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Techncial Writing: Write Every Day, But Carefully

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

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

Technical Writing: Write Every Day, But Carefully

In a recent post on the "Naturally Selected" science blog,
biologist Morgan Giddings asks "What kind of scientist are you?"
Since (too) many working scientists resist writing and do it poorly
when then must, she gives her colleagues this advice:

Write every day.
Reflecting back on my own career [as a tenured
biology professor], the times that I really
struggled to write were the times when I was
not doing it regularly, then came up against
a deadline and was forced to do it in one big
rush. That's like running a marathon without
any training beforehand.

Giddings's daily-practice suggestion captures a valuable insight
from cognitive apprenticeship: intellectual skills (like technical
writing) develop gradually, through iterative refinement. Mastery
comes not in a sudden burst but by patient approximation toward

But her terse advice to "write every day" still leaves out
another ingredient crucial for effective writing: technique.
Students who merely reinforce bad writing habits in their daily
practice will never improve. That plenty of working scientists
have been trapped that way is evidenced by comments from another
research biologist, Kaj Sand-Jensen, in his 2007 paper on "How
to write consistently boring scientific literature" (Oikos,
116:723-727, 2007,
Sand-Jensen realizes that while science articles are supposed to
influence other researchers because of their accuracy, novelty,
and importance, if they are boring their readers will tend to put
them aside and ignore their content. So he unfolds a charmingly
sarcastic analysis of why so much published technical literature
turns out so badly.

One big cause of boring (and hence neglected, time-wasting)
science prose is omitted features that the author should have
* the aim or GOAL of the project,
* the IMPLICATIONS for other people ("so what?"), and
* ILLUSTRATIONS that could have clarified the text.
Without these features technical text is both dull and hard to use.
(Many student writers spontaneously omit just these features.
So unless YOU encourage including them, your students will likely
carry this bad habit into adulthood and torment their colleagues
with the lapse.)

A second big cause of boring, frustrating science prose is
included features that the author should have omitted:
* unimportant or irrelevant details, or as Sand-Jensen
says, "mental drivel," and
* unexplained abbreviations or technical terms.
Too much of these makes a text tough for everyone to follow and
often renders it hopeless for international or "cross-over"
interdisciplinary readers. Again, the result is influence lost,
a curse for any scientist.

So great gains can occur if you guide student practice,
daily or otherwise, by pointing out the needed text features to
include and cultivate, as well as the troublesome features to
prune and avoid. Such feedback is vital for approximation to
mastery of effective, interesting professional writing by those
in your classes. As Sand-Jensen insists, "we desperately need
more accessible and readable scientific contributions to attract
bright new scientists and produce [more] integrated understanding"
(p. 727).

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