Re: diffs betw tech and academic writing

Subject: Re: diffs betw tech and academic writing
From: Miles Kimball <miles -dot- kimball -at- MURRAYSTATE -dot- EDU>
Date: Fri, 27 Mar 1998 12:38:07 -0600

The question of differences between technical and academic writing is an
important one -- I teach my students that very difference every semester.

Students in my tech writing courses are frequently well practiced in
academic writing -- it's what all of their schooling has focused on to this
point. But since most of them won't be academics, recognizing the
differences is an important step for them to develop technical
communication skills.

I usually explain the differences primarily in terms of audience -- which
isn't to say that academic and technical audiences differ any more than an
audience of electrical engineers differs from an audience of safety
engineers. When I write an academic essay on Dickens, I use the language,
jargon, and level of sentence complexity (in academic terms, the "discourse
pattern") most appropriate to experts in Victorian literature. I don't
think twice about referring to "Derridean differe'nce" or
"post-structuralism," because those are terms I can expect my audience to

When I work as a professional technical writer, though (I have several
years' experience and still freelance on occasion), I wouldn't dream of
using the same words and style I employ in academic writing.

In either case -- just as we all do -- I analyze my readers and try to
write sentences they will understand. Any more specific tendencies (like
the claim that academic writing uses more "passive tense," whatever that
may be) are merely results of the basic rule: know your audience!


At 03:09 PM 3/25/98 -0500, you wrote:
>At 01:49 PM 3/25/98 -0500, Nina L. Panzica wrote:
>> The whole point of techncial
>>writing is to clarify, simplify, and to organize informational material in
>>such a way that someone without a skilled background in the subject or an
>>ability to follow sentences longer than 10 words or so can learn how to use
>>or understand something without a great deal of anguish or difficulty.
>I'm going to let most of Nina's post go, since she makes a number of valid
>points (most notably, that academic writing often has a strongly
>persuasive/argumentative purpose, though I don't see that as inherently
>negative or necessarily conducive to "bad writing"), but I have to step in
>on this one. *Some* technical writing is directed toward someone without a
>skilled background, but clearly not all of it. As I just wrote to Lani
>Hardage, in addition to "low level" user manuals (which include things like
>"double-click means quickly click the left mouse button twice"), I write
>system administrator/tech support guides to our system that are intended
>for people who are NT certified, have a fair amount of networking
>experience, and understand all sorts of system protocols and functions.
>If I gave that manual to someone "without a skilled background," they would
>be lost. Things like "make sure TCP/IP is installed properly on your
>system and that all DNS addresses are correct" are meaningless to people
>without the proper training. The manual does not include an explanation of
>TCP/IP, it doesn't tell you what a DNS address is, where to find one, or
>how to know if it's correct. If you don't know, you shouldn't be managing
>the system. I don't want *experienced* readers to suffer "anguish and
>difficulty" when they read the manual and learn to manage the system, but
>in all likelihood, "unskilled readers" would suffer trying to make
>functional sense of the text.
>Like many on this list, I find myself very uncomfortable with broad-based
>generalizations. To me, until you define audience and purpose (and I think
>it is almost as difficult to treat "academic writing" as a monolithic thing
>as it is to treat "technical writing" as a monolithic thing in these terms
>-- journals in different fields have very different styles/functions, for
>ex.), you can't adequately to assess and describe style, requirements, etc.
>Dr. Marie C. Paretti
>Recognition Research, Inc. (RRI)
>1750 Kraft Drive, Suite 2000
>Blacksburg, VA 24060
>mparetti -at- rrinc -dot- com
Miles A. Kimball
Asst. Prof. of English
Murray State University
miles -dot- kimball -at- murraystate -dot- edu

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