What is Technical Communication?
I would like to suggest today that technical communication is about revealing the complex and abstract reasoning behind rhetorical choices made in forming every-day documents/forms of writing in order to both better understand and produce these documents. While I believe it is possible to describe many documents as “technical” communication, these documents are technical because of their focus on usability rather than abstract reflection or contemplation (essays, philosophy, literature, art, etc.). I believe that these every day communications should be discussed more ‘philosophically and abstractly’ because we tend to forget that each piece of writing and communication has been designed to make us act in a certain way. Technical communication can, at the very least, make these every day encounters chances for reflection and learning as well as give us more agency in the production and circulation of these documents.
The way I have structured this presentation is around the idea of “concrete choices.” While analyzing a poem usually involves finding the abstract meaning of the text on the page—even though we may describe the figurative language—we rarely consider the poem as a document in the world, produced by an individual, laid out in a particular way, published by a company, distributed in various collections and editions, etc. These seemingly minute choices make a document usable and unified.
The most common definition of ‘concrete’ is opposed to the abstract: “Combined with, or in embodied in matter, actual practice, or a particular example; existing in a material form or as an actual reality” (OED). However, initially the word meant “united or connected by growth” (OED). The other meaning of the word, as you can see in my presentation, refers to the substance we refer to as “concrete,” which was probably named after another definition: “made up or compounded of various elements” (OED). According to concretenetwork.com, concrete is composed of three things: water, cement, and ‘aggregates’ (rocks and sand). However, while many people buy bags of concrete without any concern for what type, concretenetwork.com reveals that there are many different mixtures of concrete for different applications. Before purchasing, you should ask several questions: “What slump do you need? What strength? Do you need entrained air? What happens if the day is particularly cold or hot? What size of aggregate is best? Should you ask for fly ash in the mix?” (concretenetwork.com). We often don’t think about the many choices that go into creating concrete—it’s too integrated into our day-to-day routine. However, if we look at the people who know concrete, we can see that it can involve subtle choices that will make or break a project.
Similarly, there are three basic elements/components to composing documents: text, visuals, and design/layout (how these relate to together). The visuals are like the water that create the medium and the ‘flow’ of the document, the text is like the rocks and sand (giving it its grit), and the design and layout is the type and amount of cement that holds all of this together. Concrete can be messy, chunky, and unorganized—and it needs to be mixed well in a truck, but concrete creates the foundation for our everyday existence. Concrete forms a smooth sidewalk, that we barely acknowledge as existing under our feet, but needs to be usable, functional, and aesthetic for the city to run smoothly.
Technical documents are these structures—sidewalks and floors—that allow our lives to run smoothly. If we were to notice the sidewalk—its components, its cracks, the way it is separated into squares, we could compare, contrast, and evaluate sidewalks abstractly based on their use, function, and aesthetics, just as we could evaluate a literary text or a philosophical idea. Technical documents, even the ones that seem boring or natural, can become complex and rewarding when we pay attention to the concrete behind the smooth surface. The technical documents that we compose and receive, such as tax forms, receipts, bills, contracts, may be locked away out of sight in our desk drawers or file cabinets, but they are the documents that structure the ‘concrete’ connections to other people and institutions as we go about our way.