A Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing

Here is an interesting (but dense) piece on the human dimensions of technical writing (hereafter considered along with scientific writing) — something I have become interested in since reading Binocular Vision (a book about the politics of representation in birdwatching guides). I appreciate both Binocular Vision and this piece for doing such a good job at explaining the hidden “human dimensions” of technical   writing; questioning the line we tend to draw between “technical writing” and “rhetoric” (discourse, persuasive writing); that this intersection is worthy of exploration in a humanities class (especially at a technical college). A class like this would so much more useful than a literature class (usually offered as a way to satisfy a “humanities” requirement), although I would not be surprised if there were not many people in place to teach such a class (as it mentions in the paper).

Just like science itself, scientific writing has its own tools, language, practices and even values. Some have even contended that science has its own “culture” and that learning how to do science (or, in this case, to write scientifically) is a form of enculturation. With that in mind, it is easy to see how science can be imbued with values (some obvious, some not); that it is a mistake to say that science is always “objective.” A humanities class that explores scientific writing with these things in mind, then, would explore not only the tools, practices, language and skills themselves but also their nature, limitations, and practical applications;  the social implications of the roles assumed (e.g., “educated authority” vs. “uneducated public”); and the ethical, political, or cultural repurcussions of one’s words.

Knowing the nature and limitations of the “scientific writing” genre is not only important (to scientific writers, scientists, and science communicators) but essential for the intelligent consumption and creation of scientific writing. After all, what is not said is almost as important as what is said. Most of us aren’t born knowing or even taught how to read between the lines, and yet it is essential for meaningfully and effectively advancing any kind of discourse (scientific or otherwise). We have to train ourselves to do so through educating ourselves and thinking critically — about every time we consume communications or create them.

Things I am starting to ask myself when I communicate:

  • What do I want to say?
  • What am I saying directly?
  • What am I saying indirectly (e.g., between the lines; framing; context)?
  • Is there anything I am omitting or not taking into account?
  • What are the short-term and long-term consequences of this communication?
  • And so on…

I try to ask some of the same things when reading:

  • What are they saying directly?
  • What are they saying indirectly (e.g., in between the lines)?
  • Who are they writing for / who do they perceive their audience is?
  • Is there anything important they are omitting or not taking into account?
  • What is the “frame” they are using?
  • Who are they funded by?
  • What are their values?
  • Are they pushing some kind of agenda?
  • What are the short-term and long-term consequences of their communication?

I used to think that “communication studies” were all fluff until I began seriously communicating myself (as part of my job). So it goes. So much to learn.

Scientific writing may no longer be the simplified, objective, unbiased writing that we once thought it was – but in my opinion, knowing that is the first step to becoming better at consuming and creating it.

Thanks to twitter user @ashleyrkelly for sharing the original piece.

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