Chapter 1: Introduction

Michael Beilfuss

1.1 What is Technical Writing?

You are probably wondering what this “technical writing thing” is. Someone may even have told you “It’s this course where they make you write about computers, rocket science, and brain surgery.” Well, not really, as you will see in a moment.

Technical writing is an audience-centered means of communication that provides a reader with clear and easy access to information so they understand both the document’s and the author’s purpose and respond accordingly. The technical writer and reader have a vis-à-vis relationship. The writer recognizes, respects, and addresses the importance of the audience’s time by being clear, concise, and accessible. The writer strives for effective and efficient communication by providing documents written in specific formats, using unambiguous language to convey clearly accessible information. The reader in turn thoroughly processes the information in order to give a thoughtful response or take appropriate action.

Technical writing courses introduce you to the skills, genres, and other important aspects of writing in the worlds of science, technology, and business—in other words, the kind of writing that scientists, nurses, doctors, construction managers, computer specialists, government officials, engineers, and other professionals do as a part of their regular work. The skills learned in technical writing courses are useful in a broad spectrum of fields, including education and social sciences.

To learn how to write effectively for the professional world, you will study common types of reports, special format items such as lists and headings, simple techniques for creating and using graphics in reports, and some techniques for producing professional-looking final copy. This book focuses on skills and genres. The idea is that while you learn the conventions that govern one genre, such as technical instructions, you will also practice skills such as the appropriate use of graphics and design to facilitate communication. It is important to build a strong foundation of skills and genre knowledge so that you can more efficiently complete writing tasks when they arise.

This approach will allow you to apply what you learn here to a variety of situations. The skills and genre knowledge you will acquire in this book should be flexible and adaptable. Sometimes technical writing is formulaic, which can be a good thing if you need to communicate something with great clarity and efficiency. However, do not let formulaic writing sap the energy out of everything you write.

Rhetorical Situation

One of the most important skills you will practice is analyzing and understanding the rhetorical situation of your writing task. Essentially, the rhetorical situation describes the relationships between and among the audience, writer, content, and context of communication. That might sound complicated right now, but it can basically be broken down into an awareness and sensitivity to the needs of your audience. What does your audience already know? What do they want out of your document? Where, when, and how are they going to use the document you create? These are some of the questions you want to ask yourself before you begin any writing task. There is more on audience below, and throughout this book.

Without even knowing it, you may be familiar with these concepts from your college, or even high school, composition course. If you have ever heard of the terms ethos, logos, or pathos, you know something about classical (Aristotelian) rhetoric and what is often called the rhetorical situation. If your writing is based on logos, you would be using facts, reason, and logic to communicate your message; if your argument is based on ethos, you would be relying on your credibility as a writer to communicate your message; and if your writing is based on pathos, you are attempting to appeal to your audience’s emotions (joy, fear, hope, anger, pride, etc). For more about these appeals see “Ethos, Logos, Pathos[1].

Technical writing courses build on what you have learned in other writing courses. You will have an opportunity to dust off those writing tools, and practice the art and craft of effective communication. However, there is plenty new to learn! If you currently have a job in which you do some writing, you will discover that you can put what you learn in your technical writing course to immediate use.

About Technical Writing

While technical communication is essential in a wide range of fields and occupations, technical writing is also a fully professional field of its own with degree programs, certifications, and even theory. There are no fewer than five scholarly journals that are devoted completely or in part to publishing articles related to technical writing; what it is, how it works, how it is changing, and how to teach it. The journals include: Technical Communication Quarterly, Journal of Technical Writing and Communication; Journal of Business and Technical Communication; English for Specific Purposes; and Issues in Writing. Technical writing is a field with a lot of growth and income potential, and an introductory technical writing course is a good way to determine if you are interested in a career in this field or work in which writing is a major component. 

Workplace Writing

Many students of technical writing courses are not necessarily planning for a career as a technical writer or instructor. However, this course will provide you with an introduction to the kinds of writing skills you need in practically any professional career. No matter what sort of work you do, you are likely to do some writing—and much of it may be technical in nature. Furthermore, if you hope to advance in your career and eventually manage people or open your own business, having technical writing skills is a critical communication tool that will save you time and money. If you lack these skills, you may not be able to properly assess the quality of a report you have assigned someone to write, or you may end up sending emails that are unintentionally offensive, or you may be forced to hire a professional writer to create your employee manuals and instructional guides. The more you know about, and practice, the basic technical writing skills revealed in this text, the better you will be at writing. And that will be good for the projects you work on, for the organizations you work for, and—most of all—for you and your career. Make no mistake, if you want to succeed in your career, you have to be a successful communicator – and a large part of that includes writing.

The Meaning of “Technical”

Technical communication—or technical writing, as the course is often called—is not writing about a specific technical topic such as computers, but about any technical topic. The term “technical” refers to knowledge that is not widespread, that is more the territory of experts and specialists. Whatever your major is, you are developing an expertise—you are becoming a specialist in a particular technical area. Whenever you try to write or say anything about your field, you are engaged in technical communication.

Importance of Audience

Another key part of the definition of technical communication is the receiver of the information—the audience. Technical communication is the delivery of technical information to readers (or listeners or viewers) in a manner that is adapted to their needs, their level of understanding, and their background. Most technical documents are also written with a respect for the audience’s time, meaning sentences are written as efficiently as possible and content is arranged and displayed in a way that allows the reader to quickly locate relevant information. In fact, this audience element is so important that it is one of the cornerstones of technical writing: you are often challenged to write about technical subjects in a way that a beginner could understand. Sometimes you have to write for an audience of other specialists, but generally speaking, you are communicating information to someone who does not already know or have it.

This ability to “translate” technical information to non-specialists is a key skill to any technical communicator. In a world of rapid technological development, many people are constantly falling behind. As a result, technology companies regularly struggle to find effective ways to help current or potential customers understand the advantages or the operation of new products. Even within businesses, people with different skill sets need to be able to communicate effectively with one another; engineers need to communicate with lawyers; mechanics with accountants; sales people with managers and executives.

You do not have to write about computers or rocket science—write about the area of technical specialization you know or are learning about. And plan to write about it in such a way that your audience will understand. (See the chapter 2 for more on this topic.)

Really Technical Writing

You should know that professional technical writers do in fact write about very technical stuff—information that they cannot begin to master unless they go back for a Ph.D. But without a PhD in rocket science, how is a technical writer supposed to know create accurate instructions for how to properly secure the linkages between rocket mounts and fuel delivery systems? How is the writer supposed to gain that knowledge in just a few weeks before the rockets need to ship? How do they manage? Professional technical writers rely on these strategies to ensure the technical accuracy of their work:

  • Study books, articles, reports, websites related to the product
  • Review product specifications: What the product is supposed to do, how it is designed
  • Interview subject-matter experts (SMEs): The product specialists, developers, engineers
  • Attend product meetings during the development cycle
  • Participate in live demonstrations of the product
  • Become familiar with similar, competing products
  • Experiment with working models of the product
  • Ask subject-matter experts to review work for technical accuracy and completeness

Of course, experienced technical writers will tell you that product development moves so fast that specifications are not always possible and that working models of the product are rarely available. That is why the Subject-matter Experts’ review is often the most important. Based on the list above, you can also see that technical writing is often a collaborative process, where many people contribute to the process of creating the final product.

Technical Writing and Academic Writing

You have probably taken at least one academic writing course before this one, so you will be familiar with some of the practices of writing for your college classes.

The concentration on definite purpose, strict format, and use of appropriate language in technical writing define the differences between technical writing and academic writing. The academic writer’s purpose may be to write an assignment, a story, a letter, etc. These works may or may not have a reader outside the classroom. However, technical writing is always much more concerned with articulating a clearly defined purpose with a specific, known reader. Regardless of the number of stakeholders, and the variety of people who may encounter and read your documents, it is important to have a clear idea of your primary reader.

In technical writing courses, the focus is typically the analytical report. Just about everything you do in the course is aimed at developing skills needed to produce this report. Of course, most technical writing courses begin with a resume and application letter, and many include writing a set of instructions to help practice making technical knowledge available to non-experts. Remember that much of this book is based on mastering both skills and genres. While creating these documents and mastering the forms (or genres), you will also learn advantageous strategies for a document’s graphics, layout, and design. However, the main assignment in most technical writing courses is the analytical report.

Planning to write this report consists of several phases:

  1. Establishing group roles
  2. Writing a proposal in which you lay out your research strategy
  3. Performing primary and secondary research
  4. Analyzing research
  5. Writing the report

Before writing the report, however, you will likely be assigned shorter documents (memos, emails, outlines, drafts) where you get accustomed to using things like headings, lists, graphics, and special notices—not to mention writing about technical subject matter in a clear, concise, understandable way that is appropriate for a specific audience.

CAUTION. You should be aware that technical writing courses are writing-intensive. If you are taking a full load of classes, working full time, and juggling unique family obligations, please consider whether this is the right time for you to take technical writing. Consult with your professor about the workload for this class in order to make your decision.

You will probably write more in your technical-writing course than in any other course you have ever taken, and the writing is expected to look professional. It is time to stop thinking of yourself as students and your assignments as inconsequential busy-work. Instead, start thinking of yourselves as professionals who are learning new skills and putting into practice those skills you have already mastered.

1.2 Cultural Diversity and Technical Communication

Culture is part of the very fabric of our thought, and we cannot separate ourselves from it. When you are analyzing the rhetorical situation, it is a good idea to consider the cultural context(s) that may be in play. Every business or organization has a culture, and within what may be considered a global culture, there are many subcultures or co-cultures. For example, consider the difference between the sales and accounting departments in a corporation. We can quickly see two distinct groups with their own symbols, vocabulary, and values. Within each group, there may also be smaller groups, and each member of each department comes from a distinct background that in itself influences behavior and interaction. Now, change that context to an act of communication. Who will hear it? Who could read it? What will your colleagues or readers of another culture take from it—intended or not? Sometimes, the focus of technical communication is quite easy; the primary reader is clearly targeted through demographic research. But, think about how much more effective and more dynamic a communication could be if the writer considered the potential cultural perspectives at work.

Diversity includes many different factors, ranging from race and ethnicity to culture and worldview. The more diverse an audience, the harder it becomes to tailor a speech to that audience. However, the more we study cross-cultural communication issues, the more aware we become. It is, of course, impossible to know every culture well; some of us are still working on learning our own! However, it may be helpful to recognize several paradigms used to discuss culture, in order to recognize certain characteristics, while also appreciating cultural uniqueness and seeking to avoid generalizations.

Appreciating cultural uniqueness helps us to understand major communication styles. The terms collectivist and individualistic are sometimes used to discuss cultural differences. Many Americans value family, but American culture also places a strong emphasis on making our own choices in career, education, marriage, and living arrangements. In more collectivist cultures, the family or larger community may have a strong voice in an individual’s life choices. An individual’s decisions may be more strongly influenced the community than individual preferences.

Closely related to the distinction between collectivistic and individualistic is the distinction between high-context and low-context cultures. High-context cultures are so closely tied together that behavioral norms are implicit, or not talked about directly; they tend to be understood and unstated, having been learned through close observation and/or even unconsciously through immersion in the culture. Here is an example of a high-context exchange. If you and your friends have a routine of watching football every Sunday, saying “I’ll see you guys this weekend for the game” implies that the “when” and “where” of the game is so ingrained that it does not need to be explicitly stated.

Continuing the example from above, in these cases you might be gathering with a new group of friends who need explicit, high-context communication to know what is going on: “We’ll meet at Jay’s house on Bleaker Street at 11:30 on Sunday morning.” High-context cultures are described as more relational, collectivist, intuitive, and contemplative. This means that people in these cultures emphasize interpersonal relationships; developing trust is an important first step to any business transaction. High-context cultures may emphasize group harmony and consensus over individual achievement. Low-context cultures are often described as more action-oriented, practical, direct, and precise. In contrast, high-context cultures spend more time on interpersonal trust, may be less direct and straightforward, and may use more polite or flowery language. These descriptions are useful to some extent, but they can also be problematic due to their tendency to generalize. A person from a high-context culture is perfectly capable of being action-oriented, for example, while a person from a low-context culture still values interpersonal trust and politeness. While it is important to be aware of these possible cultural differences, you should never allow this awareness to ossify into an unconscious stereotype or bias. Do not base your judgments on people solely on generalizations – whether those generalizations seem ungenerous or even generous.

Another way to distinguish among cultural groups is to consider decision-making and the predominant communication modes. Some cultures emphasize a strongly narrative communication mode, with storytelling being the way the important information is conveyed. Others value group discussion and keeping the harmony of the group, while others rely heavily on the advice of elders in decision making. These practices say a lot about our shared histories and our values, views of the past, and approach to interpersonal trust. Nonverbal communication, which is very noticeable to us when we experience a new culture, is divided into types such as:  oculesics (eye behavior), haptics (touch behavior), proxemics (distance from others), vocalics (voice characteristics), chronemics (use of time in communication), and kinesics (use of the arms, legs, and posture).

Each of these focal points has unique patterns in various cultures, and the differences in nonverbal communication behavior may have deeper cultural meanings. Some cultures may avoid eye contact out of respect; their high-context nature means direct confrontation is discouraged. Other cultures tend to judge low eye contact rather harshly, as either dishonest, disinterest, or indicating low self-esteem. In many Western cultures, punctuality is valued strongly. Other cultures simply do not understand the Western love affair with the hands on the clock.

People from the United States are sometimes seen by other cultures as loud (vocalics), too direct and forward (oculesics), taking up too much space (kinesics and proxemics), and uncomfortable with touch or close spaces (haptics and proxemics). Of course, audiences of different cultural backgrounds may include those for whom English is a second (or third or fourth) language. Watch out for metaphors, slang, and figurative language that simply have no meaning to non-native speakers of English. Many American expressions have to do with sports—everything from poker to football—and have no significance to those who have not grown up around those sports. Some of our expressions are actually racist or have a racist past, without our knowing or recognizing it because we do not know the origin of the phrase. Even a phrase that seems innocuous such as “bury the hatchet” could be viewed as culturally insensitive to Native Americans. If you use it, you are referring (inadvertently) to ethnic stereotypes as well as using references that non-U.S. cultures would not understand. There are many other such phrases that are worth interrogating and avoiding when recognized.

As emerging technology makes communicating with people around the world easier and more common, there is a good chance you will find yourself communicating or interacting with persons from other cultures in your future careers. Primarily, recognize the underlying values of the culture. The value and place of family may matter greatly, for example. You would want to be sure to show respect to parents and grandparents in everything you say; if you cannot do that, do not mention them at all. Other values may have to do with how genders are treated, modesty in clothing, or criticism of the government. Do not jump to judge speakers of other cultures by Western standards. As a piece of concluding advice, always seek for commonalities over differences; if you dig into cultural differences far enough, you will often find that our different houses are built on similar foundations.

1.3 Chapter Summaries

Below you will find brief summaries of each chapter in this book. After reading through them all, you should have a good sense of what you will learn as you work through the content.


Chapter  2: Audience

 This chapter focuses on audience and different considerations for revising your document based on the audience(s). The type of audience identified will shape your document’s format, terminology, style, and technical level. There are several types of audiences, including experts, technicians, executives, gatekeepers, and nonspecialists (laypeople). However, most documents you create will have multiple audiences: often, a primary audience—the main audience for the document—and a secondary audience—other audiences that are likely to read the document, but who are not the main focus of the document. In addition to the type of audience, you should analyze the audience to identify other factors that can affect how the document is received, including background, needs and interests, culture and values, and demographic characteristics. The rest of the chapter gives strategies to revise a document’s content for your audience, including changes to the content, style and format, sentence style, and document design.


Chapter 3: Group Work

This chapter covers some of the fundamentals of team work. After introducing the importance and prevalence of team work in the workplace, the chapter describes how best to build teams and ensure that they run smoothly. One of the first things a team needs to do is take an inventory of each member’s qualifications. Assessing qualifications allows teams to better assign roles, some of which are described here. Once the team has been built and everyone knows their roles, the planning stage begins – specific responsibilities are allocated among the group members to best fit their qualifications, the group writes out a schedule, and plans for any problems that may arise either within or outside the group. The chapter ends with a number of tips for a successful team project.


Chapter 4: Ethics

In this chapter, you will learn about some of the ethical challenges that you may encounter in your professional and academic life, especially when it comes to technical writing. First you will want to consider what your ethical code is so you can be prepared when you find yourself in uncomfortable and/or unethical situations. The chapter covers ethical principles, how ethics may affect the presentation of information, and some common ethical problems encountered by technical writers. Much of this chapter is concerned with the appropriate and ethical use and documentation of sources. The chapter provides some practical information on how to make sure your writing is ethical and how to handle ethical dilemmas and possible legal issues in the workplace.


Chapter 5: Design

This chapter briefly summarizes fundamental concepts to consider as you craft print and electronic texts. In this chapter you will read about basic principles of document design that allow writers to combine graphic elements with text to convey a message to audiences. Beginning with a discussion of standard conventions (of formatting, language, and style), the chapter then shares some basic guidelines for document design, moving forward to focus on integration of graphics, callouts and captions. Other topics include tables of contents, figures and tables, headings and the well-known CRAP test used by graphic designers. For additional resources, see the activities included at the chapter’s end.


Chapter 6: Emails, Letters, Memos

This chapter introduces the basics of email writing and etiquette, also providing information on memos and texting. It offers suggestions about when (and when not to!) use email in business communication. It details the basic conventions of structure: the header/address information, greeting, message body, and closing. It gives an overview of Netiquette, the expectations of online etiquette, which has application for other genres of online communication as well. The chapter concludes with a bulleted list of takeaways and tips, followed by additional teaching and learning resources.


Chapter 7: Career Documents

Looking for and landing the perfect job may seem like a daunting task. If you are uncertain where to start, know that most successful job applicants feel the same uncertainty at some point. This chapter will walk you through the process of applying for jobs from start to finish. Perhaps most importantly, it will provide you with two distinct tools that can help you to construct the materials for a strong, effective, and successful job application (Bay 75): 1) the résumé and 2) the job application letter. Résumés and application letters are among the most important documents in the employment process (Oregon 199). Beginning with an overview of the big-picture process, this chapter moves forward with suggested methods for finding job ads and constructing the genre documents for a job packet. In the résumé section, it discusses the following topics: Purposes and Goals, Types of Résumés, Sample Résumés, Drafting and Design: Where to Start, What to Include/Exclude, Optional Sections, and Drafting Activities and Resources. The next section on application letters will share information about deciphering the job description, as well as letter format, structure, and content. The chapter concludes with information on interviews, followed by specific guidelines for the job packet you will construct in English 3323.


Chapter 8: Technical Instructions

The chapter begins with a brief overview of the importance of knowing how to write instructions followed with some basic guidelines. The chapter goes into some depth in regards to analyzing the rhetorical situation for writing instructions. The rhetorical situation includes the purpose, audience and context for any particular set of instructions. Next we cover how to plan and organize the writing process followed by information about the content that is typically included in instructions. The chapter ends with some nitty-gritty tips on writing the instructions.


Chapter 9: Proposals

This chapter defines when and where you would use a proposal. Before drafting, you define some preliminary qualities, including if the proposal is written for internal or external audiences, is solicited or unsolicited, and if you are proposing a known or unknown solution. Next, the chapter discusses further considerations for your audience, followed by a breakdown of common sections present in most proposals. As proposal content can vary depending on the type and purpose and audience, a section is included on additional, project-specific sections which could be included in some proposals, such as client analysis and implementation sections. The standard design and format of a proposal is discussed, with emphasis on adaptability for the reader. The end of this chapter contains a revision checklist for proposals.


Chapter 10: Research

In this chapter, you will learn how to plan for conducting different types of research, depending on your research goals. The chapter starts by giving information on creating a hypothesis and research questions to guide your research. In addition, you will learn about conducting both primary and secondary research and when to choose one or the other. Different types of both primary and secondary research are discussed, to help you decide which is best for your specific project. Information for creating your own survey and interview questions is included, as well as tips for evaluating secondary sources.


Chapter 11: Reports

The standard components of the typical technical report are discussed in this chapter, including preliminary choices, audience and purpose considerations, common sections of reports, and format. As you read and use these guidelines, remember that these are guidelines, not commandments. Different companies, professions, and organizations have their own varied guidelines for reports—you will need to adapt your practice to those as well the ones presented here. In some industries, reports even use Excel files and other types of untraditional formats. In addition to the content and style of a standard report, the end of the chapter included details on two specific sub genres of reports that you may need to write during your education and beyond—Progress Reports and Internship and Co-op Reports.


Chapter 12: Oral Reports

This chapter shares basic principles for the preparation and delivery of oral reports. Since presentations often include a visual component, the chapter begins with guidelines for creating an effective PowerPoint, Prezi, or Keynote. It includes tips for developing effective slides, while acknowledging the drawbacks of presentation software. It also offers suggestions to help speakers prepare well, overcome anxiety, and consider their speaking context. It gives an overview of expected structural conventions—how to set up an introduction, body, and conclusion—and ends with useful delivery tips.



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Chapter 1: Introduction Copyright © 2019 by Michael Beilfuss is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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