Technical writing is an audience-centered means of communication that provides a reader with clear and easy access to information. In the business world, time equates to profit, and profit is the force behind all business interaction. The technical writer and reader have a vis-à-vis relationship. The writer recognizes, respects, and addresses the importance of time in effective and efficient communication by providing documents written in specific formats, using unambiguous language to send clearly assessable information. The reader in turn thoroughly understands the information in order to give a thoughtful response.
Formatting and Language
Formatting and appropriate language are the basic design elements of all technical documents. A format that shows a hierarchical structure and a coordinate structure of information leads the reader through the text. Using appropriate language is significant in providing the reader with a thorough understanding of the purpose of the documents, how the document relates to the reader’s needs, and what action is expected of the reader.
A document may have one reader (the primary reader) or several readers (the secondary readers). A primary reader is the person who ordered the report to be written or the person for whom a report is intended. These readers will usually read the entire report. Secondary readers are those readers who will read only the sections of the report that relate to them, their jobs, their departments, responsibilities, etc. For example, if a report was sent that detailed funding for different departments, a piping superintendent may only want to read the section that relates to piping. This is where format, the use of headings, is significant in allowing the reader easy access to information. The piping superintendent can scan though the document and clearly find the heading that identifies his department, which saves time and avoids confusion.
Academic Writing versus Technical Writing
The 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. However, technical writing always has a definite purpose and will always have a reader. Regardless of the number of the intended readers of a document who may or may not read the document, the document will be read by the primary reader.
Technical writers need to be aware of the differences within and between the behaviors, norms, beliefs, and values of specific cultural environments. According to Edward T. Hall and Mildred Reed Hall, In Understanding Cultural Differences, each culture operates according to its own rules (1990, pp. 3-4). Hall and Hall add that problems occur when members of one culture apply their rules to another culture (1990, pp. 3-4). To communicate effectively with other cultures, the technical writer needs to not only be aware of rules governing behaviors that can be observed but also of the not-so-obvious rules that govern the norms, beliefs, and values of the people of a culture. The invisible rules of a culture dramatically impact the acceptance of ideas, plans, and strategies. The Cultural Iceberg illustrates patterns of world communication, showing indicators of Institutional Culture (the obvious behavior of a culture), which can be clearly seen as the tip of the iceberg, and People Culture (the norms, beliefs and values of a culture), which cannot be seen and which are the barriers to successful communication.
Technical writers have a responsibility to their readers and to their employers to follow ethics when writing reports. Technical writers must use words that demonstrate valid appeals to reason and avoid words and phrases that appeal to basic emotion instead of justifiable reasoning. In addition, technical writers must use valid references to support ideas and strategies, avoiding referencing non-experts to sway readers’ support. Also, technical writers must use accurate numbers to report data, avoiding charts and tables that skew data. Using any type of fallacies in technical writing is unethical and could result in dire consequences.
Not only do technical writers have a responsibility to report accurate information, they also have a responsibility to credit accurate sources of information. At no time is it acceptable to rearrange information in order to attempt to indicate that the writer is the source of someone else’s idea or to indicate that the writer read a report that included information he/she cited, when the primary source of the information was cited in another report. All sources must be referenced accurately in the text and cited on a reference page.
Daniel G. Riordan (2005), in Technical Report Writing Today, cites Dombrowski to define three threads of ethics:
One major thread is that the communicator must be a good person who cares for the audience. Communicators must tell the truth as convincingly as possible, because truth will lead to the good of the audience. Another thread is that the communicator must do what is right, regardless or possible outcomes. A third thread is that communicators must act for the greatest good for the greatest number of people. (p. 16)
In addition, Riordan (2005) references the “code of ethics of the Society for Technical Writers, and cites five of the code’s tenants:
My commitment to professional excellence and ethical behaviors means that I will
- Use language and visuals with precision.
- Prefer simple direct expression of ideas.
- Satisfy the audience’s need for information, not my own need for self-expression.
- Hold myself responsible for how well my audience understands my message.
- Report the work of colleagues, knowing that a communication problem may have more than one solution. (Riordan, 2005, pp. 15-16)
Hall, E. T. & Hall, M. R. (1990). Understanding Cultural Differences. Yardmouth: Intercultural Press, Inc.
Riordan, D. G. (2005). Technical Report Writing Today. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.