STEM education provides many opportunities and challenges. How can our practice evolve to meet the needs of 21st-century learners?

Technical Writing: Technical Writing for Knitters

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: Technical Writing for Knitters

How authentic are the text-design and usability tips made
explicit on the student checklists at

www.ebstc.org/TechLit/trgintro2.html
www.ebstc.org/TechLit/trgintro3.html ?

One reflection of their real-world relevance is their real-world
REACH--the more different kinds of nonfiction instructions and
descriptions to which they apply, the greater their connection to
life beyond school. And one striking illustration of their reach
is their role in a practical craft domain that at first seems quite
unrelated to science class: knitting.

The website of expert knitter Edie Eckman (edieeckman.com/
instruction.html) contains a revealing example. Eckman offers three
dozen classes for knitters and crocheters, most focused on a
particular stitch or design motif. But amid the lace and intarsia
techniques is a 6-hour class on "How to Say It: Technical Writing
for Knitters and Crocheters." The audience is anyone who wants to
publish a pattern or "just want[s] to share your design" with
others informally. Eckman notes that everyone needs to "craft a
well-written pattern" even to effectively exchange it merely among
friends: "you need to be able to write it so others can read it."
Her workshop explains key enabling techniques (such as how to
"grade patterns for a number of different sizes") and sends students
home with an adaptable pattern template--all of which strongly
parallels introducing text design techniques with the help of
scaffolds in science class.

Donna Druchunas, author of Ethnic Knitting Discovery (Nomad
Press, 2007), takes technical writing's role in knitting even
farther by spelling out the specific skills that writing about
knitting demands from each pattern drafter. First, Druchunas notes
(in an interview) that to construct usable instructions, for
knitting just as for lab equipment, "you have to be able to write
very clear prose without redundancy or confusion" (www.riehlife.com/
2007/10/06/ethnic-knitting-discovery-author-donna-druchunas-speaks-
with-riehlife-on-culture-family-history-and-connection)
The same discipline of meeting each reader's problem-solving needs
applies whether the topic is a series of yarn-and-needle moves or
biochemistry ones.

Second, Druchunas points out that in effective technical
descriptions, across the disciplines, "every word must count and
do a job." Bloated knitting patterns are no more helpful (and
just as time wasting) as rambling analyses in engineering or
physics.

Third, she explains that iteration based on user feedback on
your draft is not an annoying detour but a crucial part of technical
writing success. Knitters drafting patterns for others just like
students drafting project instructions for classmates "have to be
willing to work with [users] who will find mistakes in what you've
done and ask you to make changes to your instructions."
Approximation toward success, based on reader concerns (and
sometimes, complaints), is how every good technical writer improves
their drafts.

The applicability of the same technical writing principles to
such diverse domains as crafts (knitting), food (kitchen recipes),
software manuals, and laboratory procedures shows that text usability
has great pratical reach. Introducing that concept to your students
can help them go wherever life takes them--on the job and in their
hobbies too.

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