Why Not Leave The State of Technical Writing Alone?

Because Technical Writing Standards Are In Decline.

What evidence is there of poor standards of technical writing? I have my own sources. First, there’s the material I read as a director of a research group, a higher education teacher, and the material I read from my peer researchers. Educationalists continually bemoan the falling standards of writing ability. [See Elizabeth Tebeaux’s “Whatever Happened to Technical Writing?”] Technical writing standards are in decline.

One of the most worrying implications of technical writers failing to improve is that the decisions about science and technology will increasingly be left to the technically naive. Most of our politicians lack technical backgrounds. The 115th U.S Congress had 541 members: only eight were engineers and only three were scientists. [See “Congress needs more scientists and engineers” by Jonathan Patterson in the Johns Hopkins News-Letter, July 4, 2019.]

If we fail to write in such a way that we are read by others, then we will abrogate the implementation of our science and technology to those who lack the real appreciation of our work.

Improving Our Technical Writing Standards

We must improve our writing to each other. As industries are increasingly specialized, this means that the term “peer” is more stretched than ever. Researchers, by definition, operate in narrow fields. On the other hand, applied scientists and engineers live in a technical environment populated by many specialties. 

We have to explain our ideas to those in our immediate families, our peers. We also need to work with our cousins and distant relatives in our scientific family. This means that, as technical communicators, we have to develop the skills of sharing our ideas with those of various degrees of technical competence. We need to be able to sell our ideas to other engineers, and to learn from theirs. If we fail to do so, we condemn ourselves to working in isolation. Our innovations won’t be implemented and our progress will be inhibited by the inability to learn from others.

Our challenge as technical professionals whose emphasis is in science and technology is to develop what has always been secondary skill: written communication. Our writing is the sole communication of our scientific and technical endeavors to each other and to the world. 

Unfortunately, more often than not, we won’t have the luxury of editors. This means that we will have to become our own editors and learn to communicate clearly and concisely.

However, if we try to write concisely the first time, we will inhibit our creativity. We must, therefore, embrace a paradox. We must begin by writing as freely and loosely as we can so that we commit our ideas to text. Then, with a magical internal switch, we must become another person. We must become the externally isolated editor of our own writing. We must inspect our own work with detachment. This is a process whereby we learn to remove ourselves from the text before us. We ask, “What did he or she (namely “me”) mean by this?” This is a strange process. A process, however, that will improve the current standards of technical writing.

Technical and scientific training requires that we work systematically, as we are trained to provide logically derived conclusions. As we write mathematically, there are no loose terms. It is either sound or flawed. This training instills in us the notion of producing either good or bad work. 

This binary thinking is contrary to the process of free writing. We need to write free from any idea of right or wrong. We need to transfer our ideas from the mind to our computers. When we free-write, we must accept the imperfections that invariably result from our first drafts. We move from a binary concept of working to a kind of ordinal scale. The binary concept says something is either right or wrong. The ordinal scale of writing suggests that there is a range of quality from poor to excellent. 

However, in order to achieve excellence, we must first commit our ideas to paper. Transferring our ideas requires us to free-write, which in turn almost guarantees that our first draft, will be poor in quality. Excellence comes from committing the original ideas and then editing them. It comes from practice and it comes from patience.

In conclusion, this means that if we are to grow as technical writers we have to change our outlook. So overused, it has become a cliché, so forgive me from supporting it: we need a “paradigm shift.” We must abandon our carefully-trained approach to producing either good or bad work by learning how to write freely. Then, we must make a psychological leap by becoming our own editors.

With time and practice, we can collectively raise the standards of technical writing through free expression followed by thoughtful self-editing.