that kind of writing that has its focus along the reader-subject axis of the communication triangle. As teachers of literature, you have studied the other two kinds of writing, and you have first-hand experience with the third. It’s a small step, really, from teacher of literature to teacher of technical writing. Emphasis mine.
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1. J. C. Mathes and D. W. Stevenson, Designing Technical Reports, The BobbsMerrill Company, Indianapolis, p. 15,1976. 2. J. M. McCrimmon, Writing With a Purpose, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 6th ed., p. 5,1976. 3. R. M. Gomll and C. Laird, Modern English Handbook, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, 6th ed., p. 3, 1976. 4. F. Crews, The Random House Handbook, Random House, New York, p. 3, 1974. 5. N. A. Pickett and A. Laster, Writing and Reading in Technical English, Canfield Press, San Francisco, p. 5,1970. 6. D. E. Fear, Technical Communication, Scott, Foresman and Company, Glenview, Illinois, p. 5, 1977. 7. S. E. Pauley, Technical Report Writing Today, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, p. 9,1973. Other Articles on Communication by This Author
Ambiguity: An Exercise in Practical Semantics, Proceedings, the 21st International Technical Communication Conference, STC, 1974. The Electric Report Card: A Followup on Cassette Grading, Journal of nchnical Writing and Communication, 5:1, 1975. Inexpensive Visuals for Oral Presentations, with E. J. Breidenbach, Technical Communication, 23:2, 1976. Needs Assessment for Communication System Design, Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 6:2, 1976. System Design for Communication Packages, Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 6:3, 1976.
Direct reprint requests to: Charles R. Stxatton Department of English University of Idaho Moscow, Idaho 83843