Re: Technical Writing Style

Subject: Re: Technical Writing Style
From: "Mark Baker" <mbaker -at- omnimark -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 8 Feb 2000 18:19:53 -0500

Paul Hanson wrote


> Mark's comment sent me for my copy of "Handbook of Technical Writing"
> 3rd Edition (Brusaw/Alred/Olin), which defines Technical Writing Style
> as:
>
> Technical writing style is standard exposition in which the tone is
> objective, with the author's voice taking a back seat to the subject
> matter

Clearly disproved by the phenomenally successful Dummies books.

>. . . the language is utilitarian emphasizing exactness rather
> than elegance for its own sake.

Exactness is elegance. In all writing. There is no form of writing in which
exactness in not a goal. In poetry, exactness is the sine qua none.

>Thus the writing is usually not adorned
> with figurative language, except when a figure of speech would
> facilitate understanding . . .

True of all writing

> Good technical writing avoids overusing
> the passive voice.

True of all writing

> Its vocabulary is appropriately technical, although
> the general word is preferable to the technical word.

True of all writing

>Gobbledygook and
> jargon are poor substitutes for clear and direct writing.

Wrong about all writing.

Failure to use the language of your audience is always an error. If your
audince has a specialized vocabulary (that is, jargon), use it. Using the
language of a group that is not your audience is always an error unless the
aim of the document is to educate people in the jargon of a profession. (Or
doing so is necessary to achieving the aim of the document.) This too is
true of all writing.

> Do not use a
> big or technical term merely because you know it --make sure that your
> readers also understand it. . . .

True of all writing

> Technical writing is direct and often
> is aimed at readers who are not experts in the subject . . .

True of all writing

> I agree that this is a description of technical writing style and,
> though holes can be poked into the tightest yarn of logic, it seems
> based in a logic to which I can easily adhere.

In so far as it is true of technical communication, it is true of all
writing. This is simply an exercise in the flawed logic of back formation.
There are people called technical writiers. Therefore there must be
something called technical writing that is distinct from other forms of
writing. Therefore there is a techncal writing style. It is a bogus
argument. There are people with the job title "custodial engineer". They
clean stuff. Cleaning is an important and useful activity, but it is still
just cleaning, even with the fancy title.

"Technical writer" is a job title. It is used to refer to people who write
how-to books for corporations to ship with their products. There are many
other sources of how-to books and other forms of how-to information. The
only thing that distinguished technical writiers from other creators of
how-to information is their title.

How-to is how-to. It is an ancient and venerable art that has been
successfully practiced in every form and style of language from the most
formal and austere to the most artful and decorated. There are no special
rules and no special style for how-to books.

The pretence that technical communication is a distinct craft, or a distinct
profession, is both self serving and self defeating. It cuts us off from the
rich history and vital living tradition of how-to authoring. It makes us
pompous and our work drab.

We're just writers, folks. We need to know our subject, know our audience,
and know our language. We have to do our research, do our writing, and do
our revision. So does every other writer, no matter what their job title.









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