Britton: "What Is Technical Writing?"

Britton, W. Earl. “What Is Technical Writing?.” Critical Theory and the Teaching of Composition, Satire, Autobiography. Spec. issue of College Composition and Communication 16.2 (1965): 113-116. JSTOR. Web. 3 Sept. 2010.




This 1965 article is one of the earliest academic discussions of technical writing—at least one of the earliest accessible from academic databases. Britton’s purpose is to define technical writing—commonly misunderstood, especially within the academy—and the tasks of both teachers and authors of technical writing. He categorizes previous attempts as defining as: subject matter (typically, science or engineering); language (serious, factual, objective, and using special terminology); thought process (not associative but sequential); or purpose (“functional literature” [Knapp, qtd. in Britton 114]). Britton argues, quite simply, that technical writing is clear, unambiguous, and precise writing that should not be open to interpretation. He concludes with a call for technical writing to be taught in educational institutions across the curriculum, arguing that it is more reflective of real-world writing situations than current composition assignments and expectations.
One of the greatest benefits of this article is its age; it provides an historical point of context. Although evolving technologies and a variety of other developments have since impacted the field, defining the discipline and reconciling the perceived schism between academia and the “real world” are still hotly contested topics, as Dobrin (among others) reiterates.







Purpose: to define technical writing as what it is and how it is different from other forms of writing; to define the tasks of both teachers and authors of tech writing.


a) Defined by subject matter—quotes Blickle and Passe: “science, engineering, and business” (113).


Cites Mills and Walter—“technical subject matter” but what is a technical subject? Again, sci and engineering. Four characteristics of form: “concern with scientific and technical matters, its use of a scientific vocabulary and conventional report forms, its commitment to objectivity and accuracy, and the complexity of its task, involving descriptions, classifications, and even more intricate problems” (113).


b) linguistic. Differs from other prose in its “utter seriousness” (Hays qtd. In Britton), factual, striving to be objective, but more importantly, uses a “specialized vocabulary” (113).


c) thought process. Not associative (used in history, lit, and arts; chronos, spatial, emo relationships, then and rather) vs sequential (math or science, because and therefore). Cites Kirkman’s claim that weakness of sci writing is using associative thought for scientific materials.


d) purpose > “functional literature” (Knapp) (114).


Britton: “primary, though certainly not the sole, characteristic of technical and scientific writing lies in the effort to convey one meaning and only one meaning in what he says. That one meaning must be sharp, clear, precise. And the reader must be given no choice of meanings; he must not be allowed to interpret a passage in any other way but that intended by the writer” (114).


Contrasts with imaginative writing (114-15)


Not only defining technical writing, but also pointing out that tech writing needs to be taught and required in schools. Few practical approaches to writing. Not only English teachers, but cxc. “In fact, I believe that in all too many instances, at least in college, the student writes the wrong thing, for the wrong reason, to the wrong person, who evaluates it on the wrong basis. That is, he writes about a subject he is not thoroughly informed upon, in order to exhibit his knowledge rather than explain something the reader does not understand, and he writes to a professor who already knows more than he does about the matter and who evaluates the paper, not in terms of what he has derived, but in terms of what he thinks the writer knows” (116) Points out this direct opposition of what happens in the profession. Cites Brookes in suggesting that students should occasionally write about a topic that a teacher who doesn’t know the material can understand. This is “a real exercise in composition” (116).  Snide? “Teachers oriented primarily toward literature see little of interest in this field, but those who enjoy composition—especially in its communicative aspect—can find considerable satisfaction here” (116).