What IS Technical Communication, Anyway?

In response to a comment from my friend David on my Monday post, I thought I’d take a little time to explain what I mean by technical writing (or, more broadly, technical communication). It might seem like a straightforward proposition, but I recall spending a week or two in my first grad school class debating this matter, so maybe it’s worth taking a moment to define the term.

Why “technical communication” is problematic

Here are some of the ways that people can get confused by what it means to be a “technical communicator”:

Are they people who write about technology? 

Using this definition, you would have to exclude science writers. Also, would cookbook editors qualify? What about magazine writers for animal breeders or farmers? Furniture assembly manual writers?

Are they people who use advanced technical tools to create their products?

Using this definition, the meeting minutes I capture in my handwritten journal would not qualify as technical communication even if I was taking notes at a NASA meeting. Looking at this in a reversed direction, if you’re writing on a computer for a website, but the content is all about captions for pictures of kittens, is that considered “technical?”

Are they confined to certain job titles?

Does a technical illustrator qualify as a technical communicator? If you’re a manager of technical writers or illustrators and do some actual writing but don’t have “writer” in your title, are you still considered a technical writer/communicator?

Is marketing or advocacy content “technical?”

Much of what I’ve done for the last 15 years qualifies as marketing, outreach, or political advocacy writing. It’s not counter-factual or lying. It is not, however, straight technical content, where I’m just explaining something in a factual manner. There’s some advocacy behind it. If I’m selling a widget rather than just describing it, does that mean I’m not doing “technical” writing?

Does any of this matter or can we just say that we know technical communication when we see it?

But why do all these definitions matter?

You might think such discussions are a bit silly. One reason it’s an issue is that definitions can affect who gets to be a member of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), the professional association of technical communicators. Such associations do many things, from advocating for better pay scales to establishing professional standards and codes of conduct. If you have too narrow a definition (as illustrated by some of the examples above). If you have too big of a tent, you water down your audience, lose focus, and cease to be relevant. After all, if no one can say what a technical communicator is, how can you decide if you want to be one and how do you learn the skills necessary for the job?

Okay, smart guy, so what’s your definition of technical communication?

Let me approach it this way: I see technical communicators as individuals who develop communication products specifically designed to enable organizations to conduct their business. This leaves out a lot and probably includes too much, so I will leave you with STC’s definition, since they’re much more attuned to this matter than I am.

Technical communication is a broad field and includes any form of communication that exhibits one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Communicating about technical or specialized topics, such as computer applications, medical procedures, or environmental regulations.
  • Communicating by using technology, such as web pages, help files, or social media sites.
  • Providing instructions about how to do something, regardless of how technical the task is or even if technology is used to create or distribute that communication.

Does this help? For what it’s worth, I’m still a technical communicator.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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1 Response to What IS Technical Communication, Anyway?

  1. Larry Kunz says:

    Thanks, Bart. You’ve described very well why technical communication is hard to define. The STC definition is pretty good, although I have a beef with the second bullet. (Judging from the comments on my blog post, I’m not the only one.)

    I tackled this question in the first post I ever wrote on my blog. I stand by what I said there, with one additional thought: technical communication should always contribute tangible value for the enterprise that creates it and for their customers.

    For what it’s worth, I’m a technical communicator too. 🙂

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