Dobrin: "What''s Technical About Technical Writing?"

Dobrin, David N. “What''s Technical About Technical Writing?.” Central works in technical communication. Ed. Johndan Johnson-Eilola & Stuart A. Selber. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 107-23. Print.



Original article published in 1983. This article begins with preface from Dobrin, ostensibly composed for the 2004 edition. Semi-apologetic (could have been, should have been), but still that sense of humor.


Begins 1983 article with explanation of earlier problems.


Technical Writing


Cites MacIntosh''s method of looking at samples of technical writing to determine common characteristics (108). John A. Walter categorized tech writing by format, style, and content. Noted after reviewing hundreds of pieces that each: "had specific rhetorical modes and formats where were pitched to specific readers. (FORMAT) 2. Had a specialized vocabulary and an objective style. (STYLE) 3. Had primarily technical content. (CONTENT)" (109). Dobrin argues theorists use difficult terms to define yet do not define terms. Demonstrates how he perceives possible errors by using these definitions (included and excluded). Argues that definition does not lie in experiences (i.e., looking at systematic examples of tech writing) (109).


Writing Technically


"writing technically" looks at encounter that produces texts. Find what is unique about the way mind grapples with tech subject then converts grappling into writing (109). Cites Harris (tw is rhet of sci method), Stratton (tw in a particular art, science, disc or trade helps audiences approach subjects; Dobrin argues both H and S define as objectivity), Britton (objectivity + one meaning and one only).


Rhetoric, Science, and Technical Writing


"Scientific writing makes a truth claim; technical writing does not" (110). Each statement in sci writing reflects upon truth claim of whole; in tech writing, if a statement wrong (technically ineffective rather than invalid); claims contingent upon circumstances.


Formal Versus Epistemological Objectivity


Both TC and SciWri appear objective, yet similarities merely in conventions. "The stipulation of objectivity as a form in technical writing is merely another way of coopting the authority of science" (111).




Dobrin argues that if Britton''s writer is to mean one and only one thing, he must specify the procedure and be unambiguous in doing so. But there are primary and secondary "tones" to language. Dobrin argues "language is not information. The image of language as discrete units comes from our picture of the dictionary, in which each word has "n" meanings. But dictionaries exist to describe language; their descriptions cannot be submitted for a particular word as if a sentence were a mathematical equation" (112). Argues that we apply contexts to our reading. Understand b/c apply experienced intuition.


States apparently Britton arguing for high level of specification in writing; still problematic. If it''s just write not to be misunderstood, hey, that''s all writing. Is that the writing always specifies, leads to ponderous writing. That too is not just for tech writing.


Universalist View of Language


argues that the heart of all of this is disagreement about language. Universalist view = "a sentence can mean a particular thing and that precisely that meaning can be understood" vs Monadist (meaning indeterminate and never precisely understood) (113). Miller/ "windowpane"/ logical positivism. Outlines systems of assumptions from Enlightenment thinkers. Application-- universalists profoundly dissatisfied with language as it is now practiced. Universal language? Dobrin argues "no language structure seems to be biologically inherent, the way the number of noses is" (115). From this view, set up clumsy intepretive system for ourselves.


Monadist View


the alternative-- see language as it is actually used by reading its "tonal qualities (qtng Steiner). "The monadist does not separate knowledge and language; he argues that one knows in language. Since their is no way of knowing without language--a human construct-- there can be no privleged access to the world" (115). Cites Vico--what is real or true is what we make; no uninterpreted knowledge of the natural world. Humboldt (cited in Steiner) language and knowing reciprocal; content is created in and through dynamics of statement. Argues present axiomatic fictions limit everyday practice. Asks whatis left out by prescriptons that make natural language resemble formizable language.




The desire to eradicate ambiguity (Britton et al)-- Dobrin says is confusing ambiguity (denotation), vagueness (intention), and alternity (any statement, in stating what is, brings into consciousness what isn''t) (116). e.g. red=not blue; know truth b/c know how to lie. Alternity makes participation in a group dynamic. Language is both inclusive and exclusive. With articulation, inverse process. We use a word, others hear, and we both enter a group and establish individuality. Jargon-- can be "ticket of admission" to a group. Cites Orwell "a language rich in possibility commits us to democratic freedoms and threatens arbitrary authority" (117).


How does ignoring alternity affect tech writing? 3 ways: ignore group cohesion (not word substitution but translator inhabiting two groups at once); definitions fail to give tech writing creativity it should have; definitions fail to account for "slackness" in technical writing due to shelf life (theory that tech writing should disappear) (118).


A New Definition of Technical Writing


"technical writing is writing that accommodates technology to the user" (118). By tech means way that ppl, machines, concepts, and relationships are organized. Tech writing is a technological product. "Under the universalist view, the fact that a group organizes its writing in a certain way does not say anything about the writing itself. In the monadist view it does, because the language practice of any group sets forth the limits of the group, the aims of the group, and the relationships that go on inside it" (119). Uses anecdote of old chair and new chair (new chair with fancy manual, old chair with chairmaker). Tech organizations feel limited responsibility and writing reflects that. "Technology, in sum, not only uses language but employs its own axiomatic fictions; not only uses logic, but sets forth a rationality; not only perceives, but has its own way of knowing" (120). The logic of domination (power for those wielding the logic). Uses concept of objectivity in writing to demonstrate.


Argues Britton''s "one meaning" subjugates writing and writers (120) while alternity "invests the writer with responsibility" (120).


The Transfer of Technology


"the criterion of use--put it in only if the reader can use it, read it only if I can use it-- is the most important single governor on technical writing" (121). "Technical writing gives what is useful, not what is known" (121).


The Implications of This Definition


language cannot be defined-- problematic and mutable


suggests different procedure for looking at technical writing:'' two foci-- which must also include the practice of the groups which the writer is writing to/ for/ from as well as practices of the group in which writer has located self'' (122). Both organism (which has a history) and an entity (simply there).