Trained as a Liberal Arts Major, Working as a Techie

In my continuing effort to respond to reader comments and suggestions, today I’ll be taking on the subject of translating skills from the humanities into skills useful in technical communication. I’ve actually touched on this subject here, but let’s see what my fertile imagination comes up with today as well. Read on!

Science, engineering, math, and people

If you spent your university time as an English, journalism, history, or other liberal arts major, you might have noticed the vast difference in priorities between yourself and your friends working in the sciences, engineering, or accounting. For one thing, they were (and, once they get into the professional world, are) focused on activities that involve math. Or they were studying the inhuman activities of geology, meteorology, or physics. Or they’re into designing gadgets or coding software. Perhaps you might have felt the not-so-subtle snobbery that comes from your own major: “They’re dealing with things, I’m writing about people!”

Take a breath there, English major. Yes indeed: your work does involve people. But before you go getting all high-and-mighty about the enlightened concerns about your discipline, take a moment or two to realize that human beings don’t necessarily study “inhuman” things because they hate people or have no interest in other people’s concerns.

  • Why do people study accounting? So that the financial transactions of businesses providing the public (people) with goods and services are in balance, profitable, and sustainable.
  • Why do people study geology? To understand which types of landforms might be suitable or unsuitable for people to live due to earthquakes, volcanoes, or other seismic disturbances. To determine the most likely places to fine useful metals and minerals that build our cities, transportation systems, and gadgets.
  • Why do people study science? To understand how the universe works, from the cosmic scale (stars and galaxies) to the infinitesimally small (quarks and atoms). To better understand humanity’s place in that universe and what we can (or maybe shouldn’t) do.
  • Why do people study engineering? So they can learn how to build useful structures, devices, or tools that allow us to do work better, more efficiently, or in a more environmentally friendly way.

Those numbers-based disciplines are serving human interests just as much as political science or poetry, just in a more indirect and straightforward way. So perhaps the first lesson a liberal arts major needs to understand when approaching technical writing is that they are not writing about some inhuman machinery or confusing scientific curiosity: they are talking about acquiring machinery or knowledge to meet human needs.

Meeting public needs

Next: You are not writing to serve “the machinery” (at least not yet, I hope). Any document you write has a specific audience in mind who must use the information you’re imparting in a specific way to enable them to perform some specific human action.

Translating English into Engineerish and vice versa

Once if you’ve accepted the notion of science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) activities as human activities, you can start putting STEM-related actions into terms you understand–at least to help you think through the problems of “translating” Engineerish into English. Your tech writing reading audience is like any other audience in that you’re hoping to get them to react in a particular way. Instead of moods, however, you’re engaging their minds and, in some cases, their senses to get them to use the information you provide appropriately (as in the case of instructions, for example).

What does this mean in practical terms? Your writing needs to be precise in a way that allows people operating in different locations or circumstances to complete the same task in approximately the same way to get the same outcome. Despite what your Postmodern Theory professor might have told you, it is possible for two people to have approximately the same level of understanding on the same topic to arrive at the same conclusion (i.e., practical outcome). If that were not the case, a lot of very complicated hardware in our world would never function and there would be a lot more things going BOOM!

STEM has a history, too

Many documents require you to provide some sort of background or history of the product or service you are attempting to describe. However, instead of progressions of monarchies or personal stories, the “histories” you’re sharing in proposals or white papers are tales about the progression of your particular science or engineering field. What was discovered when? How were certain tools developed? What set of ideas combined to set Advanced Program X into motion so your organization could capitalize on it?

This sort of history requires the same sort of research you would conduct in a history, English, or political science paper. The “actors” in said histories might be more idea- or machinery-focused than people-focused, but those histories were still set in motion by people with very human interests (performing X action to advance human interest Y).

Using words rather than equations

As I’ve doubtlessly stated elsewhere, I am only so-so on math, algebra, trigonometry, what have you. Here’s the thing: organizations don’t hire writers to write equations or draw engineering processes. They do hire us to explain what those equations mean in practical, human terms. As one manager told me, “I’ve got plenty of engineers, what I need is a writer!” So, again, you are getting paid for your ability to explain how a scientific process affects the world around us or an engineering activity advances a human need. Leave the engineering to the engineers and the science to the scientists. Your job, in the end, is to help non-scientists and non-engineers understand the implications for them of whatever the STEM geniuses have discovered or built.

And because our state of knowledge or the state of the art in technology is always changing, that means that science and engineering are always finding something new to discover or build. No, you’re not helping “make” the big discovery or building the Next Big Thing, but you are in some way helping the rest of the world relate to whatever the scientists or engineers are working on–and that’s a pretty nifty and very human thing to do.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
Quote | This entry was posted in audience, engineering, personal, philosophy, science, technical writing. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Trained as a Liberal Arts Major, Working as a Techie

  1. lescrive says:

    I really appreciate this. I am trying to get into the technical writing industry. My minor was in math and I have previous computer science experience. I really like that you distinguish the differences between the mentalities and focal points of technical profession and non technical.

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