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What Is Technical Writing?

Posted on: June 21, 2010

In recent decades, technical writing has been particularly associated with engineering, computer hardware and software, and scientific fields in general.

However, we all know that technical content may appear in many other types of writing, such as science fiction. Newspapers, magazines and other media may also publish articles or videos that deal with technical subjects. Should we include those in the category of “technical writing”?

And what about the earliest cuneiform tablets unearthed in Sumeria (now part of Iraq) that document agricultural information, astronomical knowledge, medical procedures and business practices? Are those 6,000-year-old clay tablets examples of technical writing?

Consider the plans for the vast harbor-works of Pharos, the lighthouse island off what eventually became Alexandria (Egypt), which were drawn up by Cretan and Phoenician marine architects near the end of the third millennium BCE. Do those count as “technical writing”?

Or do we insist that “technical writing” has only become a valid practice since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, when the modern scientific revolution began?

If we define technical writing as follows, then I think, as the examples above suggest, we could argue that technical writing has existed since writing was invented:

  • Focuses on the technical details of any field or subject
  • Has a specific purpose, which informs the entire document
  • Addresses a well-defined audience
  • Contains content worth reading
  • Gears the content to the particular audience
  • Values facts (which can be verified) and accuracy
  • Uses a simple but varied style
  • Has a consistent logical organization
  • Maintains an objective, impartial tone

Would you agree with this definition? Would you add anything? Must all of these attributes be present for material to be labeled as “technical writing”?

I’d like to hear what you think.  Elizabeth Lexleigh  The Write Ideas  LexPower

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