CH 1: What is Technical Communication?

When you hear the term “technical communication,” what comes to mind? Perhaps you think of scientific reports, specifications, instructions, software documentation, or technical manuals. And you would be correct. However, technical communication is so much more than that.

Technical Writing is a genre of non-fiction writing that encompasses not only technical materials such as manuals, instructions, specifications, and software documentation, but it also includes writing produced in day-to-day business operations such as correspondence, proposals, internal communications, media releases, and many kinds of reports. It includes the communication of specialized technical information, whether relating to computers and scientific instruments, or the intricacies of meditation. And because oral and visual presentations are such an important part of professional life, technical communication also encompasses these as well.

Put simply, technical communication is the delivery of technical information to readers (or listeners or viewers) in a manner that is adapted to their needs, level of understanding, and background. The Society of Technical Communications (STC) defines technical communication as a broad field that includes any form of communication that is about technical or specialized topics, that uses technology, such as web pages or help files, or that provides instruction about how to do something.

This textbook aims to introduce the basic conventions of technical communication, including learning how to take an audience-centered approach to your communications, how to assess your rhetorical situation (purpose, audience, context), and how to use the tools and methods of technical communicators to deliver information to your target audience and achieve your desired results.

Some Basic Technical Writing Conventions

Like journalism and scholarly writing, technical writing also has distinct features that readers expect to see in technical documents. These include the use of headings to organize information into coherent sections, the use of lists to present information concisely, the use of figures and tables to present data and information visually, and the use of visual design (white space, bullet points, etc.) to enhance readability (these topics will be covered more fully in Chapter 3: Design & Visuals). These conventions are connected to the main purposes of technical writing (see Table 1.1).

TABLE 1.1 Some typical technical writing conventions (P.A.L.E.S.):

TABLE 1.1 P.A.L.E.S.
Purpose To communicate technical and specialized information in a clear, accessible, usable manner to people who need to use it to make decisions, perform processes, or support company goals.
Audience Varied, but can include fellow employees such as subordinates, colleagues, managers, and executives, as well as clients and other stakeholders, the general public, and even the legal system.
Language Concise, clear, plain, and direct language; may include specialized terminology; typically uses short sentences and paragraphs; uses active voice; makes purpose immediately clear. Tone should be business/professional, varying between formal and informal; typically objective and neutral; ideas are evidence- and data-driven.
Evidence Ideas are evidence-driven and claims are well-supported using reasoning, quoted facts and statistics, examples, explanations and background information (where needed), visual evidence, and specific information.
Structure Clearly structured with reader in mind: use short sentences and paragraphs and provide clear transitions and structural cues (headings and sub-headings) to help the reader move through the document. Order of information should be logical; introductions and conclusions should be reader-centered.

For more information on using P.A.L.E.S., see the Prezi slideshow here.


Check out this video on technical writing from Oregon State University Technical Writing faculty:




Additional Resources


"What is Technical Writing." Technical Writing Essentials. [License: CC: BY-SA 4.0]


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