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Technical Writing: Fact, Fiction, and Writing Skills

T.R. Girill Technical Literacy Project leader, STC and LLNL

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
trgirill@acm.org

Technical Writing: Fact, Fiction, and Writing Skills

Technical writing calls for different "skills and knowledge"
than creative (fiction) writing, and it is certainly evaluated
differently. Hence, I always argue that technical writing is
best learned with the help of teaching techniques that reflect
these differences. The long explanation for this appears in
"Technical Writing Explained"
(http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/handbook/twe2.html),
one section of "Technical Writing in Science Class: The Handbook"
(http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/handbook/handbooktoc.html).
But in July, 2010, a brief study on "Distinguishing Fact from
Fiction" appeared that offers a dramatic "short explanation" for
why technical writing skills deserve their own specific development
for high-school students.

Word Use Patterns Diverge

J. T. Stevanak and Lincoln D. Carr compared the features of
200-word samples from twentieth-century novels (fiction) and news
items (nonfiction). (Stevanak and Carr, "Distinguishing Fact from
Fiction: Pattern Recognition in Texts Using Complex Networks,"
Arxiv.org, 15 July 2010, online at http://www.arxiv.org/abs/1007.3254)
They looked at these text chunks very abstractly, representing
each as an "unweighted, undirected semantic network" or graph in
which

* each vertex is a word (completely IGNORING any of the
usually important differences in conjugation, pluralization,
or punctuation), and
* each edge connects two vertices (words) whenever they
appear within 4 words of each other in the sample, and
* the degree of each vertex (word) is the number of edges
connected to it: the more often a word occurs in a text
sample the more (unique) neighbors it can have and the
more edges in can accumulate (giving it a higher "degree").

Stevanak and Carr found by plotting scatter diagrams that
while fiction and nonfiction samples certainly overlapped, the
degree distribution of words (vertices) for novels (fiction)
and news items (nonfiction) differed in statistically significant
ways. Novels tend to have a degree distribution that reflects
relatively few different words each used relatively often.
News items tend to have a degree distribution that reflects
relatively many different words each used relatively seldom.

Looks Different Even at a Distance

Even at this rather extreme level of abstraction, which
ignores all the usual "literary" cues about style and composition,
these scientists found that they could very reliably predict
whether a blind sample of 200 words was fiction or nonfiction.
Their predictions reached 74% accuracy for novels and 69% for
news items (when the "word distance" was 4), just by looking at
the degree distribution of a sample's words. This difference
between fiction and nonfiction is quite basic since it reflects
(only) the different frequencies with which words are used, and
hence clustered as neighbors, in the two kinds of text.

While this may seem an esoteric difference at first, it
meshes nicely with other important linguistic features.
Beginning foreign-language students usually find stories easier
to read than newspapers, for example, because news items (nonfiction)
have more diverse vocabulary (and hence less reuse of words) than
fiction stories. Likewise, Dr. Seuss famously composed "Green Eggs
and Ham" using only 50 unique words (see http://en.wikipedia.org/
wiki/Green_Eggs_and_Ham). This is a story for children to be
sure, but it still shows how much meaningful fiction one can
construct with very little word diversity.

Implications for Teaching

What does this imply for teaching your students effective
writing? In light of this fiction/nonfiction difference in the
degree distribution of their words the need to build separate
skills to draft and revise nonfiction text should not be surprising.
Practice reading and writing fiction, with its own characteristic
word-use pattern, often leaves students unprepared to effectively
read and write the prose common in science and engineering--
technical nonfiction:
* Technical text structure usually involves
hierarchical analysis rather than progressive
disclosure.
* The usual goal is to help readers act on the
text content ("far transfer" problem solving)
rather than to entertain or inspire them.
* The standards of success involve usability much
more than self-expression.
* The skill set is disciplined much more by overt
disclosure (of both structure and meaning) than
by subtlety or indirection.

No one would--or should--use technical writing guidelines like
those at
http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/analysis0.html
http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/analysisGd.html
to craft fiction. But to design effective nonfiction they are
crucial.

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