The (Literal) Art of Technical Writing

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In one of my technical communications courses yesterday, we turned the discussion to audience and art. One of my classmates wondered if writing is less of an art form if the writer allows too many concessions for the audience’s sake. The other argued that we should avoid excessive pandering to the audience, as we should give the audience space for their own agency and the ability to listen to us and interpret our words.

How is this applicable to technical and professional writing? Is this field even an “art” form? As with most things, it truly comes down to perception and opinion, but I’d like to think that it is. I enjoy technical writing because it is a constant opportunity to learn and translate that learning into an artifact. It requires insight, a way with words, an attention to detail. These things alone may not make something “art,” but I see a particular grace in the way that technical writers weave one thing into something else while still retaining its essence–the content.

Part of the “weaving” process, however, is the consideration of audience. It seems to me that technical communication is more audience-centered than many other writing fields that I have encountered. In some instances, it even seems that the writer is entirely ghosted by the overarching, audience-centered content. With this in mind, is it right to suggest that the writer should employ any personal flair to their writing? Or should we aim for a complete dedication to the audience that abandons any trace of the writer’s self to go unnoticed in the shadows?

As we eventually concluded in the course discussion, it is a tradeoff; a balancing act. We are humans, not machines, and creativity is expressed even in the smallest of details. Regardless, technical communication often has a specific purpose, and we should not obscure this purpose with overly elaborate prose if it is unnecessary.

In “What Is Art Good For? The Socio-Epistemic Value of Art,” Aleksandra Sherman and Clair Morrissey wrote:

“Philosophers of art commonly contend that art appreciation enables us to understand others better by encouraging us to take on their viewpoints, to metaphorically take a walk in their shoes, to feel their pain.”

Art appreciation, of course, refers to an outsider observing a piece of art themselves, but I believe that this quote can be applied to the creator of the art as well. It is not an easy task to attempt to think as a stranger would, and to compose something in light of what you think (or hope) they will identify with. It seems to me that this attempt is an act of art in itself.

Art is what you make it, and I express myself in font. 

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