Technical Writing: Themes from the Common Core
T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
Technical Writing: Themes from the Common Core
The Thematic Challenge
Adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS,
http://www.corestandards.org) by all but five U.S. states is a
bold, long-advocated step toward connecting K-12 science
classrooms with the actual communication challenges faced by
scientists and engineers in the world beyond school.
But CCSS is a large and complex document, sometimes confusing
in spite of, or perhaps because of, much redundancy across the
school years that it spans. In spreadsheet format I counted 114
rows of requirements, at least 60 of which strongly pertain to
"literacy [reading or writing] for history, social studies,
science, and technical subjects" (to use the official CCSS terms).
Finding reliable ways to implement these CCSS science-literacy demands
(as well as relevant, supportive professional development) would be
easier if there were a solid but simplified conceptual approach to all
of this, something thematic yet still deeply practical.
Fortunately, several decades of empirical research on
effective nonfiction text design have made such a thematic summary of
CCSS possible. This note connects the formal CCSS requirements with successful writing activities, cases, and techniques already in play
in the life of real scientists and engineers.
The Big (Usability) Picture
One of the really clever features of the CCSS approach to
nonfiction literacy, to what the rest of the world calls
"technical communication," is that it not only reflects authentic
practice but it also APPLIES professional techniques to build
writing skills in school.
Engineers already know a lot about design--about creating
effective atifacts efficiently (bridges, medical devices, software).
And human-factors psychologists already know a lot about making
designed artifacts usable (airplane cockpits or, again, software).
Applying these same insights to the problem of COMMUNICATING about
science leads straight to three themes that summarize the whole CCSS approach
to writing instruction:
Nonfiction writers need to help their readers succeed.
Writing is text engineering.
Usability is central to nonfiction writing success.
Most students do not approach technical writing as design nor
do they see usable text as its goal. So this provides a new
(and very helpful) vocabulary with which they can talk about
how they write. It also gives them a fresh perspective on
writing (as "text design") that few encounter in English Language
Arts class. Thus science becomes not just the realm where
students try this new approach, but also the research base from
which the approach arises.
Six CCSS Implementation Themes
Six themes unify and summarize virtually all of the
apparently diverse CCSS science literacy elements.
THEME 1--Audience Analysis
You always write for someone.
THEME 2--Task Appropriateness
Choose the techniques and content most relevant to
your reader's tasks or problems.
These themes capture the most basic insights of text usability:
readers of nonfiction (especially in science and technology)
are text USERS who bring problems or tasks to their reading and
expect writers to address those needs.
The next two themes summarize proven ways for writers to
respond to this responsibility.
THEME 3--Content Management
Provide examples, comparisons, or specifics to make
your instructions or descriptions effective.
THEME 4--Visual Text Features
Choose media and graphical features to improve
The first two themes expose writer goals while the second two
focus on how to pursue those goals. This is where the last few
decades of empirical research by scientists across the spectrum
from psychology and linguistics to software engineering yield
reliable text design, drafting, and revision techniques. Readers
of this note series have seen many such science-based writing
techniques featured (for example, see
http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/handbook/handbooktoc.html ) and
guides such as Karen Schriver's Dynamics in Document Design
summarize them for technical professionals.
Teachers also need to cultivate these skills in students,
a concern addressed by the last pair of CCSS themes.
THEME 5--Externalizing Helps
Externalizing techniques helps writers;
externalizing goals helps readers.
THEME 6--Iterative Improvement
Improved writing comes through repeated revision
Here again, empirical successes in real science and engineering
(such as checklists to improve surgery outcomes or
iterative design to improve prototype products) provide
ways to help students achieve better results. Even just
characterizing the project in these terms (responding to
reader needs, designing more effective prose, making
hidden moves explicit) offers a more science-based,
more authentic approach to writing than most students have
ever tried before. The positive results appear not
only in science class (in notebooks, lab reports, project
talks, and technical posters) but in a lifetime of better
communication about technical topics as professionals and as
[Part II next month: connecting these themes to what your
students already write in science class]