Understanding Technical Writing in the Digital Age

Understanding Technical Writing in the Digital Age
Mike Romano photographed by Keri Romano

Perception

What is technical writing? I was recently asked that by one of my supervisors. I did not have a simple answer for him. I told him that it is writing done for tech manuals but so much more. My perception of this field of English is somewhat correct, and yet, it misses the mark. I knew I wanted to earn a graduate degree in it to further my education, improve upon my writing, and broaden my career prospects. I stepped into the rabbit hole not fully knowing how far down it went or what I may encounter along the way.

I pursued a bachelor's in history, because I believe everyone has a story. What is history? According to dictionary.com, history is defined as, "a continuous, systematic narrative of past events as relating to a particular people, country, period, person, etc., usually written as a chronological account; chronicle." (https://www.dictionary.com/browse/history) Since earning that bachelor's degree, I have thought like a historian. I dwell upon narratives, past events, people, and chronological accounts.

As I began to read about what technical writing is, I noticed a juxtaposition of history and technical writing. Where these two disciplines intersect is at the point of telling a narrative via a chronological account. While history can be flashy, technical writing is not. Historians have an interesting story to tell and need to entice the reader to continue reading. Technical writers need to get straight to the point and direct the reader to the end product. Both move the reader through a timeline of events.

Technical Communication

Looking over the readings, we were tasked with choosing one from a brief list. I settled upon Introduction to Technical Communication by Lannon & Gurak. Prior to reading, I assumed writing is one form of communication. Therefore, technical writing must be one form of technical communication. Says Lannon & Gurak, "Technical  communication  is  the  exchange  of information  that  helps  people  interact with technology and solve complex problems." (https://files.grlucas.com/d/14accad318864eef8afb/files/?p=%2FTech Comm Texts%2FLannon - Technical Communication%2C Global Edition%2C 15th Edition.pdf) I seemed to be loosely on the right track.

I wanted to dig a little deeper and discover what others had to say. I happened upon Brigette Mussack. Dr. Mussack is a senior lecturer of writing studies at the University of Minnesota. In her book, Technical Communication through a Social Justice Lens, she offers this perspective, "the term communication is favored over writing. Communication is preferred because it more fully encompasses the broad range of communication modes and methods used by technical communicators, including written communication, oral communication, video, infographic/images, etc.." (https://pressbooks.umn.edu/techwriting/chapter/3-1-defining-technical-communication/) Technical communication is more than just the writing of words. It is inclusive of the other elements used to convey information.  

Digital Writing

Each of this week's readings expanded my understanding of what technical writing really is. Coupled with that is digital writing. That seems relatively self-explanatory - writing that is done digitally. Dr. Lucas, professor of English at Middle Georgia State University, explains that, "digital writing is writing composed, created, and read in digital environments." (https://grlucas.net/grl/CompFAQ/Digital_Writing)

What really had a profound impact on me was the discussion of medium. Since the advent of smartphones, so much can now be done on these small handheld devices. Typewriters were replaced by word processors and desktop computers. Then, laptops took over. Now, one can access libraries and the web from one's smartphone. On that same smartphone, one can easily share researched infomation. The future is now!

Says Lucas, "the container shapes our relationship to that which it contains." (https://grlucas.net/grl/CompFAQ/Digital_Writing) I certainly felt that. I am old fashioned. I want to read books in physical form. I like the tactility of flipping pages or running my index finger to reread a passage that moved me. I have a sense of pride in finishing a book and then closing it for the last time. The smell of the pages triggers my sense of being in the scene with the characters. I feel their emotion. My heart races with theirs as their fight or flight response kicks in. I'm in pretty good shape, so it causes me no alarm.

I prefer to do my investing and banking from my laptop, because I like the large screen. I like that I can flip between multiple tabs to research index funds or corporate stocks. I would not have as enjoyable of an experience if I were to attempt that on my smartphone.

From my phone, I call and text. I receive and send emails. I scroll through Facebook and LinkedIn. Pulling up my weather app, I confirm that it is going to be hot and muggy, rainy, or some other condition. I check the scores of my favorite teams. I briefly lament over what could have been if one of my teams had won a particular game, drafted or traded for a particular player, and so forth.

I am connected in this digital world. Referring back to Dr. Lucas, I certainly see the relationship between the container and contents. Digital writing allows us to be even more connected. With a device and internet connection, we are easily able to reach around the world.

Afterthoughts

As I take this course and the rest that will follow, I realize that there is so much more to technical writing, technical communication, and digital writing. Each is connected. Each appears to feed off of the other. Modern technology has graced technical writers with the ability to be creative while maintaining professional and straight-to-the-point content.

Mike Romano

Mike Romano

Mike is currently a technical writing graduate student and a civilian US Navy blue collar worker.
Chesapeake, VA