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Technical Writing: How Checklists Help Students Write

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: How Checklists Help Students Write

Whenever I work with high school students or their teachers on
technical writing, I always ground the activities and exercises in
two checklists or sets of guidelines (one for instructions, at
http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/analysis0.html
and one for descriptions, at
http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/analysisGd.html ). Does using
such checklists really promote student expertise or instead just
undermine it? Atul Gawande answers that question in his
best-selling nonfiction book from 2009 called The Checklist
Manifesto (New York: Henry Holt).

Checklists in Life

Gawande is a physician who wondered if he could significantly
improve surgical outcomes by borrowing techniques from other
professions. He learned from engineers and managers of large
(office-tower) construction projects that they rely on formal
checklists to "ensure that the stupid but critical stuff is not
overlooked" (p. 79) when the work of many crafts must integrate
smoothly. And of course aviation checklists famously contribute
to reliable flight. Gawande found that Boeing's "flight operations
group is a checklist factory" (p. 120), providing big books with
one list of simple steps in large print on each page for maximum
in-flight usability by pilots. Even Gawande's friend, a master
chef who runs her own restaurant, told him that "following the
recipe is essential to making food of consistent quality over
time" (p. 82).

So how do checklists deliver these benefits to those
professionals who use them? Gawande found that checklists do not
replace professional judgement but rather amplify it: "judgement
[is] aided--and even enhanced--by procedure" (p. 79). The
effective checklists cited above help their users by
(1) making PRIORITIES clear (for example, if a plane's
engines fail, the pilot must reduce altitude BEFORE trying to
troubleshoot the alarms or even restart the engines), and
(2) promoting, even facilitating, needed COMMUNICATION
(among the kitchen staff, for instance, or the cockpit crew).

Checklists in School

One can readily see how these benefits extend to students
hesitatingly trying to build their technical writing skills.
The instruction-writing checklist has (what Gawande calls) a
DO-CONFIRM format: students draft some instructions and then use
the checklist mostly to review their own preliminary work, spot
weaknesses that they would have otherwise overlooked, and
experiment with improvements that the checklist suggests (do
all of the steps begin with an action verb? are any key steps
accidentally omitted?).

The description-writing checklist has a somewhat different,
READ-DO format: it offers an explicit framework for planning a
basic technical description (divide the text into parts, plan
their order, choose relevant comparisons to include, etc.),
because that daunting responsibility falls squarely on the
description writer with little help from nature. But tips for
self-revision are included as well (e.g., don't forget to make
your lists overt and signal your reader with headings). In
both cases these guidelines help students to prioritize their
drafting tasks and to talk about their writing problems with
teachers or peers--just as Gawande noted for the checklists of
working professionals.

The Results

As part of a WHO-sponsored international effort, Gawande
tested his own 19-point safe-surgery checklist during 4000
surgeries in 6 hospitals worldwide. Surgeons were sometimes
doubtful at first, but results showed a 36% decline in complications
and a 47% decline in post-surgery deaths among hospital teams
using the checklist (p. 154; for more details see A.B. Haynes,
et al., "A surgical safety checklist to reduce morbidity and
mortality in a global population," New England Journal of
Medicine (2009), 360:491-499).

So checklist use offers another example of how a practical,
widespread, real-world technique can be brought into the science
classroom and adapted to provide nonpatronizing, reliable
support for student literacy. And students who practice with
writing checklists in school will not be surprised later if they
go on to be chefs, pilots, construction managers, or even
surgeons.

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