Week 2 – Defining Technical Communication

Miller, Carolyn R. “A Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing.” College English 40, no. 6 (1979): 610-17.

Carolyn Miller addresses the question of whether or not technical writing can legitimately be defined as fulfilling a humanities requirement in her essay.  She makes a case supporting the argument that technical writing indeed carries humanistic value and that the notion that a technical writing is merely a skills course “is the result of a lingering but positivist view of science” (1).  Miller furthers her claim by explaining that science and rhetoric are not, as many believe, able to exist as separate entities; rather, content gives direction to the words and words articulate the content.  This rather lofty topic of debate lends itself to question of whether or not anything can be truly objective.  Technical writing as a whole carries the stigma of being dull, uninteresting, and almost painfully objective to the point of drudgery.  Miller appears to hold distaste for what she labels as “intellectual coercion”, the name she ascribes to the non-rhetorical view of science (3).  She believes that this view held by the scientific community only furthers the perspective of technical writing as a skills course without much respectable merit (3).  Her entire essay articulates the tension that exists between the two poles of the spectrum whereupon technical writing exists.  She speaks as one convinced that the artistic or humanist aspect of technical writing is not only a component of the field but rather foundational to its very existence.  The other end of the spectrum insists that technical writing must be scientific in nature and objective; incorporating elements of rhetoric would dilute the purpose of such a form.  Rather than embracing the acceptance of a positivist view of science, Miller urges  taking “an overt consensualist perspective” (5).  Miller’s startling assertion of this belief reinforces this idea that to be truly objective is an impossibility.

Why is objectivity difficult to attain in technical writing?  How does viewing technical writing as a rhetorical endeavor change not only the way we view technical writing but also how we view rhetoric as a whole?


Tebeaux, Elizabeth. “Let’s Not Ruin Technical Writing, Too: A Comment on the Essay of Carolyn Miller and Elizabeth Harris.” College English 41, no. 7 (1980): 822-25. 

Miller, Carolyn R. “Carolyn Miller Responds.” College English 41, no. 7 (1980): 825-27.

In “Let’s Not Ruin Technical Writing, Too”, Elizabeth Tebeaux defines technical writing as pragmatic rather than humanistic in its purpose and cites the importance of technical writing as a means to teach students skills that have authentic value for the “world of work” (823).  Tebeaux believes that the emphasizing rhetoric would cause this course to appear as an English elective, therefore downplaying technical writing’s essential, pragmatic purpose. Indeed, most principles of technical writing stand in direct contrast to what is taught in a traditional English class (824).  This explains why some students who once excelled at writing essays fail to perform at the same standard in a technical writing course; it’s a different animal altogether.  Despite this distinction, Tebeaux makes a connection between the merit of literature and how to understanding audience.  This connection echoes an idea from Miller’s original essay which emphasizes the need to understand the community as a whole.  For all her dismissal of the humanistic approach, Tebeaux lauds literature as “the stronghold of enculturation” (825).  Understanding literature directly correlates with a student’s ability to consider how to best appeal to problems of audience.

Carolyn Miller responds to Tebeaux’s critique by asserting that Tebeaux ignored a key aspect of rhetoric: that true rhetoric “does not ignore ‘purely pragmatic topics and problems’” (825).   It appears that Miller and Tebeaux have subtly different labels for the very definition of rhetoric which partially explains their divergent beliefs.  Miller validates the reason for such a dialogue between herself and Tebeaux by noting that they individually define technical writing “as basic skill or as an intellectual discipline”(826).  The emphasis, Miller believes, should be on the critical thinking component of technical writing.  It is this ability to think critically about communication which lends an aspect to technical writing that sets in on a different playing field from a mere skills course.

What is the balance between embracing the humanities aspect of technical writing with the pragmatic approach?  How can the two exist together in a way that retains the purpose of technical writing without relegating it to a skills course?


Giammona, Barbara. “The Future of Technical Communication: Remix.” Intercom, May 2009, 7-11.

 O’Keefe, Sarah. “2011 Predictions for Technical Communication.” 


“The Future of Technical Communication: Remix” succinctly articulates the direction of technical communication in the next decade and focuses on several important ideas.  Giammona’s central argument hinges on the fact that technology as a whole has continued to improve and change in recent years.  This especially impacts technical writers who previously created documents that were paper-based; now, most technical writing products have an online component or are released solely online.  Because of the globalized world in which we live and our ability to stay connection via the internet, the need for stationary offices and even office hours has diminished.  Indeed, technical writers  attempt “to fill every hour possible and minimize the overall product duration” (9).  Additionally, it has becomes a reality for teams of people to be scattered around the globe, collaborating different portions of the project from various locations.  Outsourcing and offshoring options are becoming more prominent as employers seek to eliminate production cost.  Giammona also emphasizes the importance of “content management,” a skill that Sarah O’Keefe emphasizes in her blog regarding predictions for Technical Communication (9).  One of the biggest changes in the technical communication community is that people who “just like to write” will have trouble maintaining their presence in a field whose focus has shifted to include business and management concepts.

Sarah O’Keefe expounds on the necessity of additional skills, supporting the idea that simply being a “good” writer will not be enough to succeed in the technical communication world.  In fact, O’Keefe cites content strategy, analytical skills, screen casting and webcast design and production as well as additional collaborative skills as essential for making a successful career (1).  She places a high emphasis on being adaptable to new technology (specifically publishing technology) and to continuously focus on business interests; this will help give technical writers value in the eyes of their employers (4).

How do you think Giammona’s predictions regarding the scope of technical communication relate to its purpose as pragmatic, humanistic, or a combination of the two?


One Response to Week 2 – Defining Technical Communication

  1. embusi says:

    Awesome work Renee! Did you consider the juxtapostion of Miller and Tebeaux’s essays, which were written in the late 70s/early 80s, with the articles about the expectations in technical communication today? I found it interesting that the expectations of technical communicators today echoed Miller’s essay more than Tebeaux’s. That is, according to O’Keefe, technical communicators need to have content strategy and analytical skills.

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