Technical communication is a complex task. As technical writers study and hone their craft, they compress what they learn until using it becomes second nature. If you’ve never studied education, you may not even be aware of the process, but we compress knowledge every time we learn something new.
Do you think about how to move your body every time you take a step? Of course not, but learning to walk requires extreme concentration. When students learn algebra, if they haven’t compressed, or packed, their knowledge of basic operations, it will be impossible to master the new material. Packing new knowledge means we have more brainpower available for the next new task.
Unpacking happens as well. While students are compressing knowledge as they learn, teachers are unpacking knowledge to teach. Successful teachers can access their experiences to help guide students learning. Conversely, teachers who don’t unpack their knowledge, who don’t remember their learning process, can demonstrate but not explain.
But how does this relate to technical writing?
To be fair, unpacking knowledge primarily relates to where I am as a technical writer. I learned what I know about technical writing organically, and not through a systematic course of study. I’ve written technical documentation for many years, but the writing was always in support of my position as an engineer or programmer/analyst. What I know is thoroughly packed. In other words, I don’t know what I don’t know.
Now, I want explicitly to learn about the craft of technical writing. As a result, I’m unpacking what I know about writing to discover what I’ve yet to learn. At this point, I just know how to write a report or a user guide. And I’m sure I’m doing some of it well. But what (if anything) am I explicitly considering about audience analysis? Usability? Style?
When I unpacked my knowledge of calculus while student teaching, I found I greatly improved my depth of knowledge and connections between concepts. I’m looking forward to the same experience with technical communication. Stay tuned.