Archive for August 2010
A sharp friend and colleague asked my opinion on what blogging has to do with technical writing. Both of us teach professional writing classes to upper-level college English majors. Her technical writing students recently opted to deliver assignments as single files rather than modifying them to fit a blog format. I see why: blogging requires a further step of engagement with a wider set of audiences. Blogging has a public face that is wide of the mark for writers who usually compose directly for audiences with specific technical motivations.
Blogging Is The Nonchalant Public Face
In some ways, blogging is a perfect venue for technical communication: the communicator can be as specific as she desires without worrying about capturing audience attention because the audience will find the information. Or not. While blogging must never be boring, the right audience will find details and specifics as scintillating as any steamy romance novel. But I applaud the instincts of my friend’s students. In true college student fashion, why do more work when less will suffice?
Blogging is the more spontaneous and casual cousin of technical writing that allows for quick and specific responses to real questions. Blogging allows more free-form communication about timely issues and provides room, resources and the expectation of responses from an engaged audience—all of which scares lawyers and regulators in a regulated industry. Blogging also makes information and specific insights searchable by a wide variety of people. In a college writing assignment, that public face is not needed and simply represents another process for the writer.
But there may be good reason for writing teachers to find ways to make blogging a more attractive part of the technical writing assignment.
Detail-Delivery Is Changing
For a long time the forms of technical communication have been stable: manuals, instruction sheets, assembly instructions, monographs and the like. We wrote these forms for the reading pleasure of the poor soul faced with a bag of parts or the new customer opening a new piece of software. But today audiences are using technical details in all sorts of new settings. Plus: my technical clients want very much to join the social media frenzy. They just don’t see how they can, given the narrow technical audience they cater to. What they don’t notice is that the very technical resources in their company that have focused on the traditional forms of communication could actually be repurposed for delivery of technical information outside the usual forms. This information could be loaded into a blog-type form that has the advantage of being searchable. The point: let customers find you.
Why go to this extra effort? Simple: no one likes being sold. Finding new forms for communicating technical detail may well be the best marketing investment your company can make. That’s why I think academics and industry, English professors, communication managers and marketers all need to open fresh ways for technical communicators to speak to wider audiences. The future I see has technical and promotional walking hand in hand to satisfy the human need for specificity.
All it took in Oklahoma was a rousing dance—and a few right hooks—to convince farmers and cowmen–two different disciplines–they could hang together. But a few generations later, getting their grandkids to combine art and commerce in the college classroom requires a completely different kind of dance: one few are prepared for and even fewer seek.
Momentum is building (again) for those questioning the value of a liberal arts education. Sameer Pandya, a lecturer at UC-Santa Barbara wrote recently in Miller-McCune, of his soul-searching when a student asked for advice: whether to major in something she found fascinating or something that might produce a job at the other end of the coursework. He said what anybody with a bias toward the liberal arts says: choose what you enjoy and the work will take care of itself. But privately he backtracked as he worked through the cost/benefit ratio: just how will the dollars spent reading F. Scott Fitzgerald help the student outside the classroom? And “Higher Education? How Colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It,” a recent book by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Driefus, has given the debate legs, and will surely be a topic of conversation as students lament tuition bills and make the way back to school (or not).
It is clear we need a new educational model that rewards thinking and practical skills. But wait: who ever said thinking and practice were poles apart?
One of my jobs is to teach professional writing classes to college juniors and seniors. These are (often) talented students who have made their way through the rudimentary composition classes and exhibit ongoing interest in writing in a work setting. Some even envision themselves using the skill to make some coin. I teach because I earn my living as a copywriter, which means I serve organizations, companies and advertising agencies by thinking and writing. I teach because writing is fun (really!), and because these interested students are excellent communicators who participate in lively discussions. And I teach because I have an axe to grind with those who think they can find themselves only by writing poetry or short stories. Don’t misunderstand: I’m a great fan of poetry and short stories. But there’s a mood that begins somewhere in undergraduate education, perhaps even earlier in high school, that applies the romance of the fiction writer or poet to our own scribbly ways. We think the more we burrow into our selves, the more we tell our stories or embellish stories we make up, the more we’ll figure out who we really are. I believe there is much truth in that notion, but the burrowing-in may not lead where we want to go. And it may not lead to the place we need to be.
There is another way to personal formation.
I tell my writing students that poetry and short stories are good—indeed, very good—but that you can also learn quite a lot about yourself, you can grow in your craft, and put beans and rice on the table (even Spam sometimes), by writing for others. Yes—serving others through writing. It’s not an easily-caught vision for poets and fiction writers, frankly. Because of clients—they’re always changing my words! And because the technical detail clients use to serve their customers can feel, well, boring. There is very little room for plot or the arc of a story in a brochure or print ad. Right? And yet, it is precisely these missing artful bits that are helping to change the face of communication as restless writers find new ways to communicate with audiences—new ways that break down the old forms. I’ve seen the short-story writing student effectively bring story into a product brochure—to excellent effect. In our changing communication world, where corporate monologue is even now giving way to engaging dialogue, it’s the writers who resist the high walls of the old forms that will move us all forward.
That’s why I think the farmer and the cowmen’s grandkids will help us establish this new communication frontier as they find themselves making friends with art and commerce, with every use of their English degree.
Prunes and potatoes and fish packed in ice.
A tiny man sat on a low stool
Lonely notes sounded, a string his tool.
One lone string sang strength and long-life,
And crossings and family and a well-loved wife
Of war and of peace
And of work without cease
In the market and deep in the throng
I heard clearly every man’s song.