Can Effective Technical Writing be Taught?



It's an age-old question: can effective technical writing skills be taught/learned? Lots of people believe that writing well and being able to express one's thoughts in writing is something people are born knowing how to do, just as some people are better at math than others or some are better at music. But is this really true? Is trying to teach effective writing futile? And is it possible to learn how to write more effectively?

While a quick Internet search turns up lots of articles about the subject (most of them about so-called "creative" versus technical writing--a dichotomy I resist), the true answer, I believe, is that how to write effectively can be taught and learned. And when I talk about writing, I'm not talking about grammar. To write well, one has simply to be introduced to the underpinnings of what makes writing effective (there are many, but we'll focus on just two here). Yes, we can talk about voice, style, and tone (all of which are important), but what's more important is that writers understand the basics of what makes writing effective. And it's not grammar, tone, style, or voice--it's that effective writing is persuasive. And to be persuasive, the writer has to take the time to plan (yes, I've blogged about this before and discuss it in all my classes, as it's that important) in terms of what s/he wants to persuade the reader of.  

What many writers fail to understand is that readers will be persuaded one way or another--either that the writer is a genius or a real dummy, regardless of whether the writer fits either category. So, for instance, if I write a document that's unclear, illogical, muddled and incomprehensible, I've persuaded readers that I'm disorganized, illogical, inarticulate, and unintelligent, even if this isn't the case. I could be most intelligent person on the planet, but if I'm unable to show this by writing a document that's concise, precise, well-organized, and sharp, I've persuaded my reader that the opposite is true. Understanding this simple concept is crucial; as a writer, it's up to me to decide how I wish to be perceived by the reader and what I want to persuade him/her of in terms of my ability and intelligence.

Second, I have to understand my target reader--not only their profession, but their biases, how they read (are they skimmers or will they read the document in its entirety?), their role in the organization, and even how they think. While determining all of these things (and more!) about our readers may seem like a monumental task, it's not. The problem is that most writers don't take the time to figure these things out because doing so seems time-consuming and impossible. But many writers, if they were simply to begin making a list about what they know about their target readers, would be quite surprised about how much they do know. It's a simple task that doesn't take much time.

So, we go back to the question: can effective technical writing skills be taught/learned? I'm no expert on creative writing, but I have taught technical writing, scientific writing, and business writing in various organizations for over 20 years. And I can say without a doubt that many of those who attended our workshops improved in terms of their ability to write clearer documents. They didn't improve overnight, of course, but practicing the techniques we teach and taking the time to plan their document, consider their audience, and think critically about how they wished to be perceived by their readers went a long way toward helping them hone their technical, business, and scientific writing skills.

Contact Hurley Write, Inc. to learn more about our technical writing online courses.