Tagged: week 1

1: Liberal arts & technical writing

Rutter writes that “a project manager at a large electronics firm told me…that writers, to succeed at his company, have to do more than just write fluently. Technical writing, he said, is one-third writing proficiency, one-third problem-solving skill, and one-third ability to work with other people” (21). I do not consider myself a technical writer, and would be intimidated to find myself in a position where I had to apply for jobs in the industry, but I agree with this project manager’s conclusion. Being a good writer is not just being fluent in writing; a good writer is proficient, critical and intelligent, and personable. My understanding is that technical writers have become the liaisons between those split in the dichotomy laid out by Connors. According to Connors there were the engineering folk and the English folk, and I’ve come to define technical writers as those who speak “engineerese” and “English” and can get along with, clearly communicate with, and translate for both sides. I argue that, in many ways, technical writers are Renaissance people—they have to excel in many areas in order to succeed in their field.

This raises a point of personal interest for me, an opinion I’ve become more and more vested in with each course I’ve taken in WVU’s PWE master’s program. I attended a small, private liberal arts university for my undergraduate degree. There, I was required to dabble in a variety of departments while still declaring a major with an area of emphasis. I declared English with an emphasis in Fiction Writing and for four years took close to a 50/50 load of courses: English with psychology, sociology, art, math, and natural science, to name a few. And when I graduated with that English degree in hand, I had no intentions of being a teacher (skills for which I’d never been trained) or a novelist (skills for which I, arguably, again had never been trained, despite my emphasis in fiction). I wanted to travel, become a photographer, and write for a lifestyle and travel magazine—all skills for which I had experienced no training in my time at this self-touted, diversity-focused, expensive liberal arts university. I realized only after the fact—in my first job at a PR firm and now six years later in my master’s program—that I had few practical skills. And despite current opinions, like Rutter’s and his project manager friend, that a technical writer must be someone who can write well, think critically and problem solve, and play well with others (a sort of well-roundedness one arguably picks up at a liberal arts institution), I find myself reacting to these sentiments with a cry for more practicality! Where are the business letter writing courses of yore? I feel the need for a “complete reaction” against the overly-humanistic training so many college students receive today (Connors 7). Did I choose poorly in attending a liberal arts school? Should I have, instead, looked toward vocational schools or programs, or were public and state universities offering something my small, private university wasn’t?

I think our institutions of higher education are missing the target on a happy balance between “bread and butter” practicality and theoretical practicality (61). The way I interpret Miller’s argument is that the bread and butter is what’s going to get things done, these are the skills that will put food on your table (and the skills I feel I missed out on), while the high-sense practicality is what will keep the world turning, it’s the skills I gleaned from my days at undergrad—problem solving, critical thinking, and… . Of course, Connors illustrated it in his history of technical writing and Miller confirms it is still an issue, that technical writing is considered “practical in the low sense” (62). And as a young college student, and even now, as a young professional, I certainly, personally, don’t consider technical writing the lowest of the low, but rather still have this perception that technical writing, though challenging and important as it seems to be, is dry…dense…uncreative…even soulless (as one friend who worked for a few years as a project manager at an international pharmaceutical company once called technical writing). And that dryness, more than unfamiliarity of the skill/practice, is what I find most intimidating about technical writing.

I don’t know exactly what I’m postulating here (probably the impossible—a technical writing department within all English departments). I understand that I would have had to have chosen Technical Writing as my field of study if that’s what I wanted to do when I grow up. But it’s not what I want to do when I grow up. I’m still holding tight to that traveler/photographer/writer shtick. But what I’m wondering is: why has technical writing not been more a part of my training? Is there a genre of technical writing relevant to lifestyle-magazine writers? If I’m not writing manuals and don’t have a need to write reports, why do I still feel the need for more practical training? And practical training in what? I used to get asked all the time, when people found out I was an English major, what I wanted to do with my degree: teach? No. Write a book? No. Then, what? And it’s a good question, I think. Technical writers can go anywhere, it seems (I still know very little of the industry—technical, professional, or otherwise), and write manuals or work for technology or pharmaceutical or science or medical companies. Right? But what do I do with my ability to make up stories? I feel like I’ve converted, like I’ve betrayed those from whence I came, but fiction writing? I wonder if it’s not more the low sense of practical. (Creative nonfiction—i.e. lifestyle magazine writing—could be placed in that same category as far as its contribution to our world’s better good or its usefulness is concerned.)

Miller says: “We seem, that is, uncertain about where to locate norms, about whether the definition of ‘good writing’ is to be derived from academic knowledge or from nonacademic practices” (62).  I gained some of that academic knowledge in college and have spent many years making up for what sometimes feels like four years of lost time honing my nonacademic practices, and I can’t help but wonder about whether a solid foundation of good writing was laid at my undergrad university, or if I became a better writer because someone took a chance and gave me a (nonacademic) job?


Connors, Robert J. “The Rise of Technical Writing Instruction in America.” Central Works in Technical Communication. Eds. Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart A. Selber. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 3-19. Print.

Miller, Carolyn R. “What’s Practical About Technical Writing?” Professional Writing and Rhetoric: Readings from the Field. Ed. Tim Peeples. New York: Addison Wesley Educational Publishers, 2003. 61-70. Print.

Rutter, Russell. “History, Rhetoric, and Humanism: Toward a More Comprehensive Definition of Technical Communication.” Central Works in Technical Communication. Eds. Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart A. Selber. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 20-34. Print.

Week One Response: NASA-Worthy Communication: Versatility and Humanism in English 101

Reading both Connors and Rutter this week, I was able to recognize more clearly how versatile and how “humanistic” English 101 is as a technical writing course. As a creative writer new to teaching composition and rhetoric, I’ve often had the fear that I could force too much literature or freewriting on students because that’s where I’m most practiced. But I’ve realized through these readings that as a teacher I tend to favor communication over the fields I loved in undergraduate. With the help of Connors focus on what’s truly useful to various majors and Rutter’s emphasis on humanism, I am reminded that English 101 is designed to be versatile by focusing on “common processes” and the “writer-reader relationship” and that the exercises I champion are not overly creative or literary—they are usually oral presentations and group work based on rhetorical practice for their academic futures (Connors 13).

One way English 101 allows for applicability to all majors is our focus on process vs. forms/templates (as Mills and Walter initiated in the tech writing field). We do have four required papers in English 101, but the emphasis is on how rhetorical processes change from paper to paper—teaching them how to fish vs. giving them a fish. Connors traces this emphasis as the root cause that technical writing “saw the expansion . . . into fields other than engineering” (14). The highly structured curriculum provides a great design for the course to be versatile; our challenge is showing students how the concepts taught by individual papers apply to other areas of their lives and careers, which I usually do by giving each paper topic a fair space in the classroom and allowing others to respond to it, authentically.

We also encourage the human element of writing through peer review, conferences, discussions, and presentations. When Rutter paraphrases, “Technical writing, [a project manager] said, is one-third writing proficiency, one-third problem-solving skill, and one-third ability to work with other people,” I was affirmed in my encouragement of professional communication between my students, even though they feel awkward or forced at times (21). I have a Rogerian-style activity (which worked really well in 102) in which students are required to present their paper topics (usually for argument-based papers), and I assign question partners. Each presentation will be confronted with a human face presenting the opposition to their argument, and the presenter must respond to it with the authenticity and consideration which should be inherent in all professional decision-making (to avoid future Challenger disasters, white collar crimes, oversights, colleague conflicts, etc.). I am happy to hear that this kind of emphasis on human interaction is so vital to the technical writing field, especially in our technological age in which most communication takes place in physical isolation.

Refreshing, these readings offered me a nice affirmation that composition is both relevant and useful to all the majors and also that the curriculum is (and I am) maintaining the level of human contact necessary to avoid oversights that lead to anti-social academic behaviors and careless decisions. Even if students have “little respect” for me because I am merely a GTA or an “effeminate” English scholar (which is a dated point Connors makes that still feels somewhat true), I have a firm belief that they will recognize the value of rhetorical skills and communication when they enter their majors, work alongside colleagues, present at their first conference, or write their first cover letter, proposal, or resume (10). With the informal setting of English 101, students gain the practice necessary to be comfortable when these professional milestones occur for them.


Connors, Robert J. “The Rise of Technical Writing Instruction in America.” Central Works in Technical Communication. Eds. Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Suart A. Selber. New York: Oxford U P, 2004. 3-19. Print.

Rutter, Russell. “Toward a More Comprehensive Definition of Technical Communication.” Central Works in Technical Communication. Eds. Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Suart A. Selber. New York: Oxford U P, 2004. 20-34. Print.