In a recent LinkedIn discussion on “Most important competencies for technical writers,” I commented that the most important skill for technical writers was explanation, and that the ability to write and the ability to explain are not the same thing, and that the ability to explain is significantly less common that the ability to write well enough.
This scarcity of natural ability to explain well, I argued, is why we need to pay attention to tools and structure, because we need to find ways to help people who do not have a natural gift for explanation to explain things at least reasonably well. Tacitly, this argument suggests that there is a reproducible method for explaining things.
But is there such a method? Much hinges on this question, up to and including the question of whether technical communication is a profession.
In response to my comment, Robert Lauriston appears to reject the idea:
Explaining things well is essential to the profession. Tools can’t help you much with that part of the job, any more than they can with learning the stuff you need to explain. Someone who’s not good at both those is an unprofessional poser.
What skill at tools can do is free up your time to focus on those core tasks.
Lauriston is not reacting to the question of whether there is a method to explanation, as I did not state it explicitly in my comment. (It only occurred to me to frame it that way as a result of reading his reply.) But, generally, if there is a method, there are tools for that method. Generally, tools are designed to implement methods. Tools and methods go together, in other words, so the statement that tools can’t help with part of a job seems to imply that there is no method for that part of the job.
As to whether technical writers who cannot explain are unprofessional posers, all I can say is that I have read a lot of technical communication that meets the usual criteria set down for tech comm — it is well written, at least in the sense that the sentences and paragraphs are well constructed — but fails to explain the subject well. (In Story, Robert McKee makes a similar distinction between the ability to write beautifully and the ability to tell a story.)
If the people who wrote those works are unprofessional posers, I don’t know where the gifted explainers are going to come from to fill their places. How many of your teachers can you say were gifted explainers? We are not the only profession with a shortage of people with this gift. Yet the work of teachers and technical writers must go on, with the best people we can find to fill the jobs.
Let’s take this further. If there is no method for explanation, that settles the long-standing argument about whether technical communication is a profession (in the sense that doctors are a profession, for instance). Professions have methods. Professionals know and study the methods of their profession because they are proven ways to achieve superior results in an activity. If people are certified in a profession, they are certified on their knowledge of its methods and their ability to follow them. Professionals have tools that help them implement professional methods and they are expected to know which tool to use for which purpose and how to use them correctly.
Explanation is the core product of technical communication. If there is no reproducible method for explaining, then there is no method for technical communication, and it cannot, therefore, be a profession.
In the same discussion, Niels Grundtvig Nielsen wrote:
Tools are more useful the less you have to think about them.
But if tools encapsulate the essential methods of a profession, then you do have to think about them, because you have to think about the methods that they encapsulate.
However, it is a widely held belief in tech comm that tools don’t matter (as evidence by the sentiments expressed by other contributors to the LinkedIn discussion). And perhaps this is not surprising, because the tools that most technical communicators use have nothing to do with explanation. They are publishing tools and content management tools that by and large make no attempt to shape explanations in any way.
And since neither publishing nor content management are central to technical writing (they are ancillary for many, and irrelevant for some), it is fair to say that when it comes to the essential competencies of tech writing, the tools really don’t matter.
But if this is true, then one of the following propositions must also be true:
- Technical communication cannot be a profession because there is no reproducible method for its core activity: explanation.
- Technical communication is not yet a profession because it has not yet developed and codified a reproducible method for its core activity: explanation.
If there were a reproducible method for explanation, there would be tools for implementing that method and, as professionals, we should be using them.
If you are an Information Mapping person you are probably anxious to interject at this point and say that Information Mapping is indeed a method for explanation and that it does indeed have tools. But while Information Mapping is certainly welcome because it does introduce the idea of reproducible methods into the profession, it isn’t really a method for explanation. It is a method for exposition. That is, it is a method for organizing information so that it is easier to find. That is useful, insofar as it works, but it is not the same thing as explanation.
Practitioners of Minimalism probably want to make a similar claim, but though I believe in minimalism (though not for everything) I don’t think it is a full method for explanation. Rather, it is a method for providing optimal assistance for self-directed learning. That is important too, but it is not explanation. Sometimes, indeed, it deliberately stops short of explanation in favor of allowing the reader to figure stuff out for themselves.
(It is arguable that minimalisms demonstrated advantages over comprehensive documentation are attributable to the failure of the comprehensive documentation in question to explain well. In other words: poor explanation < minimal explanation < good explanation. Then again, the paradox of sensemaking has to be taken seriously, even when good explanation is available. )
The seven principles of Every Page is Page One information design are also an attempt to define a method for explanation, but while I obviously think the principles are important, they do not constitute a full formal method for explanation.
The STC has developed a certification program for technical writers which it hopes will solidify the status of technical communication as a profession. But nothing I have seen in it or heard about it leads me to think it contains a reproducible method for explanation.
If we believe that a method for explanation is possible and worth pursuing (and that, if attained, it would make technical communication a profession), then I believe the path to it lies through structured writing. Methods and tools are tied together. You cannot develop a method without encapsulating your ideas in tools that allow you to implement and test your method to ensure its reproducibility. Structured writing provides the basis for developing such tools.
Unfortunately, most of the emphasis in structured writing today is in content management issues such as content reuse. Considerable codification of practice has occurred in this area, though it is far from defining clearly reproducible results on a consistent basis. But none of this work is focussed on developing methods for explanation.
What do you think? Is there a method for explanation that can be taught to people who are not natural explainers and can be encapsulated in tools? If so, what do we need to do to find and develop it? If not, how do we justify calling technical communication a profession?
Or do you think such a method has already been discovered. And if so, why has it not yet been encapsulated in tools, and why is it not in broad use in technical communication today?
By the way, I was recently given a copy of Lee Lefever’s book, The Art of Explanation. I haven’t had a chance to study it, so I can’t say if it contains the method I am looking for. I’ll review it here once I have had the chance to go through it thoroughly.