3 Things I'm Learning About Technical Writing in the Digital Age

Picture of man using digital pen.
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Through this week’s readings, I broadened my understanding of the applications of technical writing, increased my recognition of how technical writing is used across diverse fields and industries, and considered how digital platforms impact the effectiveness of technical writing. Comprehending the discipline of technical writing and its role in our digital world will be an ongoing and, hopefully, evolving process. Below are three things that I am learning.

1. Technical Writing is Enmeshed in Daily Life

Before beginning this class, I appreciated that technical writing encompassed an array of communications, yet, whenever I thought about it, my frame of reference was usually limited to the technical writers my husband collaborates with in his work for a software company. This week’s readings, however, highlighted the prevalence of technical writing in day-to-day life as well as the integration of this writing with technology. In the first chapter of Technical Communication, Lannon and Gurak offered practical examples of activities that use technical writing, such as (online) banking or researching treatment options on a medical website.

Think for a minute about something as mundane as a mobile bank deposit. A banking app guides the user from accessing the bank account to uploading a photo of the check to verifying the deposit amount. In this example, technical writing helps a user navigate a specific digital platform, which echoes Lannon and Gurak’s definition of technical communication as “the exchange of information that helps people interact with technology and solve complex problems.” (Lannon and Gurak, 2022, page 29.)

2. Technical Writing and Digital Literacy Are Already Components of My (and Probably Your) Work Process

Dr. Lucas noted in Defining Technical Writing that each field or profession has its “own technical vocabulary,” that is, specific ways of discussing content or actions with others working in the same field or discourse community. He further observed that “we are all likely already technical writers to some degree,” because we use specific language to create a common framework to communicate with our colleagues and co-workers. In this context, Gannon and Lurak cite common workplace exchanges, such as internal memos or reports.

Often, this shared “vocabulary” must be translated into terms that people working outside the field will understand, requiring that our writing be reader friendly and easily accessible. For example, in my professional world of nonprofit communications, a common occurrence would be to announce how donations funded new programmatic initiatives. This process would start with an internal exchange with the program administrator, a member of my discourse community, to gather the details of how the funds would be utilized. From there, we would craft a description that removed our internal terminology or jargon and then tailor the announcement by audience, whether that be donors, collaborators, or potential program applicants.

For each audience, we would have to determine which platform(s)—usually electronic—would have the greatest reach and be the most accessible to the reader. This assessment reflects a need for digital literacy as described in The Evolution and Dynamics of Digital Writing. Dr. Lucas explains that such competency involves both knowing how to use various digital platforms and being able to analyze which platforms are most effective in reaching the intended audience and relaying the necessary content.

I would hazard a guess that all students in our class have similar experiences of determining how best to share internal developments with external stakeholders.

3. Technical Writing is Shaped by the Medium (Maybe?)

Of the concepts addressed in this week’s reading, I was most struck by the questions Dr. Lucas raised regarding how what we read is influenced by the manner (or medium) in which we read it (also found in The Evolution and Dynamics of Digital Writing). This notion has implications beyond the digital world, but, in relation to our studies, he asks if “we experience text the same way on a screen as we do on paper.”

I am not sure when or if I will be able to answer that question, but I do have some thoughts. For better or worse, I think online reading brings with it a certain sense of immediacy or urgency. Despite warnings that what we post will be on the Internet forever, the truth is that content changes rapidly and is quickly replaced. Online text, even if it’s a training manual, is always competing with new content that is just a click away. So, capturing and holding the audience’s attention is paramount. Digital writers must therefore determine the most effective way to deliver content, both in terms of the writing and the digital technologies used to share that writing. In Combining Disciplinary Approach to Technical Writing with Digital Writing: Enhancing Communication in the Digital Age, Dr. Lucas outlines a “structured methodology” to facilitate this process, which includes Audience Analysis, Content Adaptation, and User-Centered design. (See “The Synergy: Theory and Practice.”)

Looking Ahead

At this stage, my understanding of “technical writing in the digital age” is that it is a process to deliver clear, informative text by utilizing digital platforms to enhance the audience’s understanding and experience of the content. For my part, I hope to use what I learn in this course to strengthen my ability to deliver content that effectively uses technology to raise awareness of and support for nonprofit causes.

Beth Kennedy

Beth Kennedy

Beth Kennedy has spent more than 25 years in nonprofit communications, helping organizations connect with their supporters. Currently, she is graduate student in Technical and Professional Writing.
North Carolina