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Dobrin: What’s Technical about Technical Writing

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Central Works in Technical Communication — Oxford University Press, 2004.

Dobrin, D. N. (2004). What’s technical about technical writing. In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A. Selber (eds.), Central works in technical communication (pp. 107-123). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Dobrin offers this brief definition of technical writing:

“technical writing is writing that accommodates technology to the user” (p. 118).

He offers this “new” definition in response to previous definitions that focused too directly on some level of “objectivity,” either formal or epistemological, that simply is not possible given the “fecundity of language” (p. 114). Dobrin connects the battle against considering language “fungible” or “fecund” with a universalist view of language, a view that considers writing pure and directly communicative, rather than mediated, creative, and infinitely interpretable. Universalist perspectives “suspect the experience and language of man” (p. 114) and seek a level of purity that can only be achieved by separating language and communication from the subjectivity of human experience. Instead, Dobrin advocates a monadist perspective on language that recognizes reality not outside human experience but within the lived experience (including communications) of human actors with language. As he puts it,

“Since there is no way of knowing without language—a human construct—there can be no privileged access to the world” (p. 115).

The monadist perspective embraces alternity, a way of conceiving of the vitality of language. Technical writing as currently (at the time of writing) conceived ignores alternity by focusing exclusively on an instrumentalist view of language. This affects descriptions (and presumable histories, too) of technical writing in these three ways, according to Dobrin:

  • Ignores modes of group cohesion, which in turn means that interpreting one group to another results in miscommunication and misunderstanding;
  • Fails to invest technical writing with creativity;
  • Fails to address slackness of technical writing due to writing for a limited future.

Dobrin encourages play in language

“as a way of becoming in the world, to exercise our human will” (p. 117).

Specifically, he appears to encourage play in technical writing, something generally frowned up and unaccepted because of the instrumentalist perspective of language in technical writing circles. The point, however, is that technical writing, like any other kind of writing, focuses on social understandings and experiences. Dobrin’s new definition focuses not on the instrumentality of language, but on the mediated nature of communication between user and writer and between technology and user.

“At every point, the technology must be accommodated to the user or the user must be accommodated to the technology” (p. 121).

In short, the connection of the user and the technology is of vital importance, not the objectivity of the writer or the technology experience.

Several portions of this chapter caught my attention. First, I found in Dobrin’s description of the universalist perspective of language unsettling connections to the Christian, or at least the Church’s, moralist perspective on language: that somehow language as used is distrusted because it reflects the fallen nature of humanity. I push against this conception of language, for I find little in language to consider instrumental or universalist or objective. On the contrary, like Dobrin I find language to be fecund and fungible, capable of constructing experience and understanding. The Church has fought against human language, as if the Gospel of John’s “Word” represented some epistemological or formal objectivity that human “word” cannot achieve. On the contrary, I subscribe to a monadist view of language that embraces alternity and the fecundity and creativity of language. This puts me out of sync, I think, with Church doctrine and dogma. That sobers me.

Second, I found Dobrin’s focus on play in words, language, and communication intriguing and attractive. I love wordplay, because wordplay recognizes the elastic nature of meaning and the fact that our lived experience in social systems assigns meanings to words. Technical writing can be dry, but it needn’t necessarily be so. There is nothing objective or external that requires technical writing to represent instrumentalist perspectives. On the contrary, technical writing, because it’s embedded in socially constructed relations among and between individuals and groups, manufacturers and users, user groups, and other social systems, is playful. Any attempt to dictate otherwise is to deny the fecundity of the language, a denial that withers in the face of any punster or unabridged dictionary.

Third, I found this statement limiting:

“People come into technical writing from two directions: either they are technicians who are asked to write or writers asked to gain technical skills” (p. 122).

I found this statement limiting because I believe myself to be a technical writer, or perhaps more specifically a technical writing teacher, because I work to accommodate my students as users to technologies of composing, from network-computer mediated to pencil-and-paper mediated to speech mediated communications. Maury Brown (2014) noted that, as composition teachers, we work to provide students the tools to use technologies of many kinds in different ways to compose in language:

“Writing is accommodating language to users” (personal SMS communication, 2014, September 8).

As a technical writing, I “fell” into technical writing from neither writing nor technician roots. I “fell” into technical writing from roots in composing pedagogy and constructive/constructed language use. I think there are ways to enter into technical writing that are represented neither by technicians nor writers.