A Technical Writer Talks about the Relevance of Rhetoric

La_Defense_-_Stairway_to_Heaven_Detail

"Stairway to heaven," Paris - by Dmitry A. Mottl, June 2007. From Wikimedia Commons.

By guest columnist:

Andy Kubrin

Staff Technical Writer

Wind River Systems

andy.kubrin@windriver.com

Edited by T. Smith, Edu*Rhetor

A popular view of academia is that it is sheltered from the rough-and-tumble of everyday life. Leaving aside the question of whether this view has merit — and my beleaguered friends in the academy assure me that it does not — university students contemplating their future careers might still ask themselves how relevant their studies are to the conditions and vocational demands of the workplace.

For students of rhetoric, this question is especially pointed.

Rhetoric is, after all, a liberal art, with an elaborate body of theory but few, if any, marketable skills. How relevant is it to the 21st century workplace?

In my view, rhetoric is supremely relevant to a professional writing practice in almost any setting. It would also provide a sturdy foundation for a variety of other careers, such as management, law, or politics. But before I go any further in making this case, I should tell you something about my own background and perspective.

I have been a professional writer for almost thirty years. Mostly I work in industry, writing about software, microelectronics, oil and gas, mining, and transportation, to name just a few areas. But I also write on other topics, such as raising children with special needs, and I’m active in an area known as creative nonfiction. I have no particular expertise in any of the technologies I document. I have no professional credential in education or child development, only my nonprofessional experience as a parent. I am a writer, pure and simple, with training in composition, literature, and similar topics. I never studied rhetoric in college, and I have no more than a shallow grounding in rhetorical theory. Indeed, I only stumbled on the topic recently in connection with some research I was doing for my job–but more about that later.

So how relevant is rhetoric to the life of a writer (and non-rhetorician)?

Supremely relevant, as I mentioned before.

Let me explain.

At work, I devote most of my effort to three key areas–research, writing and editing, and building and maintaining the relationships that are crucial to my job. Each of these endeavours lends itself to scrutiny in a rhetorical framework.

Research

Every writing project begins with research, of course. I need to explore the technology I am documenting and learn what it does, how it works, and what purposes it serves. Rhetoricians will instantly identify the first canon, invention, as the relevant theoretical framework. But there is more to research than simply uncovering facts, and the canon of invention is applicable to research in many ways that are not immediately apparent. My search for information quickly becomes a multifaceted exploration of the workplace and the market. Where can I find the information I am looking for? Who can give me the best explanation? These questions are about topoi, or the sources of information.

Soon, I am also engaged in stasis, which I might characterize as a search for information about information. First, I must corroborate everything I learn. Next, I must place the verifiable facts in a framework that will make sense to the user of the product I am documenting. Creating this framework requires a shift in perspective–from my own to that of the user–which in turn prompts a whole new round of questions.

Writing

So much for research and its reliance on sound invention. Now what about writing and editing?

Writing and editing are distinct activities, of course, but they are so interrelated that we can consider them jointly. There is no writing without editing, or rewriting–certainly not if you are striving for effective and polished work. Similarly, there is no editing without writing, for in strengthening and polishing a text, an editor must retrace the writer’s path and confirm or reject each of the writer’s decisions.

Writing and editing chiefly involve the canons of disposition and style. First I must find a suitable arrangement for the material I am going to cover. This arrangement is rarely the classic sequence of exordium, narratio, divisio, etc., but usually some sequential or hierarchical scheme best suited for the situation. Whichever arrangement I follow, I must take my reader’s purpose into account and anticipate his or her own process of discovery. This last requirement means that my efforts at disposition are highly dependent on invention. If I’ve failed at invention–at discovering, selecting, corroborating, and contextualizing my facts–I am unlikely to succeed at disposition.

As I write, I also engage in ethos, pathos, and logos to deliver a persuasive, credible, and authoritative description of the system or object I am documenting. To do so, I must craft a document that is faithful and relevant to the subject matter, that appeals to my readers’ self-interests and sense of identity, and that relies on robust logic to create internal coherence.

Editing

As I progress towards a finished draft, I pay close attention to matters of style. Granted, elegant writing is not highly prized in industry, but I believe style and readability are important aspects of communication, and I work hard to polish my work and make it accessible. In technology, style is closely related to function, so rewriting is less a matter of ornamentation and more a matter of refinement and the removal of all that is excess or extraneous. In this area, too, I find my efforts are highly dependent on invention. Without a deep understanding of the subject matter, it is impossible to make meaningful improvements in style.

This brief analysis is surely incomplete in some ways and perhaps mistaken in others. If I pressed it further, I would probably also find relevance in the canons of memory and delivery. Still, I think the preceding paragraphs make a fairly strong case that the study of rhetoric is relevant to a career in writing.

But what about relationship building? What do relationships have to do with writing, and how does rhetoric help us understand the nature of relationships?

Relationships

Writing, with its need for focused attention, is a solitary activity. Because it springs from interior conversation, writing also depends on a unique state of mind, which is best maintained by temporarily screening out distractions. But writing is also (and primarily) a method for communicating facts and ideas, so it necessarily takes place in a web of relationships.

  • At work, I depend on the engineers who provide me with the raw factual material I use in my documents. I depend on my fellow writers, because we must work together to solve technical problems, to coordinate our coverage of the subject matter, and to maintain consistency in our work.
  • I also depend on people in sales, marketing, and technical support, who work directly with customers, to tell me what I need to know about the end users of our products.
  • Finally, I depend on customers, who provide a demand for my work and the demand for quality that makes me strive for excellence.

So it’s only natural that I value my relationships with my coworkers and with customers–not only because they make my job possible, but also because they make it meaningful.

Of what, then, are relationships made? Need certainly springs to mind–the relationships outlined above all involve need, or an exchange of resources in some kind of system of mutual aid. Some of these need-based relationships are cooperative, but not all–many involve competition over scarce resources. Such a relationship may produce friction, but it’s still a relationship.

But surely there is more to relationships than need. Most of my relationships also involve a dialogue about values, but here again, the relationship can have a cooperative or competitive basis. Sometimes my coworkers and I come together in harmony over shared values, while at other times we clash in disputes over values. All of my relationships–particularly in high technology, where I make a living–involve a flow of information, which creates a dynamic force within our shared social space. Information is my stock in trade, of course, and its utility is indisputable, but what we often fail to examine is the nature of information–how it is defined, created, shared, commodified, and put to use. Thinking of information and its commodification leads me naturally to the subject of power, which is also a parameter in every relationship. Finally, I should mention that I work for a geographically dispersed company, with employees based in several dozen offices, located on virtually every continent. This last fact points to several other factors that impart a character to our relationships, including language, culture, and the technical media we use to communicate, such as the telephone, email, instant messaging, and intranets.

Needs, values, information, power, and communications media–surely all these things are the proper study of rhetoric.

Discovering rhetoric

As I mentioned earlier, I came into contact with rhetoric only recently in connection with some research I have been doing at work. The subject of my research is mental state as a factor in technical communication. I chose this topic because my own mental state, as both a producer and consumer of technical information, is frequently less than ideal, and I suspected I was not alone in this feeling. I also began to wonder how this suboptimal mental state might affect my success as a communicator.

In my search for answers, I typed a fortuitous string into the Google search field, something like TECHNICAL WRITING AND RHETORIC, and this query led to my encounter with rhetoric, the contact with Tania Smith, and a fruitful new line of thought. My research is just getting underway, and I suspect the search will be a long one, because mental state is a complex topic. But how fortunate I am, with so many years of professional activity behind me, to find a field which reminds me that I make a difference, however slight, and provides me with a way to measure that difference.

by

Andy Kubrin
Staff Technical Writer
Wind River Systems
andy.kubrin@windriver.com

ATTACHMENTS —

akubrin_blog_text .doc — Original text submitted by Andy Kubrin.

akubrin_blog_textEDITED.doc — showing the edits made by T. Smith,  and analysis of editing method and degree

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