ITS 311: IT Communications

Chapter 1: Explaining Professional and Technical Communications


This chapter introduces the student to some basic definitions about technical writing and related ethical issues. Objectives important to this chapter:

  1. Defining technical writing
  2. Personal ethical issues
  3. Ethical issues for employers
  4. Ethical principles for technical writers
  5. Basic legal considerations for technical writers

The text begins with some background on why technical writing is needed. Technology continues to develop new products, new processes, and new tools that need to be described, documented, analyzed, and presented to the intended users. Those users may be technology professionals themselves or they may be the general public. Each of those extremes present different technical writing challenges. Good technical writing makes it easier to understand and use products. Bad technical writing wastes the time and energy of the audience, and can turn a user away from a product that might have been useful.

The author defines technical writing on page six, stating that it:

  • defines, informs, describes, instructs, or persuades
  • uses mastery of specific strategies and specific language
  • gives readers new skills or abilities to perform specialized jobs more effectively

Technical writing skills may be used in any kind of business communication, including e-mail, letters, work logs, product analyses, reports, project proposals, user manuals, and presentations to customers and executives.

Several professional journals are listed for the technical writing field. A Google search led me a longer list. Follow this link to review it.

The author writes at length about ethical issues. She begins with three principles that are recommended as guides to ethics:

  • Utilitarian theory - A theory that it is most ethical to do that which leads to the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
  • Deontological theory - A theory that says we have a moral obligation to do what is right.
  • Justice theory - A theory that says we should act the same in situations that are the same, and should not violate human rights.

It is not immediately clear what these theories have to do with technical writing. The author's point is that it is wrong to misrepresent, to lie, to hide inconvenient truth, and to give bad report of a person or product without proof. In this regard, a technical writer is like a reporter. The job, often, is to inform an audience in a fair and professional manner. I have suggested to coworkers that we do best when we follow in the tradition of respected news reporters, such as Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings, and Edward R. Murrow. The icons of each generation vary, but the standards do not. If you examine your work by the standards of responsible journalism, you will know if you have done your best.

A discussion of employer ethics follows, presenting three ethical theories relating to companies:

  • Contract theory - A theory that says a contract exists between a vendor and a buyer in any transaction. This contract requires that the products and services of the vendor will do what they are advertised to do, are safe to use, and will perform as expected for a specific time.
  • Due-care theory - A theory that says a vendor is obligated to put all necessary effort into the design and manufacture of a product to make sure that it is of good quality and will perform as expected.
  • Strict liability theory - A theory that says a vendor is at fault if injury comes from his product, even if due care was given in its manufacture.

The author points out that these ethical theories apply to product manuals as well as to products, and that technical writing can be held to these standards.

More discussion follows about using good writing techniques, honest pictures and diagrams, and adhering to legal requirements. A summary of this section might read "the first duty... is to the truth, be it scientific truth, historical truth, or personal truth. It is the guiding principle..." to which you may hold yourself accountable. (First extra credit point for the course: where is the quote from, why is it relevant?)

Four areas of law are briefly discussed:

  • Copyright law - In general, it is wrong to use written material, printed material, software, or photographs without express permission. Exceptions to copyright law exist for reviewers, teachers, and critics. They are allowed to make fair use of such material for the purpose of reviewing, teaching, and critiquing. Even so, they should state who the original author is in such cases.
  • Trademark law - The author explains that registered trademarks should only be used with proper icons (usually ©, ™, or ®) and should always be used as adjectives instead of nouns. For example, is is correct to specify that you want a box of Kleenex® brand tissue. It is incorrect to ask for a Kleenex. The first use is as a registered trademark. The second use degrades that trademark and leads to the word becoming a generic term instead of a recognized brand.
  • Contract law - The author states that contracts are about agreements between two parties. The important part of the agreement is often the warranty of a product or service. That warranty may be implied or express. An express warranty is typically a written statement, presented as specific facts about the features of a product or service. An implied warranty is an example of the contract theory noted above: a product is presumed to do what the manual and the package show it to do. This is the reason there are voice-over qualifiers and fine print on television commercials, especially those aimed at children. A technical writer must be sure to present only what is true about a product in the technical material prepared for it.
  • Liability law - This branch of law leads to the documentation often found in packages that tells us not to use products for any purpose not intended by the manufacturer. It needs to be specific, and it needs to be plainly worded. Sometimes, the wording is less useful than it is humorous. See several examples at