General Notes for Professional Writing Courses

Professional Communication
This section builds on the general definition of professional communication as "communication in professional contexts" to help readers understand the basic framework for UNI's Professional Writing curriculum and the courses in it.

Defining Professional Communication
Although technical communication is listed in US News and World Report as one of the best careers in the United States, most people don't really know what technical communication means. Is it the same as professional communication? as business communication? Does communication mean writing? speaking? web design?

In this section, I address some of these questions. In doing so, I create a framework for understanding communication in contemporary society from a variety of perspectives.

Looking at terminology
A big part of the confusion about professional communication results from the wide range of terms people use to describe similar activities. I suggest one simplification to help us begin; by professional communication I mean "communication in professional contexts." We will see as the semester rolls along how this definition is too simple in some ways, but it is a good place to begin.

Table 1 provides a sample of terms used to describe communication in professional settings. As you look at them, see how some terms are very general and others are more specific.

Table 1: Communication terminology

Communication Terms

Contextual Terms




information systems
user environment

At root, all of these terms describe some sort of communication in professional settings; here professional settings must be understood to be relatively broad, including science (e.g., metallurgy and materials science, mathematics, physics), industry (e.g., automotive, computer, aerospace), business (e.g., banking, insurance, medicine), marketing, government, and entertainment (e.g., fiction, poetry, film). This is a wide range of work contexts. And within each, there are people who have clearly defined communication specializations as well. Some people specialize in editing, for example, and others excel at visual design.

Although there is more unity to the profession than the list of terms in Table 1 might suggest, it is also good to realize that there is tremendous variety represented among professional or technical communicators. There are some core elements to successful communication regardless of the context, but the work people do often puts unique demands on their knowledge and creativity.

Despite what you might think, you could not pick someone out of their professional context and put them in a new context and expect them to succeed completely or immediately. A good professional communicator is much more than someone who understands how to string words together into clear thoughts or who understands grammar. Successful communicators are people who make it their job to understand how to be succesful in the setting they work; that takes a lot more than good writing or speaking skills.

As you can probably imagine, if people in a profession cannot agree on what to call themselves, they begin to wonder if they are all really part of the same profession. Although a technical writer in one company may serve the same function as an information manager in another company, on the surface you would probably guess that they do very different things. And sometimes that is a good assumption. You just never know until you look.

Terminology in perspective
There are a lot of people in communication areas who use the terms listed in the top of Table 1 to distinguish one professional focus from another. For example, some people suggest that scientific communication focuses only on science documents and issues, technical communication focuses on heavy industry documents and issues, business communication focuses on business and marketing documents and issues, and that professional communication is anything else that qualifies as professional communication. All of these categorical definitions systematically exclude creative writing of any kind. The longstanding belief has been that workplace writing of any kind cannot be creative.

I suggest a less rigid use of the terms, although I agree that sometimes boundaries are useful things to help start conversarions. Again, I suggest that we take professional communication, as I said before, to be any communication that people do in professional contexts. Another way of saying that is communication that people specialize in professionally. That way of thinking allows professional communication to be an umbrella term that finds common ground between a lot of different areas, and so I think it is a useful way to use the phrase.

Professional communicators versus communicating professionals
One more level of complication with defining and understanding professional communication comes from the simple fact that all professionals communicate. If we all can and do write, then what makes a professional communicator a professional?

Engineers, scientists, and other professionals have for a long time relied on the efforts of specially trained communicators to help them express their ideas to others. At first, these relationships were taken to be little more than scribes serving thinkers--the real work was in the science, technology, or other expertise that made up the content. However, these relationships have evolved over time. In the most progressive and successful companies, professional communicators are recognized for their expertise at developing information as a product in and of itself.

Professional communicators are often well versed in communication theory and practice, communication technology, document design--expertise we might expect them to have. But they often have experience in organizational theory, sociology, psychology, computer science, statistics, and other areas as well--such knowledge that often proves useful in their work with others.

Just as engineers apply knowledge gained from the long-term study of certain technological processes in their own profession, professional communicators are specialists because of their deep focus on communication issues. And just as engineers draw on developments in other professions (e.g., mathematics, computer science, medicine), so too do professional communicators. A good communicator is someone who continues to learn throughout his or her career about anything that might be relevant to the daily work of being a professional communicator.

Professional writing at UNI
Here at UNI, we have several programs that help students develop along similar professional pathways. There is some overlap among Professional Writing in English; MIS, Business Communication, and Public Relations in Business; Communication Studies; CIS in Computer Science; Graphic Design in Fine Arts; and Graphic Communication in Industrial Technology. To say that graduates of these programs are carbon copies of one another would be a gross misstatement. However, to say that there are no similarities between these programs would also be wrong. Many of the graduates of these programs will compete with one another for jobs. But each program is based in philosophies of communication that differ on many levels.

Although students from each of the programs listed above frequently enroll in this and other professional writing courses here at UNI, these courses are also attended by almost every major across campus. That makes for a strange blend of insights, goals, and expectations in the courses.

My advice to you
You should always be engaged in the ongoing activity of understanding your professional goals and expectations, but it is especially important that you consider how the courses you take build on one another. Some wil complemtn each other in obvious ways. Some will not. You may not be able to make connections between some courses or concepts until long after you graduate and move on from here. But if you engage in the process of making connections between courses that should be related, you will be more successful in the long run as a professional.

But it often pays off to make connections between the courses that have no obvious common ground. For example, engineers have been taking my courses for years, and it never fails that I need to convince them that their problem solving tools from engineering are excellent tools for solving communication challenges as well. And it also never fails that English majors fell they have no place to contribute ideas to technological innovation, when in fact writers and editors are responsible for many of the desktop publishing innovations we take for granted today.

We all contribute in our own. We all bring our unique strengths to the table. Figure out what your strengths are and draw on them in this course. Develop new ones. You can't do that without being here as a conscious, conscientious learner. Do that, and you'll succeed.