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A student recently interviewed me for a class assignment, and asked several intriguing questions about the past and future of technical communication. Since the questions seemed to be of reasonably broad interest, I thought I'd republish them and my answers, with a few updates and afterthoughts.

A note before we begin: I'll mostly confine my thoughts to Western Europe and its descendants, since my knowledge of "Eastern" aspects of these questions is far weaker.

(Q1) What significant event in history made technical writing a force to be reckoned with?

I suspect this evolved as a result of several interacting processes rather than being triggered by a single key event.

First, of course, you would need to have an evolved body of "techne" (accumulated knowledge of a craft) that must be passed on in fixed form. Depending on how strictly you want to define techne, this could date back as far as the first codified Western religious works, the Jewish Old Testament and subsequent Christian Bible being most familiar to Westerners. I discuss the concept of techne in more detail in my article Technical documentation in Canada. If you prefer a more technological definition, you could instead date this to the industrial revolution, when large clanky things became sufficiently common to require some form of documentation. Other types of techne would have evolved technical writing somewhere between these times.

Second, reading and writing would have to become sufficiently widespread that formal documentation would become relevant. That is, there would need to be a sufficiently large body of readers to justify the effort of creating documentation. (Alert: gross oversimplification coming:) Before roughly the Renaissance, I suspect that most knowledge was passed on orally, though with many exceptions such as bodies of religious teaching that had to be standardized to ensure a consistent doctrine; that would date back to (in Christianity) the formation of the Christian church, and to a much older time for early Jewish writings. There would have been much interesting documentation in "the East" in the form of Greek histories and medical manuals, as well as their Islamic equivalents, before the Renaissance. And, of course, a rich written tradition in China and Japan dating back millennia.

Third, there would need to be a means of mass distribution of knowledge, since manual copying of large manuscripts was prohibitively time-consuming (thus, expensive) for a large reader community. Thus, the development of the printing press by Gutenberg (again, I emphasize in the West) is the obvious watershed moment for mass technical communication. China and probably India would have developed comparable technology far earler, but I'm not expert enough to provide specific examples.

If you enjoy Victoriana at all, you'll be fascinated by Sydney Padua's graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. It's a charming, hilarious, irreverent, and remarkably insightful foray into many aspects of the Victorian period. Specifically, it's a fictionalized story of the development of the first computer, which is the technology most people associate with technical writing these days.

(Q2) The year is 2051, what role do you envision technical writing or communication playing a significant role?

The world is becoming increasingly complex to navigate, and the growth of that complexity is accelerating. I see an increasing need for clear, concise communication of complex concepts and thus, a growing need for skilled technical communicators. I see no evidence that engineers, scientists, and other subject-matter experts are becoming better writers, so there will be a growing need for good writers and good editors who understand how to translate between an expert's brain and their audience's needs.

I think we'll see more artificially intelligent assistants for our work. The modern spellchecker software, for instance, is no better than the spellcheckers I used nearly 30 years ago, and would benefit greatly from a complete overhaul, particularly in terms of support from software that understands context. But I don't see us being replaced by software in the next 40 years. It may happen some day, but my understanding of currrent artificial intelligence is that we've still got a long way to go before that happens.

(Q3) What are some of the prevalent gaps in this field of technical communication?

Particularly with organizations such as the Society for Technical Communication (STC), I see far too much focus on tools and technology, and not enough focus on core communication skills. We will definitely need technologists, and much of what we do is difficult without help from modern tools, but the communication skills are far more important: a communicator will always find a way to communicate, but people who are only tool users often prove to be incoherent and incomprehensible.

A second and highly significant gap that STC and other groups have failed to close is the gap in understanding of the need for our profession. Everyone learns to write, however badly, in grade school, and written material is ubiquitous -- though most of it of low quality. Thus, there is no sense that writing is anything special. But good writing is remarkable and instantly recognizable; it turns on lights that bad writers don't even know exist. We desperately need to find ways to make employers understand our value. To my knowledge, nobody is doing this, and it makes workplace life difficult for us at times. We need to find ways to clearly demonstrate our value to employers and to society in general. I've written about our need to escape from the shadows and make what we do known to our workplace colleagues. This is crucial for survival in the workplace.

(Q4) In the former of intelligence or private sector how will technical communication play a powerful role?

I'm not sure I understand the distinction being drawn between "intelligence" (government sector?) and the private sector, so I would answer this question from first principles: The role of technical communication is always to bridge the gap between the minds of the producers of information and the minds of its consumers. I always describe technical communication as "translation" because of this role, but that ignores a more important underlying aspect: both producers and consumers of information do so to satisfy certain needs, and those needs may not align. Good communicators help the producers understand the needs of their audience and communicate those needs to the producers of information.

For "intelligence" in the context of spycraft and national security, there will be an additional matter of ethics: spies seek to conceal information, not share it, so there will be thorny ethical questions raised by intelligence-related communication. These include whether it's acceptable to conceal information from those who need it and the crucial importance of getting the message right when a failure to understand can endanger lives or even nations.

(Q5) As it pertains to technical writing and communication, what is it that you do daily (job)?

My primary work is as a scientific editor. Almost all of my clients are research scientists who have English as a second or third language, but who need to communicate in English to reach their international audience. I was trained as a scientist (physiological plant ecology, genetics, community ecology), so I understand most of the science that they're doing. Over the last 28 years, I have developed expertise in helping them communicate that science clearly: I ensure that they fully explain their social and scientific context, explain what they did (research) within that context and how they did it, clarify what the results were, and explore the implications for society and other scientists.

You could probably call this developmental and substantive editing, although they rarely bring me in at the start of a writing project to help them outline, plan, and refine their manuscripts. As I do these things, I do a lot of basic copyediting for grammar and clarity, but I also do a lot of information design work to help them with their tables of data and with their data graphics. I do a bit of French translation occasionally, and an occasional bit of technical writing (e.g., my books on effective onscreen editing and writing for peer-reviewed journals).

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