Visuals are a key component of what counts as a text. Visual rhetoric is a specific interest of mine. I used to keep a regular response blog during my course work which focused mainly on visuals as text. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I was skimping on my use of visuals during my first months of technical procedural writing.
One of my common technical communication tasks is to help IT Operations managers with their writing needs, or to improve department procedural documentation. The starting point in writing consultations is almost always the same: “Think first of your audience.” What do they need to get from this document? What will they look for? How will they see it? Not everyone reads and understands the same way, so we need to be as thorough as possible. Instead of writing, “Click Save”, I have learned to compose it this way:
When I regularly taught composition, I knew that audience was important. But I have to admit that I never emphasized it the way I emphasize it here in a Data Center. When I write procedures for daily operations, if my audience (or users) cannot understand what I mean, they cannot do their jobs. Now, I am wondering whether audience is this important to more formal scholarly texts too.
Because audience is so critical to Data Center operational documents, I have a responsibility to make sure that my documents are easy to use by anyone who may be hastily hired to do a job in a pinch. This scenario is not common, but it represents a very real situation in which a potential user is totally unfamiliar with the procedures I lay out. Similarly, I sometimes have to create policies for actions that previously had no formal documentation. When new policies and their corresponding procedures are published, they are new to every eye.
I get to create so many new policies, processes, and procedures, and I have to make sure to include as many visuals as necessary. As I write a procedure, I think, “would anyone ever need to email me because they get stuck in my directions?” If I can imagine any reason this could happen, then I probably need to include a visual aid to assist my reader.
This connects back to the work I am doing revising a chapter of my dissertation into a potential article for publishing. My chapter involves an analysis of Google Documents. Originally, I had a few visual aids to show what I am talking about as I move through theories of delivery. Now, as I revise, I am rethinking my choices because I am learning to forefront my audience in ways I never did before. Will my readers need more visual angles? Might they need a comparison about what a Google Document feature looked like in 2010, compared to what it looks like now? I will have to think of these things over my next few weeks of revision.
Sharpening My Tools
I am by no stretch a seasoned technical writer … yet. But these small realizations that my writing knowledge is constantly being sharpened help make technical writing more interesting. Everything I studied about visual rhetoric is still useful, and so are the computer skills I gained that help me snip, alter, and attach the images I need. Visuals can make a reading experience much easier, which is great if that that the aim.