Academic vs. technical writing

Subject: Academic vs. technical writing
From: Chaim Chatan <chatan -at- IDI -dot- ORG -dot- IL>
Date: Fri, 27 Mar 1998 16:29:29 +0200

Since there is a discussion of the differences between academic writing and
technical writing, let me give you the perspective of someone who has done
both. There are very important differences between academic and technical
writing. One must also realize that there are also different types of
academic writing and different types of technical writing.

First of all, the purposes and audiences are different between academic and
technical writing. The purposes of academic writing can be: 1) to present
the results of one's knowledge, 2) to present the results gained from one's
personal research, and 3) to present one's point of view. Of course, both
technical and academic writing is laden with jargon, but the jargon is used
for different purposes. As far as technical writing is concerned, the
purposes of technical writing can be: 1) to teach someone how to use a
specific product or service; and 2) to describe the procedures that are
employed by companies for carrying out various tasks.

The audiences are completely different. The academic is writing to fellow
scholars, and often, depending on the journal or publication, to the
general public. The technical writer is writing to the user of the product
or the service, or to government inspectors who need to see how the company
carries out certain tasks. Users, of course, differ from product to
product. In addition, technical writing differs from area to area. For
example, writing documentation for software is different from writing
documentation for hardware.

When I took a technical writing course as part of my professional
retraining, I had to unlearn a lot of what I had been doing as an academic
writer. We are dealing with different styles of writing altogether. Also,
there is good and bad academic and technical writing, and a good academic
writer may not become a good technical writer and vice versa. I have seen
downright awful academic writing, where the author wrote extremely unclear
and obscure prose, and I have seen extremely garbled technical writing,
where it was difficult to follow the instructions.

The important variable here is teachability. If an academic writer who
wants to become a technical writer is not teachable, especially coming from
the academic and liberal arts world, he/she will not be a good technical
writer. Good academic writing is not enough--teachability is the most
important factor. One of the most important tasks of interviewers of
candidates for technical writing jobs, especially candidates who have not
had professional experience, is not just simply to look at the writing
samples of the candidates, but to assess how teachable they are. If the
candidate has both academic and technical writing samples, the interviewer
should be able to assess whether the candidate has grasped the differences
between the two types of writing. This is one way to measure teachability.

A bit of advice for academics who want to go into technical writing is to
peruse all the various types of manuals and documentation written by
technical writers to get a sense of what is involved in technical writing.
Chaim I. Chatan
P.O. Box 31928
Jerusalem 91318
Home: 02-6426952

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