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Technical Writing: Write One Yourself

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: 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.

Comments (1)

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Former professional physicist, now teaching 7th grade science in Texas

Start Teaching Technical Writing Early!

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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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