What is Technical Communication, anyway?

Writing is a nebulous field with many individual paths and modes of practice. A novelist is a broad term, but is baked into a firmer identity with genre guidelines, stylistic modes of practice, and market audience expectations. Technical writing is the same. But, ask yourself, why does having a “definition” matter so much? Do we not have a professional identity without a dictionary definition as to what a technical communicator does?

For many people, writing is a magical task. You stare at the page and BOOM! Words appear without apparent effort. Writers make it look easy to twist language into a comprehensible labyrinth of complex ideas presented in a usable way. The layperson, or someone who struggles with the concept of writing, doesn’t see the extreme effort of mental, intellectual, and research oriented preparation that went into that BOOM moment. You move a rock from point A to point B and the work is tangible. It is acknowledged because it can be seen. However, mental work is often disregarded because the average person can’t see it.

A writer takes a walk to consider the tangle of research and comes back to pound out the initial draft of the instruction manual the software designers have requested. The designers see a person read through their jumble of information, take a long lunch break that involved a walk, and then see an end result. What they don’t see because no one has invented a way to peer into someone else’s thought process is the mental process behind the words.

Just as those thoughts cannot be mapped, the field of technical communication also cannot. What is an effective communicator? That’s a subjective question depending on need. For the above mentioned software company, an effective communicator is one who can wade through the jargon, complex information, and foreign language associated with their code to present a clear guide a layperson can use. For a stock market analysist, it is being able to observe, analyze, and predict trends and convey that information to their superiors and the public. To a quality control specialist, it is being able to look at various reports regarding the product they are asked to review and remove the subjectivity laying bear the truth of product’s viability. In each of these cases, the educational background, research approach, professional expectations, and personality bear a strong influence on the end result.

I suppose I argue that communicators in general, and technical communicators specifically, are bound by the expectations of their tasks. Writing technical manuals for Microsoft requires a different skill set than writing instructions to put together a table for Target. Because of the skill specific requirements, I don’t feel the field can be effectively mapped, defined, or condensed into a neat package. There is no pretty red bow, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a field bearing important and critical tasks. Just ask that person turning the instruction sheet upside down to see if the diagrams make more sense because the written instructions were too confusing to follow.


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