71.2 May 2024

The Technical Communicator as Artist: Rhetoric, Aesthetics, and Form in the Workplace

By Jarron Slater and Jeremy Rosselot-Merritt



Purpose: This article describes how the specialized, rhetorical aesthetic theory of form, posited by Kenneth Burke, highlights humanistic and artistic elements of technical communication exemplified in the technical workplace. A specialized way of understanding how types of communication build relationships between author and audience, the theory of form offers a unique way to contextualize how an artist-rhetor creates and fulfills audience desires, expectations, and appetites.

Method: The authors first contextualize technical communication as a field of artistic and creative practice; they then expand that context using Burke’s rhetorical aesthetic theory of form as a framework for application and examine that application in the context of the technical workplace, using a self-reported case study from industry as an example.

Results: The rhetorical aesthetic theory of form provides a way of rethinking technical communication practice, emphasizing the humanistic and artistic elements of technical communication in the workplace.

Conclusion: Looking at technical communication with an interrelated view of rhetoric and aesthetics can provide scholars, teachers, and practitioners with new insights for how technical communicators can see themselves and their audiences as complex people who have the capacities for arguing, influencing, and persuading—and also with capacities for drama, story, feeling, creating, and being moved by art.

Keywords: workplace, rhetorical aesthetics, Kenneth Burke, form

Practitioner’s Takeaway:

  • The Burkean rhetorical aesthetic theory of form, a specialized way of understanding how communications build relationships between author and audience, offers a useful way of finding meaning in technical communication practice as a uniquely artistic, creative endeavor.
  • The application of Burkean form can be applied to many areas of technical communication practice, including specialized client-facing work, often represented in proposal-writing processes.
  • Training of future technical communicators should consider the rhetorical aesthetic theory of form and its ability to facilitate artistic creativity in practice and constructive relationships between speaker, text, and audience.


In the last several years, many scholars have contextualized technical communication practice through an artistic lens. In this article, we offer Kenneth Burke’s rhetorical aesthetic theory of form as a way of contextualizing technical communication practice to achieve three aims:

  • First, to expand recent conversations about the relationship between technical communication and art;
  • Second, to address challenges in defining technical communication’s place in workplace processes—particularly, those dealing with intragroup and intergroup communications, project management, visual design, user experience, and other areas of practitioner interest; and
  • Third, to advance continuing discussions of the value of technical communicators in the workplace.

As we will discuss, the Burkean rhetorical aesthetic theory of form offers a compelling framework for practical application. Given the background and rationale above, our paper addresses three specific research questions:

RQ1: How does framing technical communication practice as artistic benefit practicing technical writers?

RQ2: In what specific ways does a rhetorical aesthetic theory of form usefully contextualize technical communication practice?

RQ3: What are the enduring practical implications for the use of a rhetorical aesthetic theory of form?

In what follows, we describe Burke’s rhetorical aesthetic theory of form, a theory that can be applied in useful ways to technical communication practice. After discussing potential applications, including a case study, we conclude by showing how this theory of form helps provide an additional voice for and reminder of humanistic aspects of technical communication. Essentially, Burke’s theory of form shows the value, usefulness, and practical applicability of technical communication because it bolsters the notion that technical communicators are artists and creative problem-solvers in workplace practice. Seeing connections between rhetoric and aesthetics invites technical communicators to see themselves as artists. Seeing the technical communicator as an artist also implies greater attention to creativity, beauty, playfulness, and style.

Art and Technical Communication

Academic scholarship has seen a recent and well-founded growth of interest in technical communication as an artistic or creative endeavor. Although discussions about technical communication as art or creative endeavor existed prior to 2000 (see, for example, Beck, 1991; Horton, 1992; VanDeWeghe, 1991), analyses of technical communication as a practical endeavor were less about art or creativity per se and more about technical communication as acts that are:

  • humanistic (Dombrowski, 1995; Kynell, 1999; Miller, 1979; Moore, 1997; Parsons, 1987),
  • social (Durack, 1997; Sullivan, 1990; Thralls & Blyler, 1993),
  • and/or political (Blyler, 1998; Durack, 1997; Sullivan, 1990).

In the 2000s, though, creativity and art found growing relevance in technical communication scholarship. For example, one argument by Salinas (2002) critiques technical communication’s view of visual design and visual rhetoric as one calling for “preset formulae geared toward functionalism that are prescriptive and uncritical” (p. 169). Salinas sees critical savvy as techne. Technical communicators—or, as Salinas calls them, technical rhetoricians–must configure images, or engage in the work of making configurations of images rather than seeing them as mere functional(ist) artifacts. Drawing, in part, on the work of James Sosnoski, Salinas says that configuring an image is a “critical act of reading based on analogical thinking that Sosnoski [1995, p. 10] sees as a practical approach to ‘building culture,’ rather than a conceptual approach to ‘an object of investigation called culture’” (Salinas, 2002, p. 171). The act of configuring an image extends one’s understanding of the image beyond its functional and material qualities into its cultural and critical qualities and implications.

One of the most notable developments in conceptualizing technical communication as a creative discipline came when Linn Bekins and Sean Williams (2006) argued that it articulates a thorough yet cohesive argument for technical communication as a creative endeavor whose creative qualities which, deriving from strong theoretical bases, figure tangibly in workplace application. Noting the importance of the technical communicator’s knowledge-based economy (see, for example, Johnson-Eilola, 1996), Bekins and Williams (2006) see gaps in many technical communicators’ preparation for the creative economy when they ask, “How many technical communication curricula include courses in creative writing, fine art, or the psychology of satisfaction and motivation?” (p. 288). Bekins and Williams’ question about the “the psychology of satisfaction and motivation” (p. 288) leads us to examine Burke’s theory of form, because, as discussed below, Burke is also interested in the question of the psychology of satisfaction and motivation.

Bekins and Williams (2006) also challenge the idea that technical communication necessarily reduces ambiguity and draws attention to another point we will discuss below: the importance of considering the often ambiguous, seemingly enigmatic motivations and desires of the audience. In essence, Bekins and Williams argue that “technical communicators need to begin viewing themselves as members of the creative class to keep current with trends in business, industry, and society more generally” (p. 293). To achieve this aim, they argue, TPC curricula must continue to emphasize rhetorical knowledge yet also encourage the development of what they call “the creative technical communication curriculum” (p. 289)—one that emphasizes subject matter experts who can flexibly build in at least one industry domain; managers who can design and oversee organizational processes; and leaders who can inspire innovation.

Later in the 2000s, 2010s, and early 2020s, evidence of these relationships continued in TPC scholarship. Examples include:

  • Describing an email written by a colleague in a faculty member institution’s art department by showing common ground between writing and design, visual and verbal communication, and clarity, form, and content (Tesdell, 2008, p. 217).
  • Advancing an argument to utilize technical communication as the basis for a publicly facing responsive rhetorical art which “subverts versions of expertise that may hold in more well-defined situations—and codified in most rubrics prioritizing efficiency over effectiveness” (Long, 2014, p. 2).
  • Observing that using creativity and innovation in pedagogy can “thread together [Gregory] Ulmer’s concept of electracy and Cargile Cook’s outline of the six literacies [to enable] instructors to best prepare students for the demands of technical communication in industry” (Stephens & Holmevik, 2016, p. 4).
  • Studying the sometimes-challenging possibilities of using comics as a medium through which to convey technical information in a so-called “comics-as-medium” approach (Yu, 2020).

A watershed moment in the conversation on technical communication as art came in the 2020 special issue on artistic creativity in technical communication in this journal. In that issue, Chong and Rice-Bailey make the case for studying “how technical communication researchers and practitioners are using artistic creativity in the classroom and workplace” (2020, p. 2), asking “What does artistic creativity look like in contemporary technical communication instruction and practice?” Four articles address that question in different ways. Kostelnick (2020) examines key theoretical and historical elements to artistry in technical communication, offering a series of guidelines for applying artistic principles in practitioner work, and arguing that “the pursuit of beauty continues today in practical communications through the deployment of culturally-based conventions and design principles associated with beauty” (p. 6). Meanwhile, Hardesty and Hollinger (2020) focus on the primacy of creativity and beauty in technical communication, providing concise, usable definitions for those key terms and a rich discussion of their pedagogical and practical implications: “Without conflating beauty and desire,” the authors write, “we can understand why beauty and the beautiful are an important part of the scholarly and professional discussion of technical communication. As an object of desire, seeking the beautiful is one way to generate new lines of force in our work, our work products, and our field” (p. 34). These studies that relate beauty and desire to technical communication make a clear space for Kenneth Burke’s rhetorical aesthetic notion of form.

In the same issue, Lanius, Weber, Spiegle, Robinson, and Potts (2020) empirically study the idea of how the use of personas—analog representations of target users or audiences—may help study participants in successfully and empathetically completing a creative task. They found that, despite having little to no effect on creativity in drawings, “because personas generate user-centered attitudes, technical writing and UX professionals can also use them to justify their own organizational legitimacy” through user advocacy and user-centered design (p. 64)—a key finding for practitioners. Finally, another article of considerable interest to practitioners by Kungl, Hargrove, and Hargrove (2020) describes an applied case study of an organization that actively sought to combine technical communication practice (to convey meaning through text), the fine arts (to elicit emotion), and social science (to help develop and reflect an organization’s core values) on a specific project. Ultimately, the authors reported affirmative findings—the business case they studied saw positive results from incorporating fine arts and social science considerations in their technical writing process—leading the authors to agree with Bekins and Williams (2006) that technical communicators “can thrive if they more fully position themselves as integral parts of the organization through their creative synthesis and leadership capabilities” (p. 87).

Table 1 provides a snapshot of conceptual relationships between art and technical communication explored in scholarly literature since 2000, along with applications and applicable author(s). Adding to conversations about creativity and art in technical communication, this article’s discussion of technical communication and Kenneth Burke’s rhetorical aesthetic theory of form shows how contextualizing technical communication practice as artistic helps technical communicators think of and characterize their work in compelling ways.

Burkean Rhetoric and Technical Communication

A number of studies have used the writings of rhetorician Kenneth Burke to develop practices and theories of technical communication. These studies include analyses of technical communication concepts and genres, such as:

  • The experimental article (Coney, 1992)
  • Document design (Ding, 2000)
  • Invention strategies (Todd, 2000)
  • Research methodologies (Fox, 2002)
  • How rhetorical theory informs technical communication practice (Porter, 2013)
  • The US intelligence community (Kreuter, 2015)
  • Secret police reports (Stanchevici, 2016)
  • X-rays, materialist philosophies, and rhetorical invention (Gibbons, 2019)

Nevertheless, Burke’s rhetorical aesthetic theory of form has been seldom discussed in technical and professional communication scholarship. Because that theory has much to offer, we discuss it here. The rhetorical aesthetic theory of form is important, because it implies that the technical writer, as rhetor, is also an artist. In essence, the rhetorical aesthetic theory of form highlights artistic elements of technical communication.

A Rhetorical Aesthetic Theory of Form

While conventional ways of talking about form distinguish it sharply from “content,” Kenneth Burke’s notion of form deals with the creation and fulfillment of desires, attitudes, expectations, and appetites. People are symbol-using creatures, and a symbolic act has form that (1) invites others to anticipate or hope for something, and then (2) satisfies those anticipations or fulfills that hope. In Burke’s words, “A work has form in so far as one part of it leads a reader to anticipate another part, to be gratified by the sequence” (Burke, 1968a, p. 124). Form defined in this way is thus fundamentally different from conventional ways of discussing form as an aspect of style or as fashion or manner.

In that sense, form is “the psychology of the audience” (Burke, 1968a, p. 31), as well as a promise made to the reader and the “fulfillment of a promise” (p. 30). Form thus provides an inseparable connection between symbolic action and artistic creation. For example, a writer who says something about a meeting of two people and then goes on to write “in such a way that we desire to observe that meeting, and then, if [that writer] places that meeting before us—that is form” (1968a, p. 31). These expectations, according to Robert Heath (1979), “are the product of accepted patterns of language use and the conventional wisdom of society” (p. 392). Put another way, form is the satisfying of a psychological “appetite” through aesthetic means. Form functions on more of a scale or a spectrum than it does as a binary “on or off” switch. Attention to form enables the rhetor-artist to manage the desires and appetites that people inevitably have.

Drama, Desire, and the Fulfillment of Audience Expectations

Because form emphasizes an audience’s experience with a text or work of art, the delight and fulfillment that audiences find in a work does not depend solely on a mere recitation of facts or information, but also comes from watching a “drama” unfold through the creation and fulfillment of desire. The rhetorical aesthetic notion of form does not allow a full separation between form and content, style and information. While people do often desire facts and information, form sees these things through the lens of people’s desires for them. Therefore, the rhetorical aesthetic notion of form is potentially an untapped source of power that can be used to influence audiences—and to buoy the power of technical communication and the importance of seeing technical communicators as artists who are managers of desires, attitudes, and appetites.

The theory of form, in part, serves as a summary of the technical communicator’s toolkit for analyzing, understanding, and preparing to act within a rhetorical situation. Form works on the macro level of genre, the micro level of figures of speech and other patterns within a sentence, and in between these two extremes. On the level of genre, readers who begin to read, say, a proposal, for example, have certain expectations they want fulfilled. These expectations are, of course, manifold in the sense that readers of a proposal expect certain things from a proposal in general, and they also expect certain things from a particular proposal. Form also works on the micro level, too. A climax, an antithesis, or an antimetabole is a pattern commonly found in science writing (Fahnestock, 1999), but one that is not found on the page or screen as much as it is something shared between speaker and audience (Slater, 2018).

Paragraphs and sentences, too, can be understood from the perspective of form. Form works on the paragraph-level when topic sentences in paragraphs create expectations for the paragraph and when readers have certain expectations about paragraph structure and content. Because Clark and Haviland (1977) and Haviland and Clark (1974) discuss their research about given and new information in terms of the expectations readers have when they read sentences, their work can also be understood from the perspective of form. Understanding how speakers of English expect sentences to begin with given (or old) information and end with or proceed to new information helps technical communicators prepare documents that are more accessible, memorable, and inviting. In other words, since form is a widely applicable general principle that manifests itself in a variety of situations, from the smallest parts of a sentence to the largest kind of genre, it helps to explain the thinking technical communicators do.

Form also provides a foundation for design principles and visual rhetoric. Technical communicators can think about their work as designers and artists in terms of form—balance, repetition or consistency, alignment, proximity or grouping, and contrast, all of which are innate potentialities for fulfillment (see Burke, 1968a). People have the potential to experience and appreciate formal patterns or devices that are found in the symbolic actions of symbol-using creatures. These formal patterns are found in all of the arts (Slater, 2020), including technical communication, visual rhetoric, and design. They include principles such as “crescendo, contrast, comparison, balance, repetition, disclosure, reversal, contraction, expansion, magnification, series, and so on” (Burke, 1968a, p. 46). Technical communicators often discuss visual rhetoric and design principles in these same or similar terms. In that sense, form provides a useful, overarching way of understanding an important range of the rhetorical aesthetic work of a technical communicator. Even the formal satisfaction of having promises fulfilled “becomes an allurement, an itch for further developments” (Burke, 1968a, p. 30). That satisfaction that is also an “itch” for something else can increase the credibility of technical communicators and their organizations, and give them a desirable ethos of which clients and audiences want more.

Form, therefore, is a specialized way of understanding how types of communication build relationships between author and audience, and offers a way to contextualize how an artist-rhetor creates and fulfills desires, expectations, and appetites in people—appetites that are latent in human beings and can be awakened by the uses of artistic patterns, or formal devices. Technical communicators employ these artistic patterns in a variety of ways and for a variety of communication types.

In the practical sense, the rhetorical aesthetic theory of form is a lens through which technical writers can re-envision their work in artistic terms—as a means both to reinforce the rhetorical connection to the audience and to negotiate the imminent pressure in industry-based writing toward increasing efficiency. This kind of re-envisionment can significantly bear upon how we think of audience, practice, process, and meaning in technical writing: namely, that technical communicators should see themselves as artists. For practitioners, it may seem less evident at times, thanks to the pervasive pressure to disconnect theory from practice, creation from communication, and art from rhetoric. To see oneself as an artist is to take the initial step toward freeing oneself from the mechanistic pressures imposed by conventions, institutions, and cultural practices.

In what follows, particularly through a self-reported case study based on one of the authors’ industry experiences, we demonstrate how Burke’s rhetorical aesthetic notion of form illustrates the usefulness and importance of technical communicators by calling attention to the artistic and creative aspects of technical communication without diminishing its communicative aspects.

The Psychology of the Audience in the Workplace

While a technical document is a place where the artistic and psychological processes can happen alongside the rhetorical processes, the combination of artistic and rhetorical processes reveals a complication that humanizes and reifies the technical document as an art form. Although information can be thought of as the content of the art, and form the way in which the information is presented, from the perspective of a rhetorical aesthetic theory of form, information is subsumed to form insofar as it is people who are desiring the information. An overemphasis on information at the expense of form, and its emphasis on desire, leads to what Katz (1992) famously described as an “ethic of expediency,” an emphasis on the pragmatic result of a process at the expense of humanistic virtue, sometimes (in its worst iteration) with dangerous, catastrophic effects. This hyperpragmatism, and related efforts to make technical communication as expedient an activity as possible, undercut its potential value in workplace settings. For the technical communicator, the complementary aspects of the psychology of information and form as the psychology of the audience facilitate an important and necessary balance in communicating. These characteristics will become particularly important in the case we describe below.

Form and Technical Communication Practice in the Applied Workplace: A Self-Reported Case Study

Burke’s rhetorical aesthetic theory of form provides a basis for contextualizing technical communication practice. Although case studies are generally well represented in the technical communication literature (e.g., DeWinter & Vie, 2016; Haas, 2012; Melonçon & Potts, 2020; Paretti et al., 2007) the term “self-reported case study” has been used in disciplines with strong social science influence outside of technical communication, such as organizational and management studies (e.g., Cantore, 2016), health services (Durand et al., 2015), educational research (e.g., Snyder et al., 1996), and social work (e.g., Singh, 2021). By providing a scenario as a representative example, we seek to show how rhetorical aesthetics can inform the writing process, the connection to a writer’s audience, and the value that a technical writer brings to the workplace.

Since technical communication as a field of practice is intrinsically connected to workplace application, the contexts in which that application takes place are crucial. To illustrate one of those contexts, we offer the example of a self-reported case study based on one of the authors’ previous industry experiences. In terms of Burkean form, the appetites, desires, and psychology of two different audiences come into play in the following case study: those of the external client and those of the group of internal coworkers (the vendor) who were working to define the scope of work for the external client.

Experiential Context: Client-Facing Communication in an Engineering Organization

The principle of form in technical communication—as well as the related centrality of technical communication and the need for administrators to understand the value of technical communicators—is illustrated by one of the authors’ industry experiences. This author worked for just over four years in a small, specialized “boutique” engineering firm that focused on project-based engineering and design work that it was contracted to complete for external clients who needed a range of engineering and programming services for manufacturing software and automated production, filling, packaging, and bottling lines in their factories. As a particular genre, proposals are important to this company—and to companies like it—for two reasons. First, the proposal defined the scope of work, the material resources, the people, and the budget and schedule for a specific project. Second, the proposal became a binding document with serious legal and financial implications throughout the life of a project. For example, if the client felt that a certain module of code was part of the scope of work, but the engineering company did not, both parties would first consult the proposal before doing anything else. If a project was taking longer than the client expected and if that delay was cutting into the sales of their product, both the client and the company would look at the schedule in the proposal to determine what went wrong. Although the final decision on what to do in situations like these would take place after much discussion—via email, phone calls, face-to-face meetings, and sometimes (in rare instances) involving lawyers—the proposal was invariably central to those deliberations.

And yet, while the centrality of the proposal was unequivocal in situations like these, two problems often arose in proposal development. First and foremost, there was often a lack of a technical writer in the process. While sometimes a staff technical writer would be included in the writing—or at least the editing and quality-checking—of a project proposal, in many instances, a technical writer was unfortunately not included. Sometimes a technical writer was not included because of a perceived lack of time, such as when a client wanted bids quickly and there were only a couple of days in which to develop the proposal. At other times, a technical writer was not included because of a lack of planning, such as when the plan for proposal writing did not include the resourcing for a technical writer. Still, at other times, a technical writer was not included because of a perception that a technical writer was not needed at the proposal stage, or when one or more people on the team thought the technical writer would encumber the process by not being technically “competent enough” to contribute substantively to the proposal. This always struck the author who worked at this company as painfully ironic: a company bids on a project using a document that will not only determine the bid’s success but also serve as a binding document should they be awarded the project—and yet that team decides to leave their company’s foremost experts on documentation and technical writing out of the document creation process.

The second problem that often arose in proposal development was when technical writing itself was devalued. While the proposal was a key document for the company, many engineers and designers neglected the proposal when they preferred their own technical scope of work to working on the proposal. When engineers, designers, and other workers preferred their technical work to writing the proposal, much of the writing of the proposal would then fall on the project managers, people in company leadership, or others who would oversee the work rather than perform the work directly. This shift of work created challenges, because those performing the work were often better at determining how long the work would take and how many people and material resources would be needed to accomplish it. These situations led to the company assuming greater risk on a project because time, budget, and resource estimates (not to mention the editing) may have been less accurate in the proposal.

When a technical writer was included in the proposal process, there was a strong purposive aspect to the technical writer’s role. In many cases, one or more of the engineering leads or project managers was familiar with the technical writer’s work, often from a past project on which they worked together. In addition, at least one condition was usually true in each situation in which the technical writer was included in the process:

  • The technical writer had already been staffed to a long-term project involving the team or client in question,
  • There was a great deal of formatting and graphical work that no one else on the team had the expertise to handle efficiently, or
  • The client specifically requested that a technical writer be included in the process.

Sometimes, not surprisingly, a combination of those factors may have applied, too. While few on the project team would necessarily have seen the technical writer’s role as “artistic” at first glance, the work that the technical writer did had strong aesthetic elements: using styles in Microsoft Word to improve visual design, creating figures in Microsoft Visio and Adobe Illustrator to add visually pleasing visual aids, ensuring a consistent visual branding throughout the document. But artistic elements, to be sure, were not only of the proposal itself; they were also borne in the attitude and mindset that the technical writer brought to their work in writing and designing it. By creating and fulfilling desires, appetites, and expectations, form also creates attitudes—which are incipient actions (Burke 1968b)—in audiences and readers.

Form in Contextual Experience

While not representative of every company’s experience, this experience illustrates three common industry realities. First, it illustrates the intrinsic value of technical communication as a field of workplace practice. Second, it demonstrates the fact that inaccurate perceptions of technical communication often lead to an underappreciation of technical communicators’ roles. Third, it shows that awareness of the artistic practice enhances the practice of technical communication and the deliverables that result from that practice.

While technical communication is continually important, it is, unfortunately, not always deemed important enough to assign significant additional resources to it, to formalize the process of writing it, or to staff a technical writer to it before it is submitted to a client. The preferences of the engineers, designers, and other employees reveal the principle of form: the engineers, designers, and others did not want to work on the proposal, but they wanted to work on something else. Yet, technical writers are those who prefer the work that others do not, and they are skilled at and knowledgeable about it, because they intuitively understand the principle of form.

The experience also illustrates that inaccurate perceptions of technical communication—and the genres associated with it—lead to an underappreciation of its crucial artistic and creative elements and to a belief (among non-technical communicators) that documentation work, including work on business-critical documents such as the proposal, is often more of a necessary formality and less of a creative activity on par with scopes of work in programming and design. The technical communicator has to work and contribute to industry ecosystems where their work may not always be well understood or appreciated (see, for example, Rosselot-Merritt, 2020).

Finally, this example demonstrates how the technical communicator’s artistic practice can translate first to the success of the proposal and subsequently to broader perceptions of the technical communicator’s value in the workplace. The success of a proposal is typically judged by whether the primary decision-maker (e.g., a client) decides to accept the proposal. Their decision rests on the extent to which the proposal fulfills desires and expectations, many of which center around not only such obvious elements as scope, budget, and schedule but also around the aesthetics of the proposal—what those in industry would call its “professional appearance,” or a part of the answer to the question, “Does this vendor know what they’re doing?” This question applies both to technical skill sets and to other business practices that have a bearing on the services the vendor provides. These services include proposals and, once a project has been awarded, documentation. If a proposal is aesthetically displeasing, poorly formatted, or otherwise unprofessional in appearance, clients will not hesitate to say it in practice. From the client’s perspective, that unprofessional appearance reflects not only on the vendor’s communicative practice but also on their approach to documentation deliverables such as manuals, testing protocols, and so on, once the project has been awarded. And while that relationship may not necessarily extend to the proposed products of work in engineering and other spaces—electrical installations, buildings, bridges, software applications, packaging lines, and so on—clients expect professional appearance in technical communication work products (see, e.g., Ford, 2004) as part of the larger set of vendor-produced deliverables. In other words, the aesthetic functions as an indicator of quality, and an aesthetically displeasing document (or “act,” as Burke would broaden that word to say) has a poor rhetorical effect on its intended audience.

Experiences like these highlight the value of technical writers—and they provide an analogy through which company leadership, middle management, and professionals outside the field of technical communication may understand and articulate that value in other applied settings. Although a detailed pedagogical discussion exceeds the scope of our applied argument in this space, we assert that classroom discussions of technical communication can engage the rhetorical aesthetic theory of form for the benefit of students planning to enter the applied workplace. Explicit teaching of the concept of Burkean form may help technical communicators to be more prepared to meet the needs—by which we mean desires and appetites—of external and internal clients.

This experience also shows that the more people understood the value of technical writers, the more they had an appetite for including technical writers on projects. The project-based company discussed in this section made its money by working on projects of limited scope for a particular client or set of clients. Each of the projects on which the company worked had a defined schedule and, typically, a defined budget. Adding a technical writer to the project would add to the cost, just as having any other person on the project would. At least two factors could lead to a technical writer being included or not on the project. First, the technical writer’s work would need to be budgeted into the project, typically at the proposal stage, as part of the defined scope of work. Second, for that to happen, the people writing the proposal would need to know about and understand the value that a technical writer would bring to that project. In that sense, it is a question of value (or money) and awareness. As more people in the company—department managers, project managers, lead engineers, and others with scope-defining and resource-defining authority—became aware of the services that the technical writers provided, the use of technical writers on various projects increased.

The external clients had an appetite for quality work performed within the defined schedule and budget. That meant no cost overruns, minimal deviations from the proposed schedule, high quality of the finished product, and so on. These external clients also wished to show their superiors that there was value in the work their vendor was doing. The psychology of the clients centered around the perceived value of the project. The more value the clients perceived, the happier they were, and the more likely they would not only recommend the vendor for a specific project but seek out that same vendor for work in the future.

Meanwhile, the internal coworkers—the vendor—had an appetite for the work itself. If the client awarded them a contract, people at the vendor were very happy; their appetite was fulfilled. Once the work was awarded, the ongoing, continually measured desire was to complete the work in a way that was satisfactory to the client. That desire led to a close management of the schedule and budget, as well as regular check-ins with the engineers, salespeople, and others involved in the project, including the technical writer, if one was allocated. Like the psychology of the client, the psychology of this internal audience also centered around the perceived value of the project. Nevertheless, sometimes the external client would perceive a value different from what internal coworkers believed was important.

The technical writer would facilitate the fulfillment of these appetites and desires in several ways. First, when a technical writer was involved in drafting, revising, and quality-checking a proposal, they could ensure that it was written persuasively—in a way that appealed to the client’s appetites and desires. Second, the technical writers also tended to be very good at understanding the client’s psychology—how the client perceived the value of a certain project; this ability to analyze the client’s psychology was extremely valuable to the proposal process and helped increase the chances of a successful award. Third, the technical writer took on a cross-disciplinary role not only in the proposal writing process but also in the project work once the project was awarded. The very nature of the technical writer’s work required them to interact with and interview multiple stakeholders (both external and internal), meaning they could continually learn about each stakeholder’s desires on a particular project and thus help the collective team unite around a shared vision of the project and its value. This was, of course, true regarding the documentation scope of work, yet it was also true on a project management level. Because of their unique, cross-disciplinary positioning within the project team, the technical writers gained insights about their internal and external audiences—and the appetites, desires, attitudes, psychology, and perceptions—that directly and indirectly advanced the success of the project.

In sum, while Burke’s theory of form demonstrates the theoretical importance of satisfying the reader’s appetites, fulfilling their desires, technical writers demonstrate the practical importance of those rhetorical moves in ways that fulfill the desires of industry stakeholders on cost, schedule, and quality on a given scope of work. The technical communicator works not just to perform tasks mechanically but to create and fulfill desires artistically. Technical communicators become artists in this way because the act of creating and fulfilling desires leads to artists and audiences having experiences that can lead to increased satisfaction.

Conclusion: Form and the Applied Artistic Conversation

Because rhetoric and aesthetics are like two sides of the same coin, technical communication should be as much an artistic endeavor as it is a rhetorical one. If rhetoric generally represents a persuasive, argumentative, message-based focus, the aesthetic generally represents a focus on human experience, feeling, and psychology. These are not contrasted as much as they are partners in a dance. The perspective of Burkean form highlights the interconnectedness of rhetoric and the aesthetic, and offers a way of recontextualizing technical writing practice in a way that will benefit both practitioners and scholars. Form helps practitioners to think of their work more humanistically and helps academics to approach technical communication scholarship in a more artistically informed, and thus human-centered, fashion.

Technical communication informed by Burke’s theory of form provides another voice arguing that technical communication can be more fruitful and enjoyable, ethical and humanistic. The misunderstanding and devaluing of technical communication can lead to a hyperpragmatism that, while many have warned against (Miller, 1979; Katz, 1992; Burke, 1974), unfortunately, is sometimes still encountered. Technical communicators who focus not just on deliverables but also on a healthy level of artistic practice can improve communication. In this case, form has value even in implicit or less technical terms, such as when a focus on it may help to increase the pleasure that technical communicators find in their work. Adding pleasure in technical writing can mean including well-timed, strategic, and playful stylistic choices that improve, rather than hinder, technical communication (see Butts & Walwema, 2021). Essentially, framing the technical communicator as an artist facilitates qualities that enhance its chances of success—qualities like effective visual design, rhetorical eloquence, and audience-centeredness.

In sum, Burke’s theory of form shows the value, usefulness, and broad applicability of technical communication because the theory of form describes how technical communicators are artists and creative problem-solvers. Thus, the rhetorical aesthetic theory of form (1) expands a widespread, limiting pragmatic view of technical communication common in some industry settings; (2) conceptualizes the nature of technical communication practice more fully; and (3) sees the technical communicator as an artist and technical communication as artistic creation in order to free technical communicators from the mechanistic pressures imposed by conventions, institutions, and cultural practices.

As we analyzed our case and considered implications of the rhetorical aesthetic theory of form for workplaces more generally, we recognized two areas of inquiry that merit further research: (1) how organizations define “effective utilization of [their] technical writers” and (2) how the theory of form may benefit technical writing managers. First, defining “effective utilization” in technical writing is essential because different organizations will view productivity and effectiveness differently. For instance, a project-based organization may focus on the “billable percentage” or “billable hours”—the amount of time in a technical writer’s work week that that writer’s work can be billed to a client. In most cases, proposal work is not actively billed to a client, simply because there is no contract for services in place at that stage. In other organizations (such as those that market and sell a specific product or service–not “billable time” as in a project-based company), the value of the technical communicator may be measured by the necessity of the deliverables they produce. In those organizations, technical writers are often categorized as a “cost center” much as a marketing group would be: Their work is not “bringing in money” per se, yet the products of their work (proposals, manuals, social media posts, and so on) are imperative to the success of the company.

The second area—what the implications of the theory of form are for managers of technical writers and technical documentation groups—is also a valuable area to consider, particularly from an organizational perspective. Our analysis of this rhetorical theory, as well as the case on which our elaboration of it is based, focuses primarily on the perspective of the practicing technical communicator. Solid research on management perspectives is well precedented in TPC scholarship (see, for example, Amidon & Blythe, 2008; Kimball, 2015). The theory of form also has much to say to current discussions of rhetorical leadership in technical communication, such as those described by Olson (2009). Additional research—particularly empirical studies that provide one or more firsthand accounts of management-level views on rhetorical-aesthetic conceptions of technical communication (or, put another way, the potential value of such conceptions to people in management roles)—would help clarify such managerial implications more fully. Interviews of managers would also offer insights into how specific organizations define productivity in terms of technical writing.

Finally, while different scholars discuss rhetoric and technical communication from varying perspectives, we advocate the continued relevancies of rhetorical approaches that emphasize the inseparable relationship between rhetoric and the aesthetic. We have described the need for a fresh look at rhetorician Kenneth Burke and his theory of form, which sees an inseparable relationship between rhetoric and the aesthetic, implying that technical communicators are artists, and we call for more studies linking Burke and other rhetoric scholars to technical communication. After all, looking at technical communication with an interrelated view of rhetoric and aesthetics can provide new insights for how technical communicators can see themselves and their audiences as creative problem-solvers who argue, influence, and persuade—and who create, feel, experience, move, and are moved by art.


The authors would like to thank Richard Graff and Lee-Ann Kastman Breuch at the University of Minnesota for their feedback on early versions of this paper, as well as the three anonymous reviewers who provided focused, thought-provoking, and immensely helpful feedback during the peer review process.


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About the Authors

Dr. Jarron Slater is a visiting assistant professor at Brigham Young University, where he teaches classes in rhetoric, technical communication, and the rhetoric of health humanities. His scholarship has been published in Rhetoric Review and the Journal of Religion and Communication, as well as in In the Classroom with Kenneth Burke, Composing Health Literacies, and Style and the Future of Composition Studies. His PhD is in Rhetoric and Scientific & Technical Communication from the University of Minnesota, and he is currently working on a monograph describing a transdisciplinary rhetorical aesthetic perspective of style based on the work of Kenneth Burke. He can be reached at jarronslater@byu.edu.

Dr. Jeremy Rosselot-Merritt is a lecturer in Writing & Communication at Carnegie Mellon University, where he teaches courses in technical and professional communication and first-year writing. A specialist in workplace communication practice and workplace dynamics, he has authored or co-authored work in publications such as Technical Communication, Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, and Business and Professional Communication Quarterly. He holds a PhD in Rhetoric and Scientific & Technical Communication from the University of Minnesota and is currently studying a series of practitioner-facing issues in TPC and outcomes of workplace communication pedagogy. He can be reached at jrosselo@andrew.cmu.edu.