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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Techncial Writing: Write Every Day, But Carefully

Techncial Writing: Write Every Day, But Carefully

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T. R. Girill Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab. trgirill@acm.org 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?" (blog.the-scientist.com/2011/03/29/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 success. 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, dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.2007.0030-1299.15674.x). 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 included: * 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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