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What's technical about technical writing

by David N. Dobrin
Central Works in Technical Communication ()

Abstract

Two approaches to defining technical writing have predominated: one approach chooses to define technical writing on the basis of a set of texts that are considered technical writing; the other chooses to define "writing technically" on the bases of encounters that produce technical texts. The first approach flounders because one cannot, on the basis of experience, consider all documents that might be considered technical (109). The second approach flounders on terminology such as "objective," "rhetoric," and "science," all of which are poorly defined (110). Yoking technical writing to science is particularly unhelpful, since technical and scientific writing differ: 'The modes of technical writing are concerned with the instrumental and contingent, those of science with the discursive and universal" (111). Similarly, connecting technical writing to objectivity seeks to coopt science and deny the subjectivity of the technical writer. Finally, the idea that technical writing expresses a single, unequivocal meaning denies the complexity of language, meaning, context, and interpretation (111). Ultimately, these definitions share a universalist view of language, in which one assumes that a sentence can have a single meaning. In contrast, a monadist view of language holds that meaning is indeterminate and can never be completely understood. The universalist view is further indebted to Cartesian rationalism; the goal of the writer is to eliminate the contaminations of subjectivity, secondary knowledge, opinion, and rhetoric (113). A monadist view, in contrast, considers language as it is actually used, connects language and knowledge (115). Universalist approaches to language stifle creativity and vitality of language by confusing ambiguity, vagueness, and "alternity". Alternity refers to the fact that any language statement "as it states what it is, also brings into the domain of consciousness what isn't" (116). Alternity is a necessary aspect of any writing: "As we write, we construct a way of looking at a thing which precludes other ways at least temporarily, announcing that this is the privileged access to the thing" (116). Alternity involves aspects of group cohesion (i.e., the use of jargon to signal group membership), and the creativity and responsibility of the writer (i.e., in determining how a technology will be seen by the user); and an understanding that technical writing need not always disappear (i.e, questioning efficiency as the only determinant of effective technical writing) (118). Ultimately, "what is technical about technical writing is technology, to the extent that technology defines certain human behaviors among certain human beings and defines a group" (118). Thus, technical writing can be defined as "writing that accommodates technology to the user" (118). Writing here refers to "a way of thinking and establishing human relations in a group" (118). Technology here refers not just to tools and procedures, but also to "the way human beings deploy themselves in the use and production of material goods and services" (119). Ultimately, this view of technical writing requires that we see technical writing from the perspective of the groups to which the writer is writing, as well as from the perspective of the group within which the writer is situated (122).

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