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Learning Outcomes:

  • distinguish between technical and professional communication and writing
  • understand the role of a technical communicator
  • know how ethics, collaboration, context awareness, research, writing, and design connect in the creation of documentation
  • Identify three artifacts of technical communication in the room. What do they have in common? What differs?
  • Do a job search on a popular outlet (monster.com, local newspaper sites, stc.org, etc.) for technical writers. Trade out the term “technical” for “professional” and “writer” for “communicator.” Make a chart and list the differences between each of these four possible terms. Then, based on the qualifications and tasks listed with jobs under each title, write a definition of each.

Professional and technical writers generally fall under two categories: writers whose focus is in 
“technical” areas and professionals who write as part of their jobs. While many professionals do not see themselves as writers, their jobs require that they read and write quite often.

What’s in a name?

The terms “professional” and “technical” as well as “writing” and “communication” are used fairly interchangeably in the field. While there are some differences highlighted below, generally understand that any of these combinations refers to presenting information to audiences with the ultimate purpose of getting work done. This is a pretty broad definition, and in fact, the field is pretty broad itself.

Technical communication is all around. It’s not limited to instructions to which you occasionally refer or to pamphlets that come with new technology. If you consider technology as anything that applies scientific findings, then you will start seeing it everywhere. While high technology like smart phones and wifi is becoming ubiquitous, low technology has been around since humans began crafting utensils. Because technologies are created in certain contexts and often distributed to much wider contexts, it is important for their creators and advocates to communicate a product’s intended use to prevent mishandling and also to promote ethical distribution. Technical writing might be the prescription written on the inside of frame of your eyewear, the label inside your shirt, or the caution sign outside of a construction site.

Meanwhile, the umbrella term “professional communication” envelops all workplace writing, from internal memos and policies to external press releases and marketing for relevant publics. This kind of communication occurs constantly across institutions, including government sectors, hospitals, businesses, corporations, universities, etc. Unlike academic papers in which the goal is generally to develop an idea, make a theoretical argument, or demonstrate competence, professional texts aim to persuade people with power to take a specific action.

What kinds of texts are there in “professional and technical communication”?

Basically, any text that is intended to communicate information about how to use technology is considered “technical communication.” Meanwhile any text circulating in a professional setting for the purpose of getting work done is considered professional communication. These texts can be written, visual, or oral and print or electronic.

Texts are often called “deliverables” because they deliver the research and information in tangible artifacts (and usually in common genres) such as internal memos, reports, proposals, presentations, etc. To understand which text is most appropriate for a certain task, writers need to consider concepts of rhetoric like audience and contextual analysis as well as design principles.

What is Rhetoric?

This is a contested question in the field. The most basic definition of rhetoric might be reduced to the study of persuasion, or how words do things. In the media, the term “rhetoric” often gets a bad rap as a tool for politicians to manipulate others with empty words, but this isn’t exactly the role of rhetoric. In fact, Plato condemned the sophists for being deceitful rhetors (Gorgias claimed that he could make any seemingly ridiculous argument seem sound). Quintilian overtly defended the necessity of ethics in rhetoric when he said successful rhetoric is “the good man speaking well.” So to argue that rhetoric is inherently deceitful is to mistake the art for manipulation, ignoring the moral basis that supports a civil society.

While the study of argumentation may seem like an abstract and often philosophical debate, rhetorical moves can be observed in almost any interaction. Think of how you were persuaded to read this text, or the various factors that went into your decision about what to eat (or not eat) for breakfast this morning. Persuasion involves cultural studies, psychological considerations, language and much more, and it’s at the core of communication.

Any writing that aims to persuade one to believe something, whether it’s the best suited person to serve as President or the best way to resolve a computer error, relies on rhetoric. The art also considers elements like invention and delivery, which acknowledge all aspects of the writing process. From developing the idea for a project to publishing reports, professionals use rhetoric both deliberately and unconsciously. Four terms you’ll read more about in this book are ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos. The first three are rhetorical appeals that Aristotle distinguished, and kairos is an idea of opportune time and place that was central to the sophistic school of thought. Analyzing how these appeals function in texts can improve your ability to use them coherently to accomplish your purpose for your intended audience.

Learn more about rhetoric by watching the video “In Defense of Rhetoric,” created by graduate students in the MA in Professional Communication program at Clemson University:

Don’t PTC texts just deliver straightforward information?

Yes and no. On the one hand, the distinction of PTC as workplace writing as opposed to other genres of communication helps to define the field. However, all communication is inherently biased and situated in some way. You might not tell your parents about a new tattoo the same way you would tell your friends. Similarly, you would not tell a colleague or professor in biomedical engineering how a new pacemaker works the same way that you would tell a surgeon or a patient. In addition to considerations of usability and functionality, it’s important to remember the ethics that undergird PTC texts. In making decisions about how to communicate information, writers must think about how their choices affect their audience. Who is cut off from access to information? How does one choice privilege certain a demographic, a way of understanding, or one culture over another?  Does the publication or dissemination of texts unethically exclude certain people, preventing them from receiving information that would help them advance their careers or complete a task?

Other, more basic questions about functionality rely on rhetorical choices: Does the text communicate adequate amounts of information without overwhelming the audience? Is it produced in a meaningful and useful way or will it go on to sit on a shelf and rarely be read? These are all questions that influence the field and are important to people writing in professional roles.

What Does a Technical Communication Work Environment Look Like?

Technical writing takes place in collaborative environments. In organizational settings, documents, particularly for external audiences, are produced and/or approved by a team. Multiple moving parts means that learning skills in working within groups and staying organized are important for getting and maintaining a career within an organization. Whether you are an academic scientist, a business consultant, a mechanical engineer, or a patient care provider, you will need to understand good communication practices. These environments often include people from all sorts of different backgrounds, cultures, and ideas about what’s right. Avoid unnecessary and time-consuming conflict by approaching projects with an open mind and with an awareness of your own biases, which might be different from not only those of your readers but also of your colleagues.

Collaboration tactics like project management will also benefit you in individual tasks. Currently, much technical writing happens through remote work, and as such, professional writers often work for multiple clients concurrently. In fact, one can make a pretty good living by working from home on a number of contracted or part-time jobs, but to be successful means to constantly balance tasks by developing a system for organizing them. Gaining multitasking capabilities will transfer to any job where you’re required to report to different stakeholders about the same or similar projects.

Because of the collaborative nature of this work as well as the natural process of writing, document review and revision are integral parts of producing written communication.

Do Professional and Technical Writers Just Write?

While a large part of the field is writing, there are numerous other tasks associated with creating and distributing tasks. Because their goal is often to create texts that help users complete tasks, technical writing professionals perform usability tests to determine how successful their text was and how to improve it before publication. Other elements of developing texts are graphic design, data visualization, and remediation (recreating texts in various mediums for different audiences or purposes).

Role of Technology

PTC professionals generally stay ahead of the curve when it comes to new technologies. Because technology is constantly evolving and new tools emerge daily, it would be impossible to master every relevant tool. Instead, technical communicators master the analytic skills and foundations of systems in order to adapt to the changing environment of the field. Professionals who master skills in their own contexts, whether it is a hospital setting or a large corporation, will become familiar with certain procedures; for writing professionals, this means that they have preferred design and editing software for both print and electronic publishing, and knowing them well means that they can pick up client-preferred tools quite easily.

Should I Start with Design or Writing First?

Both/And/Neither. Design and content are complementary considerations. Sometimes, space limitations will mean that the writing needs to be extremely concise and stripped of all detail. On the other hand, sometimes it’s important for legal or other reasons to include a lot of information, no matter how much space it takes up. In either case, writers must consider their goals first and foremost. If you know that you’re writing in the second situation, in which space isn’t a concern, the length might mean putting the most important information on the first page, or it might mean incorporating pull-outs or images in the design to keep the reader’s interest through the last page. Conversely, space constraints might require writers to rethink sentence structure and voice.

Space isn’t the only limitation that determines design and content. Writers have to consider audience values, the rhetorical situation they are in, and institutional constraints like cost and formatting, as well as accessibility. Different audiences will have different interpretations of texts based on their culture, priorities, and relationship to the topic. Therefore, before beginning the task of writing, the composition process requires writers to consider for whom they are writing. In the workplace, there are often two audiences: internal, or inter-organizational, and external, which is often the public. Sometimes, internal documents end up in external venues (and vice-versa), particularly with the proliferation of social media, so it’s important for professional communicators to consider potential secondary audiences.

List of Key Definitions

  • Accessibility-- the readability of a text for diverse users with diverse capabilities which may be physical, cognitive, monetary, cultural, etc.
  • Artifact-- in technical communication, generally anything that counts as a final product, from a text document to an instructional audio clip to a website. As opposed to a deliverable, an artifact is most often defined from a reader or public point of view, and it carries with it the element of chronos, or time, as something that is final and consumed at the time it is being referenced.
  • Audience Analysis-- the process of researching the primary and secondary audiences in order to tailor deliverables to their needs and values.
  • Deliverable-- the final product that is ready to be published, or the text that a writer plans to deliver to her client. This is usually a term used in the context of production and finalization; after publication, a deliverable might be considered an artifact but you might find these terms somewhat interchangeable.
  • Repurposing-- the process of taking an original text and developing new (sometimes multimodal or mixed media) deliverables for different audiences or purposes.
  • Rhetorical Situation-- the occasion, audience and constraints in which one is writing.
  • Usability Testing-- in technical communication, the act of bringing in users to try out tasks outlined in a text with the goal of discovering issues with the text before publishing it to the intended audience. 

Exercises:

  • Identify three artifacts of technical communication in the room. What do they have in common? What differs?
  • Do a job search on a popular outlet (monster.com, local newspaper sites, stc.org, etc.) for technical writers. Trade out the term “technical” for “professional” and “writer” for “communicator.” Make a chart and list the differences between each of these four possible terms. Then, based on the qualifications and tasks listed with jobs under each title, write a definition of each.