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Technical Writing: THe Skills to Make It Happen

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: The Skills to Make It Happen

Explicit Tasks

In his interesting 2005 short article in Science and
Children ("What writing represents what scientists actually do?"
November/December, pp. 50-51, available online at
http://www.personal.psu.edu/mfh152/blogs/meghan_horbal/Scientific%20Meth... )
Bill Robertson urges science teachers to try
writing assignments that reach beyond the stereotypical (and
somewhat fictional) hypothesis-experiment-results lab report.
He suggests instead:
1. "the presentation of science fair projects,"
2. "a formal critique" of another student's
procedures or conclusions, or
3. "a column for the school newspaper" that explains
science class work to a broad audience.
Robertson never mentions, however, how to get unprepared students
to the point where they could actually carry out any of these
realistic science writing assignments. [Robertson also
surprisingly omits one other science writing project that is
not only realistic but influential, even high-stakes: abstracts.
Abstracts strongly affect how often technical articles are cited;
some journals and conferences even screen submittals by
reading their abstracts alone. While science teachers sometimes
assign project abstracts along with papers or reports, very few
offer any tips or feedback to help students actively learn how
to design abstracts that are effective.]

Explicit Techniques

Marsha Ratzel steps into the void left by Robertson with her
recent tactical suggestions in "Writing: Not Just For Language
Arts" (Education Week, September 13, 2011, www.edweek.org/tm/
articles/2011/09/13/ratzel_writing.html). Ratzel reports that
science student success in her classes increases markedly with
adequate pre-writing preparation, including:
* making EXPLICIT her grading criteria for science
writing assignments,
* coaching students to build a ROADMAP or "plan of
action" before they write (more helpful than a
rigid outline), and
* itemizing various TEXT-REVISION techniques so
students can pick some from her list to improve
their drafts.

All of these tips have in common that they EXTERNALIZE planning
or drafting moves often made by those who write nonfiction well.
Such moves are seldom overt. Exposing them is the secret of
cognitive apprenticeship.

Enter Apprenticeship

Writing (including the realistic technical writing that
Robertson urges) depends heavily upon having a repertoire of
underlying skills. And the way professionals in life beyond
school build such skills is through apprenticeship. They work
along side "masters" who do much more than show off their
expertise; they REVEAL that expertise by
1. talking about what they would normally do quietly,
2. making overt or distinct preparatory steps that
would normally be blurred together, hidden, or
private, and
3. scaffolding moves that they would normally perform
unaided by prompts or extra framework.
(Apprentice magicians who understudy with a master are a
good dramatic example of all three such features.)

Apprentices build their own skills by mimicking the
master out loud, publicly, and with cues at first. Gradually
they internalize the modeled expertise--first performing
better (here: writing more effectively about science) and
later performing better quietly, privately, and unprompted.
So Ratzel's explicit criteria, overt roadmaps, and itemized
revision techniques are not just cute gimmicks or window
dressing--they are crucial features of literacy (nonfiction)
cognitive apprenticeship. They are vital to get apprentice
science writers practicing moves shared by good scientists
in private.

Merely turning student writers loose on the three
Robertson drafting projects (plus abstracts) is no more likely
to yield effective prose (or to build effective prose-creating
skills) than asking novice magicians to make a tiger disappear
is likely to yield an effective stage illusion. For professional
literacy skills, there is no substitute for the path through
apprenticeship. (For help applying this approach to science
abstracts, see
http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/handbook/abstracts.analysis.html ).

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