WRD 521: Technical Writing (Winter 2018)

Course Description

WRD 521 introduces the theory and practice of technical writing, broadly defined as writing that helps users to complete tasks or understand complex topics. The course does not assume that all students plan to be professional technical writers, although part of its aim is to clarify that career path. Instead, it suggests that technical writing is an integral part of human communication today, and that all writers should understand its basic practices. To learn these fundamentals, our main work in WRD 521 will be of two types: first, you will produce technical content for users, in the process learning key writing strategies and related practices employed by technical communicators, including information design, template-based authoring, user research, multimodal composing techniques, and structured authoring. Second, you will learn about the complex settings in which technical writing is typically produced and used, particularly how researchers and practitioners can investigate these settings to diagnose the problems that impede successful writing. Overall, the course aims to help you to become a more productive, critically aware, and empowered writer in the complex socio-technical contexts where writing happens today.

By the end of this course, you should be able to:

  • Articulate a working definition of technical communication and the key competencies of technical communicators, informed by the ideas of both practitioners and scholars;
  • Compose rhetorically appropriate, visually designed writing that guides users through specific tasks or processes;
  • Compose rhetorically appropriate video content that guides users through specific tasks, processes, or complex topics;
  • Apply concepts and research methods from technical communication to diagnose writing needs, understand writing problems, and produce appropriate texts in specific organizational settings;
  • Identify opportunities to use the theories and practices of technical communication in your particular professional path.


Johnson-Eiola, J. and Selber, S., eds. (2013). Solving problems in technical communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kimball, M.A. (2017). The golden age of technical communication. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication 47(3): 330–358.

Pringle, A.S. and O’Keefe, S.S. (2009). Structured authoring with XML. In Technical writing 101 (3rd ed) (pp. 244–270).

Wittemore, S. (2015). Rhetorical memory: A study of technical communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


  1. Discussion Leader: Once during the quarter, you and another student will design a handout summarizing one of the evening’s readings and lead the class conversation on that reading.
  2. Print Instructions: You will create a set of templated, designed instructions for a technical task at your workplace or another professional setting. The instructions must include text and photographs. You may either create original instructions or select a poorly written example and rewrite them.
  3. Video Content: You will create either a video to guide users through a specific screen-based task or process or an ‘explainer video’ that clarifies a complex entity or process. The video topic is your choice.
  4. Final Project: You will develop a substantial, theory-informed research or production project that aligns with your personal and professional interests. The topic is flexible, and might include approaches such as the following: a) an analysis of a specific workplace for a proposed change in writing process (e.g., a move from unstructured to structured authoring), plus a recommendation for software and process changes; b) a usability test of a particular website with proposed content and interface changes; c) a content analysis of a selection of undergraduate-level technical writing syllabi, with recommendations about possible outcomes, assignments, and textbooks for a course of your own; d) expansion of your video-content project into a short series of videos; or e) analysis of a workplace for a templating solution for documents, with proposed templates and documents that govern use. Throughout the quarter, you should be alert to possible projects suggested by our work and discussions. You will have opportunities to discuss your ideas with me, so that we might determine a project of appropriate scope.