Technical Writing

I was recently surprised by a piece of writing that was, yes, technical without a doubt, but also really good -“good” being, for me, some combination of absorbing, accessible, illuminating, funny, and memorable. Why the surprise?  I think I’m not alone in having fallen into a habit of thinking that technical writing couldn’t really be good, that is, better than a regrettable necessity.  How could a project of describing an object or event or process developed in a “technical” framework, a world of precision and predictability, be described with grace and economy in natural human language? In Ben Johnson’s famous comment about bears riding bicycles: “the wonder is not that it is done well, but that it is done at all”.  Obviously I hadn’t thought about it.

The quickest cure for a stupid prejudice is to think about it, of course, ask basic questions about who and when and “what if?” In trying to locate technical writing in the whole sweep of the thing — fiction and poetry, essays, chronicles, histories, grocery lists, posts, e-mails and ads — I found I couldn’t locate technical writing as either a genre or category. It’s neither an identifiable form nor a specifiable subject matter. At one time, I would have assumed technical writing was non-fiction, but with just a bit of reflection it’s clear that  technical descriptions abound in fiction: characters need to describe how some mechanism or process — however plausible or not — works, especially if it figures in the plot of the story. These characters invariably share something of their own sense of wonder or exasperation with the technology as they do.

Here’s a quick diagnosis of the problem as it began to appear to me: technical writing isn’t inherently narrative, but we are.  We live in stories, see ourselves and our actions in terms of what has come before and it likely to come after, use languages that are steeped in a sense of passing time.  Technologies intersect with our narratives, but are detached from them.  Speech may itself be a technology; writing certainly is.  But we don’t tend to think of either one in time. A technology is more like an image than a story, which accounts for the critical role of images — especially drawings — in technical writing.

The article that touched off this post, Vasily Kubarev’s “Computational Photography,” includes nuggets of history, suggestions of narrative, touches of comedy, but all gracefully folded into a kind of map, an image rather than a story: the parts are arranged in space, rather than time.

I’m circling around a definition of technical writing as one species of translation, bringing things  from a state of temporal detachment into the stuff of thoroughly human language, of time.  I suspect it makes up a huge proportion of writing — from Homeric poetry (how are ships built? where is Ithaca?) to instructions for assembling an IKEA flatpack (approaching the ideal of replacing language with drawings.) I feel pretty sure that it’s always been one of writing’s most critical functions, and becomes more so every day.

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