Once upon a time, in a galaxy not that far away, there lived no technical writers. In order to be able to write well, one had to be able to veil the things they actually wanted to say in mystery and symbolism. If anyone dared to call something by its real name they would need to pay a high price for their bold action – the unbearable shame to be called boring, dull literalists. The world, however, changed, and as people no longer needed to read just for pleasure and education, but in order to be able to work with their shiny new gadgets (and shiny new services), this change brought about new needs and new people to fulfill these needs. And while variety is certainly good, now our..uhm… I mean that galaxy, has a gap to be filled – who is to educate people on how to do a job that is new and different and before we even come to that – who is to acknowledge the need for such education.
If you have somehow missed the beginning of this blog plus its title, hidden up there in big letters, I am talking about technical writing. As with many other fields, its straight-forward structure is often mistaken for simple and as with many other things, sometimes the hardest thing to achieve is simplicity. This constant underestimation results in a rather large gap in the universities’ many writing courses.
Here, in Bulgaria, technical writing is an overly undervalued field with most people viewing it as kind of dull and possibly short in any imaginative value. This way of thinking is likely the result of lack any information on what technical writing actually is and also the many generations of teachers promoting and praising vague, powdered and syrupy writing. Of course, such manner of writing does, should, will and has always had its place and relevance and in a perfect university world both writing courses would be able to peacefully co-exist.
The harsh reality is that this is not true. While I was in my bachelor’s degree I had plenty of airy writing courses to choose from, probably around 15 different subjects, bearing different names, all orbiting around and promoting the same idea – that of creative writing (gotta love those). In addition, there was also plenty of fish in the sea of specialized terminology courses – English for medical, academic, legal, administrative, etc. purposes. It is important to mention that this “etc.” never included technical purposes.
It would be absurd to say that lecturers are simply running away from technology, not recognizing its increasing importance and, settled in their ways, prefer to send the marks via the (very Harry Potterish) pigeon post. On the other hand, we would be blind not to see that the curriculum of most philologies has not changed since their creation, yet their application most certainly has. Take for example, the numerous translation courses. Yes, human translation is still of great importance and for the most part it is still irreplaceable, it is the gourmet dinner among all the machine translated burgers. However, neglecting technology in the university (thankfully) won’t make it disappear. It will only make the lives of the many people graduating with a degree in philology every year harder in the long run when they’ll need to adapt to the world that has changed a bit since the creation of the respective philology and its curriculum.
Sure, people, especially young people, are adaptive. However, if we take a classroom of fully grown university students and ask them to do the Peanut Butter Jelly exercise (we can adapt it to the different cultures and have a variation similar to, let’s say, the Spaghetti Bolognese exercise), I am afraid we won’t get results from the students much different from the ones we’ll get from a classroom of fifth graders (I know I would plain fail it in the least because of “excellent” cooking skills) and the reason behind this is very simple. Few of them would know that they need to put themselves in the other person’s position and ask themselves the right questions in order to be able to provide the right answers.
I have no doubt that half of my fellow students would have been happy to sign up for a course in technical writing, but if even the universities view it as a field that is either not important or not requiring any specific skills, we would only be relying on the people who actually practice it to spread the word and educate the rest. Bulgaria is still a toddler in the field and companies like SAP are the ones setting its grounds and building its standards. And sure, sometimes it is nice to have а “clean slate” and learn in the process, but I am just wondering, why does our society believe that it is useful, not to mention possible, to teach someone to be creative and write creatively, yet we find it odd or unnecessary to teach someone to be straight-forward?