Technical Writing: Write One Yourself
T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
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
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
*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
*Signals--how does inserting proleptics (like "first,
second, third" or "however") help readers follow
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.