Bonni Graham Gonzalez: "The more invisible your writing is, the better you have done your job."
INSTRUCTOR PROFILE, TEN QUESTIONS:
Bonni Graham Gonzalez has a distinctly technical bent. Over the past 18 years, she has created large-volume instructional manuals for employees of such corporate giants as Sony, Kenwood USA, Nissan North America, and Hewlett-Packard.
A UC San Diego Extension instructor in two courses — Critical Thinking for Communicators and Project Management for Technical Communicators — Gonzalez serves in the dual roles of director of user experience and documentation manager for Scantron Corporation, which provides student-data assessment for thousands of school districts around the country.
Technical skills aside, Gonzalez, a creative writing graduate of UC San Diego, enjoys crocheting her own sweaters. She also has an off-beat streak, having once spent 12 years as a comic performer with a local improv group called The Creative Urges.
1) What’s the difference between conventional writing and technical writing?
People come to conventional writing for a variety of reasons: enjoyment, knowledge, etc. People come to technical writing to get answers: how to do a task, what something means, why they should use a product or a feature of that product, what just went wrong. It’s generally more of a focus on writing to do, rather than writing to learn.
2) What are the essentials of technical writing?
The language needs to be short, direct, simple, and to the point. You use the same word for the same thing every time.
3) What must you avoid in this kind of writing?
You’re not writing to show off your writing skills. The more invisible your writing is, the better you have done your job. Basically, you have to avoid “impressing” people with what a magical and fantastic writer you are. Instead, you need to focus on what they need out of the document, instead of what you want to say.
4) What exactly does Scantron do?
We’re best known for our #2 pencil bubble forms and scanners. However, we do a great deal more than that. We’re really assessment experts: testing, evaluations, behavior-based observations, etc. We develop desktop and web-based software solutions, provide educational services and professional development around creating assessments, and, of course, sell scanners and forms, both standard and custom-designed.
5) Is technical communications a language all its own?
You have to judge when to use jargon and when not to. You need to stay in very simple, direct grammar, subject-verb-object format. You ditch a lot of the complicated tenses, mostly using present tense.
6) When you teach critical thinking, what exactly are you teaching?
It’s a basic critical-thinking approach, slanted slightly for tech comm, because they have to wade through the technical doublespeak and obfuscation. We talk about topics such as how to assess credibility of sources, how to recognize common fallacies and avoid them in our own work.
7) Is there room for creativity in technical writing?
Totally. I refer to tech comm as being not unlike haiku: It’s a very constrained structure and grammar, within which an enormous amount of creativity is not only possible, but required. It’s not just listening to engineers, then banging your hands down on the keyboard.
8) How has the field changed since you’ve been an instructor?
There’s more of a focus on tools in the hiring process, although I don’t teach that. I teach the underlying concepts that you need to learn to use any tool. We’re not stuck with the static any more.
9) Do you get beginning students? Or are they more experienced looking to advance their careers?
All of the above. We get folks who are looking to validate their skills, to extend their skills, to change careers from work that may have incorporated some tech comm, but they now want to do it full time. We also get folks who’ve just heard about this thing called tech comm. They’re good writers, and this seems like a good way to make a living as a writer.
10) What is it about the field that gives you the most sense of purpose and pride?
That I’m a part of making this critical thing in our lives — technology — more user friendly. I get to help folks really solve their problems with the tools they’ve purchased, and that gives me a great deal of satisfaction.