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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Technical Writing: Ubiquitous, Instrinic, Subtle

When we think of technical writing, we might come up with some different ideas. We might think of a neurotic wordsmith, straining over grammar, style, and finicky about formats when creating documentation. Or, maybe an engineer just waiting to unleash their inner writer, waiting to plaster their prose on the screen, and waiting to release to the world the greatest manual ever written. Most likely, though, they are someone who got stuck writing something because no one else wanted to do it.

And speaking of reading documentation, how about the things we toss to aside because they don't make any sense when we're trying to put something together. Yep, guilty as charged! The list can go on and on. I don't think you and I want to fall asleep while listing out these ideas. I'm getting drowsy thinking about it.

Whenever anyone asked me what I do and I say technical writer, sometimes I get a puzzled look. When I say I write instructions, they say okay and nod. Anyway, where the heck am I going with this.

If we are just viewing technical writing as something on a screen or on paper, we are limiting ourselves on what technical writing or, as I like to say, technical communication, is.

Technical writing is everywhere. Yes, the user guides, on-line helps, API documents, white papers, tutorials, quickstarts, how-tos, the hokey pokey and turn yourself around song, or whatever fancy, shiny titles you come up with. Other than helping to keep a writer employed, why is there so much technical writing out there?

In my humble opinion, I think it's because technical writing is intrinsic to us human beings. When we perform dance steps, fish, hunt, drive a car, using a programming language, cooking a meal, our inclination is to show others how to do this. This is one of the ways information and knowledge spreads. We have been showing others how to do something for ages.

Even things like teaching a Tae Kwon Do class, preaching a sermon, or parenting a child, are a form of technical communication. You're instructing others how to do something or you're explaining what something is. Technical writing is the written manifestation of the verbal instructions and physical demonstrations.

Finally, technical writing can be subtle. When we do our normal routines, we forget that there are steps involved and they fade into the background. We just do it. It could be anything from making coffee, tying your shoes, changing a diaper, or brushing your teeth. We don't think about it.

I remember one time I had to write step-by-step instructions on something I normally do. When I took up this exercise, I thought this was going to be easy. But when I had to write down the steps, I realized how many things I didn't think about while performing this routine task. It made me think about how much we take for granted when don't think about what we do. It's only when I began to write it down, that I paused to clear up my thoughts and to make sure I didn't miss anything.

So, the next time you look at a manual, a standard operation procedure guide, or an on-line tutorial, stop and think how much technical writing there is in our world, whether it's obvious or not.

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