June 2017
By Natalia Lincoln

Natalia Lincoln lives in Berlin, Germany, where she translates from German to English and produces electronic music as Labrysinthe. She previously lived in New York City, where she was keyboardist and songwriter with neo-medieval band Unto Ashes, and is the author of a dark fantasy novel, The Mirror.




The Language of Technical Communication, ed. Ray Gallon

Although technical communication is well-suited to those with a comprehensive knowledge of many subjects, the rate at which information doubles by now can race past even the most encyclopedic of minds.

In the deceptively slim volume titled The Language of Technical Communication, a wide-ranging lexicon of terms both familiar and new is presented by 52 separate experts in the field, distilling a great deal of information down by topic into brief, pithy chapters. The uniformity of these bite-sized chapters bears out editor Ray Gallon’s intention to "practice what we preach," i.e. make use of technical communication techniques to illustrate technical communication topics.

Beyond providing a welcome consistency, these techniques make it easy to find and absorb information. The Language of Technical Communication itself, neither a textbook nor a reference, can be read through in its entirety or consulted on individual topics. As trainer/consultant Mark Baker explains under "Topic-Based Authoring": "Readers are increasingly information-snacking on small pieces of content […]" rather than gulping down entire books or manuals. Technical communication over the last decades has therefore aimed to help searchers zero in on the precise bits of information that provide a solution to an immediate issue. The art of doing so is not only explained here, but applied in the text itself.

Thus, readers of all levels of experience with technical communication can choose from chapters explaining a wide array of terms and subject matter areas, from newer concepts such as metadata and transclusion to more familiar terms such as user experience and localization. Each chapter answers three questions:

  • What is it?
  • Why is it important?
  • Why does a technical communicator need to know this?

These chapters in turn are structured into five main sections including Core Concepts, Technical Concepts, Standards and Conventions, Deliverable Presentations, and Future Directions. The Core Concepts section in particular seems to contain many familiar terms, at first seeming not quite specific to technical communication. However, these terms are then explained from a technical communicator’s vantage point. For example, Christopher Ward’s section on "Business Analysis" not only includes the definition "A research discipline that provides strategic solutions to business needs by analyzing changing markets and industry trends," but also, what this represents for a technical communicator – that is, the essential business of knowing the audience (consumer base) they are writing for, or market trends that will shape the future of documentation needs. Likewise, Ann Rockley’s entry on intelligent content makes clear that the meaning here is not just "content that’s intelligent." Rather, intelligent content is flexible enough not only to withstand the transitions from one format or structure to another, but to be reconfigured in modular components and reused in a variety of deliverables.

Other concepts such as the "governance model" are explored, the necessity of which might elude someone without experience in technical communication. Readers who are curious about technical communication as a career might experience the sudden realization that someone must have the "authority to make […] decisions about content," which goes a long way towards ensuring a seamless workflow.

The subsequent Technical Concepts section is more recognizably focused on specific technical communication concepts such as single sourcing and dynamic delivery. Here, the depth and variety of the authors' specializations are noticeable. From expertise in DITA, documenting software systems and coding experience to implementing publishing tools and content architecture, it is obvious how deeply this Who's Who of authors in technical communication inhabits the intersection between content and computing.

The third section, Standards and Conventions, explores the interface of law, industry standards, and technical communication. Both sides of the Atlantic are represented here, as can be seen from the inclusion of the European Machinery Directive. XML document editing standards are explained in general and short descriptions given for DITA, DocBook, oManual and S1000D. We catch a glimpse of the future under "Media Standards for XML": "While yet to become mainstream, taste and smell have markup languages under development, but consistent delivery of taste and smell content will require overcoming technical hurdles." We are also given a fleeting look into the history of eLearning, which was originally developed to link computer-based learning materials with electronic reporting systems and is now a set of standards making cross-platform sharing feasible across different learning management systems.

Deliverable Presentations, the fourth section, covers the variety of presentation vehicles used by technical communicators to deliver content, with a view to helping readers understand the pros and cons of each for the most effective delivery. Starting with HTML5 and rich media, including not just video and audio, but interactive 3D models and simulations as the bearers of multimedia communication, the list works its way down through infographics and animation to print as the last alternative, stating concisely the types of each as well as the advantages and disadvantages of their use.

For those with an eye towards the future, the last section, though the shortest, is the most fascinating: Future Directions. Including entries on Augmented Reality, the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, wearables, and context sensing, this section sets the scene for things just visible now on the horizon, objects and systems not yet widely available. The common characteristic seems to be lending inanimate objects a set of senses, or at least imitating these – smart-ness. We as a society may have already experienced a sea change in our attitude towards smart machines: eagerness for, rather than suspicion at, the thought of a rival intelligence, or even at the gradual merging of circuits and human beings kicked off by wearables.

According to the editor, the objective of The Language of Technical Communication is to define technical communication as it is today, using current key terms and concepts, and how it might be in the future, using the terms and concepts predicted as things that will become important or even essential as they develop. The book's unspoken theme is, again, consistency with its own message of delivering only the right information at the right time to the right audience – in the right medium: by making that information easy to find and easy to understand.

The Language of Technical Communication will greatly benefit students and others interested in, or lateral entrants to, a career in technical communication; management staff who would like to understand the procedures, concepts, and potential inherent in technical communication; previous technical communicators looking to reenter the field; or current technical communicators hoping to keep up with new terms, trends and technologies. Compact, elegantly simple, and direct, with the overarching discipline of form provided by editor Ray Gallon, this book assembles much sought-after information in one place.