Technical Communication

Brent Henze

Professor of English, East Carolina University

with Carolyn R. Miller and Stephen Carradini

North Carolina State University

Posted September 2016

The field of technical communication is concerned with how professionals communicate complex information with specialist and nonspecialist users [1] in order to solve practical problems, often using communication technologies, multi-modal documents, or complex documents. These professionals may be identified primarily by their roles as communicators, with varying job titles and responsibilities but with primary expertise in communication (see Brumberger and Lauer 2015); or by their roles in another professional area, such as engineering, computing, management, accounting, criminal justice, and healthcare (“workplace communication”). Although the roles and professional identities are rather distinct, the communication tasks and products with which they work are often shared. This overview will give some attention to both domains of technical communication.

Like all communicators, technical communicators make use of shared textual conventions applied in recognizably similar situations to accomplish their communication goals. Those shared conventions, or genres, simplify the technical communicator’s work by constraining the range of possibilities in a given communication situation, and they can encourage innovation by helping technical communicators understand the goals of a text and envision a range of ways to achieve those goals.

Technical communicators face special challenges:

  • The subject matter of technical communication is specialized, difficult, or esoteric.
  • Users are motivated to accomplish tasks and solve problems, not simply to acquire information.
  • The same information may be consumed by users with a wide variety of unpredictable characteristics and needs.
  • Many technical documents are created collaboratively or are assembled from preexisting documents.
  • Technical communicators are often not experts in the subjects that they must write about.
  • The text’s creators and users often do not share the same expertise.
  • Technical communication often depends upon complex information technologies for construction and dissemination.
  • Much technical communication is high stakes, involving matters of risk or safety.
  • Many technical messages have financial, legal, and ethical ramifications.
  • Technical communication often occurs in complex organizational or institutional contexts.

Genre has become a mission-critical concept for the field of technical communication because it offers resources for addressing each of these challenges.

Technical communication in fact made among the earliest substantial contributions to North American rhetorical genre research, probably because of its insistent focus on identifiable rhetorical contexts beyond the classroom, with especially active research in Canada by those concerned with workplace communication (Schryer 2002). In their introduction to genre studies, Bawarshi and Reiff include an extensive review of genre research in workplace and professional contexts (2010).

A search of the four major journals in the field shows both early and sustained attention to genre, displayed in the chart below: [2]

Number of articles on genre in technical communication journals

Interestingly, these data diverge from the finding in Dayton and Bernhardt’s (2004) survey of members of the Association for Teachers of Technical Writing that genres and genre theory were among the topics of below average interest for future issues of the association’s journal, Technical Communication Quarterly.

Formal and Rhetorical Perspectives on Genre

Most practitioners of technical communication understand “genres” as the set of document types commonly produced in their workplace: memos and letters, grant proposals, procedure manuals, instructions, progress reports, annual reports, and so forth. In the workplace, knowledge of the most important or frequently used genres enables employees to operate efficiently and reliably. Knowledge of the formal features of common document types and recognition of the moments when they are called for helps accomplish a great deal of practical work. For this reason, textbooks and handbooks provide models and guidelines for producing many common genres, and software developers have created templates that guide the production of many common technical genres (e.g. Gurak and Hocks 2009). Bibliographic resources are often organized in part around genres adopted largely from the textbook tradition, such as those listed above (e.g. Belanger 2005, Moran and Journet 1985, Sides 1989).

While recognizing the practical value of this notion of genres as comparatively stable forms, most scholars of technical communication have followed rhetorical theorists, beginning with Miller (1984), who understand genre as a dynamic and socially rooted concept: the appreciation of exploitable regularities in practical communication situations. Technical communication scholars and rhetorical scholars agree that genre is based in communities or other social groups; has some relationship to activities, or getting work done in the world (not just a taxonomic scheme for texts); and enables innovation and creativity.

Because it is a comparatively young field of study, technical communication has drawn opportunistically upon fundamental theoretical perspectives from rhetorical theory (in the form of rhetorical genre studies and Bakhtinian genre theory), activity theory, sociology, and discourse analysis and linguistics. Although its approach to genre shares much with these disciplines, the characteristic challenges of technical communication noted above have led scholars to revise rhetorical and other approaches to genre to address its unique objects and problems.

Genre, Activity Theory, and Socialization

One of the challenges of theorizing genre in technical communication is that the “texts” produced in these contexts are so mutable. Since much workplace writing occurs in rapidly changing contexts (and often in response to technological change), the field must account for how genres form and change over time. Indeed, Schryer’s (1993, 200) insight that genres are only “stabilized-for-now,” always subject to the pressures of changing situations, derived from her study of a change in the formal conventions of veterinary medical record-keeping. Russell (1997) reviews several studies that look at the coevolution of genres and professional contexts in a variety of technical disciplines, ranging from the evolution of psychiatry’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual manual (McCarthy and Gerring 1994, McCarthy 1991) to the genre of the request for proposals (RFP) and related genres in defense contracting (Van Nostrand 1994). Russell (1997, 226) observes that this type of research arose as technical communication turned its attention toward the social dynamics of workplaces (and their productions, including genres) and away from formalist perspectives on genre.

The notion of text form as simply a vehicle for a text’s message has been thoroughly overturned in technical communication, where the formal characteristics of a text often have great bearing upon the text’s meaning, effects, and uptake. For example, since many users come to technical documents with little prior experience or knowledge, one of the technical writer’s tasks is to assist readers in using the document by building in features that “teach” the user to consume the document as it is being consumed. Navigational tools, interface features, characteristics of the document’s physical form, and other elements all support users’ uptake of a novel document. Technical documents differ in material, typography, design, information structure, platform, mode, and medium. The discipline’s understanding of genre must accommodate this great heterogeneity while still helping scholars to understand regularities of document production and helping practitioners to do their work effectively.

Many technical communication theorists favor the highly situated view of genre that activity theory offers. As Russell (1997) observes, when analyzing the genre of reports, for instance, “one looks closely at one specific activity system, and those with which it interacts, to find regularities in the ways people in that activity system write reports, and the history of their language use” (226). Though genres are understood in terms of regularities, these are mutable, situated regularities, and their idiosyncrasies are just as important as their relative stability. The degree of regularity of genred activity varies, and our understanding of discursive practices must take into account not only technical communicators’ uses of the most stable genres in their repertoires, but also their uses of “those discursive objects that are more emergent, of unknown shape and dynamic content, drawn from a variety of sources” such as the “micro-discursive operations” that occur outside of identifiable genres but that coordinate work across time and space and between people (Swarts 2008, 303, 304), for example, reading a data display, responding to a query, or, from Spinuzzi (2003), Post-it notes used to transfer data from one workspace to another. In a similar vein, Kain (2005) shows how genre functions in a situation that is nonroutine and nonrecurring through its instrumental, metacommunicative, and sociopolitical functions.

A related area of attention has been how socialization into a discipline, profession, or workplace influences writers’ uptake of discursive conventions and other types of performance, and, conversely, how exposure to these conventions and performances contributes to disciplinary socialization or enculturation. Though these problems are not unique to technical communication, they are special problems in this area because technical communicators are expected to take up new roles and genres very quickly (and in many cases transition quickly from role to role) in the contemporary technical workplace. As Artemeva notes in emphasizing the relevance of activity theory and situated learning theory to genre socialization, “the development of a professional identity is inextricably linked to participating in the workplace genres and ‘learning one’s professional location in the power relations of institutional life’” (2008, 61, quoting Paré 2002). See also Russell (2007), Winsor (1999), and Zachry (2000).

Research on Specific Technical Communication Genres

Numerous studies have examined the genres unique to particular work environments, most typically treating them as evolved forms, tools, or mediational resources that both reflect and shape their contexts. In fact, along with studies of how learners take up common technical genres (in school or in the workplace), studies of niche genres are probably the most common examples of scholarship on genre and technical communication. The data from the four major journals mentioned above reveal that the most frequently discussed genres have been reports, both technical and scientific, proposals, academic articles, and computer documentation, while there is a plethora of genres discussed only once or twice, including electronic mail (Zucchermaglio and Talamo 2003), medical case presentations (Spafford et al. 2006, Schryer and Spoel 2005), web resumes (Killoran 2006), design critiques (Dannels 2011, Dannels and Martin 2008), presentence investigation reports (Converse 2012), corporate promotional videos (Yli-Jokipii 1998), patent drawings (Donnell 2005), call-center communication (Xu et al. 2010), paper sewing patterns (Durack 2003), clinical protocols (Bell, Walch, and Katz 2000), and gameplay genres (Sherlock 2009). Many studies use a case approach, scrutinizing a small number of examples of a noteworthy genre, although Graham et al. (2015) advocate statistical methods for analyzing large corpora.

The goals of these studies differ. Many use the insights of genre theory to uncover notable features of the genres (e.g. Converse 2012, Xu et al. 2010, Sherlock 2009); others use the case to advance theory (Dannels 2011, Swarts 2006). As this list also reveals, technical communication scholars are interested in both high-visibility and formally structured genres (reports, resumes) and more esoteric or ephemeral genres (critiques, emails), as well as objects that in some frameworks might not be considered genres (gameplay); they are interested not only in written but also in oral (medical case presentations, call-center communication), visual (patent drawings, sewing patterns), and electronic genres (web resumes, promotional videos).

Genre in Larger Networks and Technological Systems

In most technical and workplace settings, genres operate not in isolation but in combination with other genres, and in rhetorical situations that are themselves complex and sometimes ill defined. To account for these features, scholars have proposed several generative models: genre systems (Bazerman 1994, Yates and Orlikowski 2002), genre sets (Devitt 1991), genre repertoires (Orlikowski and Yates 1994), and genre ecologies (Spinuzzi 2004, Spinuzzi and Zachry 2000). The genre ecologies perspective, an outgrowth of activity theory, has been useful for describing the complex dynamics of networked, globalized workplaces and of digital genres. In Spinuzzi’s (2004) formulation, a genre ecology in any workplace or activity network is a set of relations of mediation between workers, genres, and activities; these relations are contingent and decentralized, and they achieve relative, if temporary, stability. Agency and cognition are distributed across the ecology, across workers, genres, and other tools. The activity is fundamentally shaped by the genres that enact it, so that it is impossible to separate the social activity (say, fulfilling purchase orders) from the genre (the purchase order) that one uses to do that activity, including the “purchase order” form that structures the act.

Reflecting the distances in time and place that often characterize rhetorical situations in technical communication, “repeatability” is a key concern, since technical communicators often must coordinate with previous work and material produced in other locations. To create consistency across time and space, genre standardization is achieved with style sheets, templates, and, increasingly, more transformative genre-replicating technologies such as single-sourcing and content management systems. These systems help organizations (and their members) coordinate their communications, which in turn helps them to make communication decisions repeatable and genres more stable.

Recent scholarship in technical communication has focused on these genre-standardization approaches, which have problematized notions of authorship, rhetoric, form and content, information, and genre itself. As Swarts (2010) notes, although single-sourcing systems purportedly “cast reusable content as contextless and rhetorically neutral,” they “mask the complexity of the rhetorical relationships negotiated by reused text” (158). This suggests the need for systems and techniques that better support users’ actual strategies for reuse, as well as further study of users’ adaptation of these resources in practice. Clark (2007) anticipates a great change in the discipline’s understanding of genre as content management approaches take hold: genres may increasingly be conceptualized as “outputs” defined by their fixed, technologically applied characteristics, and writers may find themselves producing material divorced from contexts of use, or, conversely, designing outputs suitable for a variety of possible content.

Other recent research also reflects the powerful presence of technological networks in technical communication. Swarts’s (2015) study of the genre of help documentation notes that because networks produce uncertain and ill-defined problems, task-based documentation can no longer adequately anticipate users’ needs and tasks, and users are turning to online help forums for solutions. Such forums offer a “theater of help(ing)” (165) that technical communicators must learn to manage and facilitate. Likewise, Selber (2010) focuses on the online instruction set, suggesting that this genre of technical communication “can be seen as central to an age of social media” because of an “online participatory culture that encourages involvement, collaboration, and information exchange” (99). And more broadly still, Lewis (2016) argues that “invisible rhetorical genres operating at macroscopic levels of scale are central to shaping individual and communal activity in digital spaces” (5). His study of the content management system and bittorrent tracker used by an online community shows how designers “relied on their communal membership to design effective navigation tools, interfaces, and information architectures” that “map[ped] the social motives and communal desires” of the user community, thus embedding generic social actions within the technology through a form of user-experience design that is often used in more formal contexts (22). See also Carliner and Boswood (2004).

Teaching and Learning Technical Communication Genres

Much of the pedagogical research concerns workplace communication, focused on what are usually known as “service” courses for advanced and graduate students in technical, scientific, and professional curricula, not for those who anticipate becoming technical communication professionals. In either case, the point of teaching students to employ genres in an academic setting is so that they will be better equipped to employ genres in the workplace and other professional contexts. Cook’s (2003) survey of technical communication courses inventories genres assigned in 197 courses; the five most frequently assigned were the oral presentation, proposal, memo, correspondence, and progress report, with other types of reports nearly as frequent.

The early technical writing pedagogies described by Connors (1982), Kynell-Hunt (2000), and others treated technical contexts and forms more directly than did most of the coeval composition pedagogies, encouraging reproduction of technical and workplace genres as relatively fixed textual forms. In her discussion of the formal-textual and social context/discourse community perspectives in genre research, Luzón (2005) notes that each perspective has given rise to a distinct pedagogical approach in technical communication. The textual perspective involves explicit teaching of linguistic features, whereas the social perspective places students within a social context to address a rhetorical situation. According to Luzón, both paradigms are active in technical communication pedagogy, and she cites examples of both. Even within the social approach, pedagogical expedience often leads to formal-textual pedagogy, which tends to prioritize the most stable genres while deemphasizing the informal local rhetorical practices and social negotiations that add to a professional community’s genre work. Henze notes the particular relevance of the social perspective and the genre approach for teaching technical communication and provides a review of several models for teaching genre, as well as specific classroom activities and assignments (Forthcoming).

In technical communication, the problem of transfer, long an issue in Composition Studies, points to the transition from the academy to the workplace, and much pedagogical research focuses here, highlighting the differences between what can be learned in a classroom and what is needed on the job; foundational studies here include Beaufort (1999), Dias et al. (1999), Lingard and Haber (2002), and Smart and Brown (2008). In an analysis of four engineering students’ transition from the classroom through the engineering curriculum and into their careers, Artemeva (2009) demonstrates that “learning professional genres does not occur in a smooth, uninterrupted way” (171). She argues that “some ingredients of genre knowledge can be taught in a classroom context,” but “for the individuals to be able to apply this knowledge successfully, it needs to be complemented by other genre knowledge ingredients accumulated elsewhere” (173), such as “cultural capital,” “domain content expertise,” “private intention,” and “workplace experiences” (172).

Perhaps for this reason, much recent pedagogical work has focused on nontraditional learning environments and contexts such as internships (Bourelle 2014), situated learning (Artemeva, Logie, and St-Martin 1999, Blakeslee 2001), simulations (Freedman, Adam, and Smart 1994), and client-based pedagogy (Wojahn et al. 2001). This area of pedagogical scholarship offers strategies for fostering students’ uptake of workplace genres in authentic or quasi-authentic contexts and for designing curricula that support students as they enter workplaces or interact with clients beyond the classroom. In these approaches, the contexts, ecologies, and communities take center stage, and workplace genres are addressed as artifacts of these communities or components of the workplace activity system.


[1] Note that the customary term “user” rather than “reader” or “audience” is indicative of the instrumental focus of technical communication.

[2] Data gathered by Stephen Carradini; includes 246 articles that use genre theory or research in some substantive way, not every article that mentions the word “genre.” 


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Artemeva, Natalia. 2009. "Stories of Becoming: A Study of Novice Engineers Learning Genres of Their Profession." In Genre in a Changing World, edited by Charles Bazerman, Adair Bonini and Débora Figueiredo, 158–178. Fort Collins, CO: WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press.

Artemeva, Natasha, Susan Logie, and Jennie St-Martin. 1999. "From Page to Stage: How Theories of Genre and Situated Learning Help Introduce Engineering Students to Discipline-Specific Communication." Technical Communication Quarterly 8 (3): 301-316. doi: 10.1080/10572259909364670.

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Bell, Heather D., Kathleen A. Walch, and Steven B. Katz. 2000. "Aristotle's Pharmacy: The Medical Rhetoric of a Clinical Protocol in the Drug Development Process." Technical Communication Quarterly 9 (3): 249-269. doi: 10.1080/10572250009364699.

Blakeslee, Ann M. 2001. "Bridging the Workplace and the Academy: Teaching Professional Genres through Classroom-Workplace Collaborations." Technical Communication Quarterly 10 (2): 169-192. doi: 10.1207/s15427625tcq1002_4.

Bourelle, Tiffany. 2014. "New Perspectives on the Technical Communication Internship: Professionalism in the Workplace." Journal of Technical Writing & Communication 44 (2): 171–189. doi: 10.2190/TW.44.2.d.

Brumberger, Eva, and Claire Lauer. 2015. "The Evolution of Technical Communication: An Analysis of Industry Job Postings." Technical Communication 62 (4): 224-243.

Carliner, Saul, and Timothy Boswood. 2004. "Genre: A Useful Construct for Reseaching Online Communication for the Workplace." Information Design Journal & Document Design 12 (2): 124–136.

Clark, Dave. 2007. "Content Management and the Separation of Presentation and Content." Technical Communication Quarterly 17 (1): 35–60. doi: 10.1080/10572250701588624.

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Converse, Caren Wakerman. 2012. "Unpoetic Justice: Ideology and the Individual in the Genre of the Presentence Investigation." Journal of Business and Technical Communication 26 (4): 442-478.

Cook, Kelli Cargile. 2003. "How Much Is Enough? The Assessment of Student Work in Technical Communication Courses." Technical Communication Quarterly 12 (1): 47-65. doi: 10.1207/s15427625tcq1201_4.

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Dannels, Deanna P., and Kelly Norris Martin. 2008. "Critiquing Critiques: A Genre Analysis of Feedback across Novice to Expert Design Studios." Journal of Business and Technical Communication 22 (2): 135-159.

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Graham, S. Scott, Sang-Yeon Kim, Danielle M. DeVasto, and William Keith. 2015. "Statistical Genre Analysis: Toward Big Data Methodologies in Technical Communication." Technical Communication Quarterly 24 (1): 70–104. doi: 10.1080/10572252.2015.975955.

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Spafford, Marlee, Catherine F. Schryer, Marcellina Mian, and Lorelei Lingard. 2006. "Look Who's Talking: Teaching and Learning Using the Genre of Medical Case Presentations." Journal of Business & Technical Communication 20 (2): 121–158.

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Swarts, Jason. 2006. "Coherent Fragments: The Problem of Mobility and Genred Information." Written Communication 23 (2): 173–201.

Swarts, Jason. 2010. "Recycled Writing: Assembling Actor Networks from Reusable Content." Journal of Business and Technical Communication 24 (2): 127-163.

Swarts, Jason. 2015. "Help Is in the Helping: An Evaluation of Help Documentation in a Networked Age." Technical Communication Quarterly 24 (2): 164–187. doi: 10.1080/10572252.2015.1001298.

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Xu, Xunfeng, Yan Wang, Gail Forey, and Lan Li. 2010. "Analyzing the Genre Structure of Chinese Call-Center Communication." Journal of Business and Technical Communication 24 (4): 445-475.

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