Although creative writing is a complex and complicated discipline in its own right, it would be wrong to consider that mastering it can give you any edge at all in technical writing. Technical writing follows a completely different set of rules and principles; and the importance of their proper implementation can hardly be overestimated. After all, the everyday workings of modern world depend in a much more crucial way on technological documentation than on fiction and even journalism – for good or worse.
Technical writing deals with specific knowledge, generally in the sphere of science and technology, and may be used in a wide variety of media: technical documentation, manuals, scientific articles, dissertations and so on. Each of these kinds of writing follows its own set of rules, and in order to write, for example, an article in a scientific magazine one doesn’t simply have to know his subject – one has to know the conventions of this genre, the way scientific and technological thought is to be expressed. It doesn’t mean that otherwise you wouldn’t be understood – although in some cases you really wouldn’t – it simply means that no self-respecting magazine is going to accept your article if it isn’t written properly.
And it isn’t merely an arbitrary choice to do something in a specific way – it is a result of the long evolution of language used in science and technology. A lot of different other ways were tried out and found wanting – thus, what we have now is the most effective way of imparting knowledge found so far.
That is why technical writing is of such tremendous importance. At a glance one may say that students of technology and science should concentrate on their primary disciplines – their particular branches of technology and science – in order to achieve more in them, and skills of communication and writing are superfluous at the very best, redundant at the very worst.
It is, however, far from being true. A person may be an excellent scientist or engineer – he may even have ideas in his head that, if properly addressed, can change the way we perceive his discipline, or even science in general. But if he lacks these necessary writing skills he won’t be able to impart his ideas, to persuade others in their merits. And in our modern competitive world it is more important as ever.
A second-rate specialist with a better grasp of technical writing can prepare a better, more organized project than a brilliant expert who neglected this part of his education. And taking into consideration that the majority of technologists and engineers today are working in business, in competitive fields, it is worth mentioning that their (Engineering) department is always just one of many, and it has to contend with other units: management, marketing, design and so on.
Although technically all departments within one company strive to achieve one and the same goal, they don’t necessarily agree on how it is to be done. Engineers, when all is said and done, do the work that is the job of others to sell – they are by definition less inclined to deal with other people, prove their point and sell their ideas than, let’s say, marketing department. And if a technologist is going to be competitive in such an environment, he has to have tools to prove his point – namely, good understanding of technical writing.
That is why every person willing to pursue a career in science and technology will do himself or herself a world of good by doing their best and getting the grasp of technical writing before it becomes an issue.
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Technically, That's not Technical
The trashcan in my classroom caught on fire last week. I grabbed the fire extinguisher. Not being the most technical savvy professor on campus, I didn't exactly know how to use it, so I resorted to reading the instructions. One of my students had replaced the instructions on the extinguisher with the following:
When a fire is burning hotter than bituminous coal in the belly of a furnace and it requires not a little water, you're in luck, for you have found the metaphorical Balm of Gilead to quench the flaming obstruction.
- Extract the metallic pin in the like manner Odysseus extracted the Wooden Horse plan from his mind.
- Think of the fire as a tree that you really need to chop down and the extinguisher as your ax. Aim accordingly.
- Much like a tender chicken must be roasted slowly, so must the fire extinguisher lever be pressed.
- Sweep the extinguisher from side to side much in the same way Emily Dickinson uses her many-colored broom.
Thanks for teaching me all these literary devices. I hope you find them as useful as I have.
As I ran out of the burning building, I realized I should have focused a little more on technical writing.