The Evolution of Technical Writing
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The Internet has revolutionised communication completely, but this is especially apparent in technical writing. How often have you wanted to learn how to do something and gone to eHow or Wikipedia to learn about a skill or process? Helpful and informative written work has been around almost as long as writing itself, but its history is most recognised as starting a mere sixty-five years ago. Let's examine how technical writing has evolved from the traditional printed format to a more socially-oriented presence online.
In 1949, the first piece of established technical writing was published by Joseph Chapline, who wrote a user manual for the computer he developed, the BINAC. The advent of this user manual broke new ground in that before, there wasn't an officially recognised demand for documentation meant to aid and inform the reader.
Soon after, Chapline started teaching courses in technical communication at the Moore School of Engineering of the University of Pennsylvania. The '50s saw the first ‘help wanted' ads searching specifically for technical writers and the merging of two New England professional technical writing associations to form the Society for Technical Communication.
The growth years
It was in the '60s when the industry really started to boom. With the rise of computer and aeronautics technologies came a rise in demand for writers who could provide intuitive, well-informed explanations of the machines and processes being developed to readers who needed in-depth information on these subjects. By the early '70s, journals dedicated to technical communication were coming to fruition. However, technical writing was not legally recognised as a profession until 1980.
A new dawn
Come 1987, the first desktop computer-based technical manuals were being published, using software such as Corel Ventura Publisher and Adobe FrameMaker. These applications allowed for more leeway in presentation of user manuals and other forms of technical communication to make them more appealing and user-friendly.
In the '90s, this field was revolutionised by the introduction of ISO 9000 certifications and XML, which is still widely used today. In 2002, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act was passed, an article of which opened up even more opportunities for technical writers to work with corporate financial reporting, since the new regulations required such things as flowcharts and policy manuals, which are technical communication specialties.
Today, technical writing has taken a more socially-oriented slant, especially considering contemporary emphasis on real-time communication. The ability to provide responses in the form of comments and other means of discourse has also added a more feedback-driven, collaborative perspective to the field. The ability to create and showcase writing portfolios and other work via business web hosting services has also revolutionised how technical writers can present and promote their work, whether it is meant to aid users or to give a potential employer an idea of their experience with relevant documentation.
The future of technical writing will perhaps be driven by an increase in the quality of software and user interface designs, making the writing process even faster and less reliant on following the traditional user manual format. An emphasis on visual communication meant to engage users will keep content fresh and original while still achieving the goal of thoroughly informing the reader. It's safe to say that as long as human communication keeps evolving, technical writing will surely follow suit.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.