The Class That Taught Me the Most About Technical Writing

For new and emerging technical writers, education is at the forefront of the conversation. What classes should I take? Who has the best master’s program? Should I get a technical writing certificate? What other certifications should I pursue?

Naturally, when looking at these questions, I start to evaluate my own technical writing education. What lessons do I carry with me every day? Where did I learn the most?

Was it my engineering classes? Sure, they exposed me to the technical world, but it was a world I already felt a part of. They also exposed me to coordinating with technical people (can you say “group project”?). But in the long run, this exposure would have come with any technical writing position.

Then, surely, my literature classes. Organization, research, deadlines. All of these are important as a technical writer. But again, these were less new lessons and more practice. Something that would come with any on-the-job work. Nothing that was new to my way of thinking.

No, when looking back now it had to be my poetry classes that did it. While other classes were focused on reaching page count and sounding as lofty as possible, poetry did just the opposite. My instructors preached careful word choice to evoke emotion and a particular thought in the readers mind. They also taught minimalism and saying just enough to get your point across, not a word more.

I’d say that as a technical writer, I succeed most when keeping a poetic mind. “Why use that word?” “How can we say this more simply?” Those lessons remain the most important part of my education.

What about you? Where did you learn your most important lesson? What lesson did you learn?

About the Author
Greta Boller is a technical writer located in the Washington, D.C. area. For more information, please visit .

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11 thoughts on “The Class That Taught Me the Most About Technical Writing

  1. Craig October 14, 2015 / 12:10 PM

    I loved the poetry class I took, but the coursework that continues to influence me the most in tech writing has to be news writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • gretaboller October 14, 2015 / 2:29 PM

      Craig, what did you learn from your news writing class that helped you so much? I took a literary journalism class in college (Capote and the like). While not as disciplined as news writing, I can see how experiencing with perspective and tone can drastically change your writing style over time.

      Like

      • Craig October 14, 2015 / 2:32 PM

        How to boil information down to just the essentials. How to pack more information into fewer words. How to craft the shortest possible headlines.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Larry Kunz October 14, 2015 / 3:34 PM

    Studying philosophy taught me to think critically and to write logically and persuasively.

    Liked by 1 person

    • gretaboller October 14, 2015 / 5:20 PM

      Thanks for your comment, Larry! Good to know you found inspiration outside of traditional writing classes as well.

      Like

  3. Roger Gelwicks October 15, 2015 / 9:40 PM

    Ooh, this is an interesting question for someone who was a techcomm major in college. I can honestly say that every single class I took in my major has impacted my career to some degree. One of my major’s core courses, however, was a Style & Mechanics course that went over this book: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0321898680/ref=pd_lpo_sbs_dp_ss_1?pf_rd_p=1944687642&pf_rd_s=lpo-top-stripe-1&pf_rd_t=201&pf_rd_i=0205747469&pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_r=14YQ0CV3J17GP2ZHSE50. I still keep that book in my office. I learned that writing well can be taught, and there are so many ways to make writing more concise and clear without stripping away its beauty.

    Liked by 1 person

    • gretaboller October 16, 2015 / 7:21 AM

      Thanks for providing another perspective! I’m a huge fan of books about writing styles and principles. Thanks for sharing the one that matters most to you. I definitely plan on checking it out.

      Like

  4. Sarah Maddox October 17, 2015 / 9:51 PM

    Hallo Greta
    Great question! The course I remember most fondly was a structured writing course based on the Information Mapping methodology. It was good because it focused and framed a lot of what we do “naturally” as technical writers. By that I mean, as experienced technical writers it’s tempting for us to view our techniques as something everyone knows: chunking information, using meaningful headers, structuring the text, and so on. Information Mapping teaches all of that, and gives you the science behind it, based on the way people learn and read.
    Cheers
    Sarah

    Like

    • gretaboller October 18, 2015 / 8:23 AM

      Hi Sarah,
      Thanks for sharing! As someone who did not formally study technical writing, it’s always interesting to hear the kinds of classes and lessons learned that come with that kind of education. I agree, taking a step back and looking at the WHY of our techniques and principles provides a better prospective for success. I’m glad you found a class that took that idea to the nth degree and positively affected your writing.
      Best,
      Greta

      Like

  5. Fanny Bischoff October 18, 2015 / 5:01 AM

    I only have two years of experience in the field, but so far the two classes that impacted the most how I work are terminology and Japanese poetry. The funny this is, I took these classes before I even knew I would end up in technical writing.
    The way terminology focusses on concepts and how they relate to one another helps to conceptualize and understand very technical features. It is also more about conveying meaning than it is about ambiguous or pretty use of language. Also, the fact that a set of terms is necessarily used and understood by a specific group of people also makes you keep in mind your users and what they know and don’t know.
    Traditional Japanese poetry presents a continuous challenge that you also find in technical writing: it has a crazy amount of rules that poets must follow, and at first it seems that it leaves no space for what poetry is all about, such as creativity and communicating emotions. But the rules actually set a very special space for creativity, and they work as an incentive for greater writing. Poetry and documentation have different goals, but they somehow use similar approaches.

    Like

    • gretaboller October 18, 2015 / 8:33 AM

      Great to hear your prospective, Fanny! It sounds like you chose two very different classes that somehow both taught you about technical writing.
      I wish I had a terminology class when I was in school. While it seems you learned the word choice lesson I learned in my poetry class, I’m sure there’s a lot to learn from focusing on the subject alone.
      Funny enough, I took a poetry in translation class in college, but I walked away with a completely different lesson. Granted, we were translating existing poetry and not writing our own. All the same, we worked with existing poems and created our best translation. Inevitably, something was sacrificed (structure, grammar, etc.) simply because you were moving between languages. Instead, we had to make thoughtful decisions to honor the original in the best way possible. Usually this came down to word choice.
      As you said, poetry, documentation, and most any writing class, have different goals, but somehow all similar approaches that taught us about technical writing.

      Like

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