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Martin Luther and Technical Communication

Dec 29, 2010 • general

Martin Luther and Technical CommunicationI watched an interesting biography about Martin Luther on Netflix while ironing some laundry the other evening. Luther initiated the Reformation of the Catholic Church in the 1500s largely as a reaction against the practice of indulgences (buying forgiveness of sin) that priests carried out. Luther starts his criticism by posting, on a Church door, 95 theses arguing that forgiveness and salvation are free gifts not requiring financial payment.

The Pope declares Luther a heretic and eventually excommunicates him. But Luther avoids death by burning because of the popularity of his writings. Whereas previously the Pope might have singled out and quashed a heretic with relatively little visibility, the invention of the Gutenberg printing press enables Luther's writings to be quickly disseminated, such that he becomes one of the most popular authors in Europe. Many of his writings are accompanied by visual woodcuts depicting the ideas he puts forth.

Luther eventually gains an audience with Charles V, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. After Luther defends himself, claiming that he has only done according to his conscience and could not disregard it, the council deciding his verdict can't achieve unanimity to determine a fate for Luther. Luther returns home, but in the process is snatched away to a secluded castle where he translates the scriptures into common German.

As he translates the Greek Bible into vernacular German, he immerses himself among common people to get the language right. Wikipedia expands on this point: "To help him in translating Luther would make forays into the nearby towns and markets to listen to people speak. He wanted to ensure their comprehension by a translation closest to their contemporary language usage" (Luther Bible).

I find several things fascinating about Martin Luther, which all have some application to technical communication:

  • He stood up for what he believed in, rejecting an oppressive institution that had the power to extinguish him.
  • He began his writings with a quick reference guide (95 theses) rather than a comprehensive magnus opus.
  • He accompanied his writing with visual woodcuts to reinforce his message.
  • He was an eloquent and gifted writer, at times expressing his ideas in frank, unmistakable language.
  • He took pains to translate the Bible into a vernacular, accessible language that common people could understand.
  • He ventured among his users to better understand their terminology, idioms, and manner of speech.
  • He did much of his translation in seclusion, sequestered away from others.
  • He leveraged mass printing to disseminate his ideas, which led to a following that fueled the Reformation.

The parallels between the printing press and the Internet are virtually the same. The printing press enabled the Reformation to spread quickly and widely. It decentralized authority by allowing the masses to have copies of the Bible and other books in their own language rather than relying on priests to read and interpret Latin or Greek texts. Likewise, the Internet decentralizes authority and allows anyone with persuasive writing skills to gain an audience and following. The Internet allows you to quickly disseminate your ideas to a wide group of people in a short time period.

Despite some similarities between Luther and the modern-day technical communicator, at least one major, fundamental difference separates the two: motivation. Luther believed so fervently in his cause that it became his personal mission. He was willing to suffer anything because he believed so strongly in it. Technical communicators, however, mostly have a day job that ends at 5 p.m. We are hardly willing to exert the kind of effort that would ignite a reformation. And yet, if we did believe strongly in something, the same tools are available to us to do what Luther did.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.