Try this exercise and you will see that the above question is really problematic. Search the web for “what is technical writing” and you will get a variety of definitions. These can be categorized as follows:
- Definitions that define technical writing by listing its typical output
- Definitions that are circular: “Technical writing is writing that allows someone to convey clearly...” They do not define what the term “clearly” means.
- Definitions that are complex and include a lot more than is needed for a definition. They usually span several sentences that create more meanings than needed in a definition.
Let us start by eliminating what is not considered as technical writing. That may help us reach an uncontestable definition.
A critical characteristic of non-technical writing is that it contains opinions. Opinions are easier to define. They are usually non-verifiable statements.
We will not bring in “clarity” or “subjectivity” as these will confuse the issue. Some opinions are very clear, but non-verifiable. For example, stating that “you prefer blue neckties” is a very clear and strong opinion. However, it can only be verified by reverting to the source of the statement, yourself. This is not a credible verification.
On the other hand, there are technical documents that can be subjective such as when you have to prepare a report describing your interpretation of the causes of an accident at work. Even though the point of view is subjective, the report that you write will not contain opinions (unless you specifically state them as such).
Non-technical writing would then cover a large set of categories. All of them contain non-verifiable statements. Such items as political journalism, culturalPart or social analyses, personal documents such as journals and diaries, fiction and poetry do not result in technical documentation.
Having eliminated “opinion”, we are closer to the definition we are after.
What Do We Mean by “Specification” or “Specific”?
to resort to our own definitions of these terms.
Where do we go from here? We cannot use our terms nor can we rely on accepted definitions. One method might help and that is to follow on from circularity and tracing until you reach what you are relatively sure is a verifiable definition. (Since we have used the term “verifiable” repeatedly, we do not want to fall into the tracing trap. This term has a clear meaning, for once. ).
Let us try chasing some terms to their end meaning:
(a) to name or state explicitly or in detail1
We are now sent on another chase: what does “explicit” mean? What does “detail” mean? Let us try another term.
(a) Constituting or falling into a specifiable category
(b) Sharing or being those properties of something that allow it to be referred to a particular category(c) Restricted to a particular individual, situation, relation, or effect
There were other definitions. Some were biological. A few others fell into circularity: “Specific means something that is not vague”. Definition (a) is circular. Definition (b) is further detailed in definition (c) which breaks down the term “category” into several examples: individual, situation, relation or effect.
So what is “particular”?
(a) Being a single person or thing
This seems innocent of the above risks. The word “single” is powerfully clear.
We can replace “particular” with “single” and redefine “specific” to mean:
(b) Sharing or being those properties of something that allow it to be referred to a single category
(c) Restricted to a single individual, situation, relation, or effect
Joining the two definitions and converting them to a “verb”, we get:
(a) To define something so it can be referred to as a single category.
This immediately brings in the issue of “verifiability”. If we refer to something being in a single category and we can verify whether it is or is not in that category, we are being “specific”.
So it turns out that “specific” is a clear term and, as we hope to show, a very useful term for technical writers.
From “specific”, we need to proceed with the term “specification”. This is both a process and a noun. As a process, it is the time when you are applying the verb “specify”. Using the last definition we reached for “specify”, “specification is the process of defining something in such a manner that it can be referred to as a single category”.
“Specific” as the Main Characteristic of “Technical Writing”
It is not enough to define technical writing as a process of specification. We need to restrict its output and its audience. Therefore, using the term “specific” as defined in the previous section, we finally arrive at a definition of “technical writing”:
Technical writing is a process by which we prepare a communication containing specific information about a specific subject to a specific audience who can use it efficiently for a specific purpose.
All the above are nouns that are unambiguous: information, subjects, audiences, purposes. That makes them easy to accept since we added the prefix “specific” to each. There is one that we have to be weary of, an adjective: “efficiently”.