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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Technical Writing: Write One Yourself

Technical Writing: Write One Yourself

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T. R. Girill Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab. trgirill@acm.org Technical Writing: Write One Yourself The frequently-asked-questions chapter of NSTA's new book on science journalism in schools ("Front Page Science," National Science Teachers Association, Arlington VA, 2012) ends with a striking challenge for classroom teachers: Q. What can I do to get started? A. By far the most important thing you can do [as a science teacher promoting journalism for your students] is to write an article yourself. Good teachers don't have students do labs they haven't tried, right? (p. 33) But what if you are not very good at writing a science article? Actually, this problem presents a valuable opportunity--to model for your students the ways available to improve a weak draft of technical text into a stronger, more effective one. Iterate Toward Success When people read a well-crafted article (or abstract or proposal) they often assume that it emerged in that elegant form from the author's head, unrevised. That is seldom true. As I always impress on discouraged students, success in technical writing, like so many aspects of engineering, is usually achieved iteratively...by repeated, incremental improvements to a promising but inadequate early draft. Most good science texts "repaired" their way to effectiveness, usually with feedback from others to help the process along. This means that not only can you "write an article yourself" by iterative improvement, but you can model for your worried students the ways that they too can harness this approach to help themselves write better. Show The Process, Not Just The Result I have tried improving the quality of student project abstracts by sharing examples of well-designed abstracts from earlier students. This usually accomplishes very little. Students who are weak writers also generally lack the cognitive maturity to extract from good examples the text features that make them good. This is just where "thinking aloud" about the ways that you improve your own draft is so valuable. It reveals to students (a) the usually invisible layers through which drafts pass from weak to strong, and (b) the usually invisible path that you (as writer) take through those layers. As you publicly revise your draft science article (or anything else), make explicit just those improvement moves that students often overlook (or ignore): *Audience analysis--am I writing for middle school students, or parents, or professional scientists? (This effects choices of both vocabulary and sentence length.) *Organization--the writer gets to pick the text structure. Is chronological more effective, or spatial, or priority order (for your audience)? *Clarifying comparisons and contrasts--place your facts in context: does ultraviolet light have a shorter wavelength than violet? how is hemoglobin like chlorophyl? *Signals--how does inserting proleptics (like "first, second, third" or "however") help readers follow your argument? These benefits of revealing the process, not just the final result, as you improve draft technical text are authentic, not limited to the science (or language arts) classroom. This approach is also recommended, for example, by health services agencies to help physicians improve "health literacy" in their clinical practice (for instance, see the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality's "Health Literacy Precautions Toolkit," online at http://www/ahrq.gov/qual/literacy). "Thinking aloud" as doctors perform procedures helps patients appreciate their diagnostic or therapeutic value. Likewise, having patients state aloud their normally invisible self-medication processes ("I take my red pill every morning, but only after breakfast") reveals otherwise hidden timing issues or food interactions that can strongly influence treatment outcomes. And of course this is another aspect of traditional apprenticeship, whereby the skilled worker reveals normally hidden but crucial moves to those just mastering a craft. So embrace your own iterative text improvements and share them aloud.

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Casey Cagle's picture
Casey Cagle
Former professional physicist, now teaching 7th grade science in Texas

I'm all about exposing students to technical writing starting in the 7th grade. Many students are shocked when they reach more advanced courses and realize that they will have to write something other than a literary analysis or a short story in school. Surprisingly, I've met with some resistance from my peers because they feel that technical writing is best saved for high school and beyond, I think in large part because they have never written technically themselves.

Having written a paper or two of a technical nature, I cannot stress enough the value of teaching students the art of scientific writing, but a teacher without the experience cannot teach effectively.

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