T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
Technical Writing: Making Visible the Hidden Magic of Nonfiction Writing
The Magic Connection
Data-display expert Edward Tufte, in Chapter 3 of his influential
book Visual Explanations (Graphics Press, 1997), points out that
learning effective technical communication is much like learning to
perform stage magic. Tufte, an amateur magician himself, realized that
the difference between watching a successful stage illusion ("the
effect") and mastering that illusion as a performer ("the method")
paralleled the difference between watching someone else write
effectively and learning how to write effectively yourself.
A recent magic-revealed video on Youtube ("Cups and Balls Trick")
shows just how much one can learn from this comparison for the
Common Core goal of teaching technical writing in science class. In
the six-minute video at
an uncredited professional stage magician explains how to perform
the well-known trick in which three small soft balls appear to
migrate between three overturned opaque plastic cups. Every aspect
of this clip has useful parallels for nonfiction writing instruction.
From 0:00 to 1:26 this video demonstrates the illusion--not
once or twice but three times. The point is that how to perform
this trick--its prerequisites and professional techniques--is (by
design. of course) invisible even on repeated viewings. You cannot
learn this trick just by watching it done well, any more than
students can learn to draft effective technical text just by watching
someone else successfully, even repeatedly, draft effective technical
text (without help from magic-revealing commentary).
The Method: Props
From 1:29 to 1:49 the video starts revealing, as a master
magician does for an apprentice, the features of "the method"
unseen by the audience but vital for the effect. First comes
disclosure of a fourth ball, a key hidden prop. This unseen aid
directly parallels the (usually) hidden but often vital support
tools or scaffolds employed by effective nonfiction writers,
such as the feature checklists and design templates mentioned in
other notes in this series (see
The Method: Practice(s)
From 1:50 to 3:50 the cups-and-balls video turns to the
unusual moves needed to produce the effect, moves that seem ordinary
(hence the illusion) but that really call for special training and
extra practice to execute reliably. For example, the video explains
that turning over the cups too fast gives away that the performer
is hiding something (spoils the illusion), but turning them over
too slowly lets the secret fourth ball fall out. Hence, the
apparently trivial move of turning over the cups actually demands
much extra practice to perform well.
This nicely parallels the special practice(s) needed to reliably
write nonfiction well. When drafting instructions, for example, one
needs to (teach oneself to) search for missing steps (including omitted
first steps), not merely organize the steps already obvious. When
drafting descriptions one needs to (teach oneself to) pick an ordering
of the parts, features, or ingredients described--an ordering that
meets reader needs. On a food can label, for instance, the ingredients
are not organized spatially or alphabetically but in decreasing order
by weight--because readers consult the label chiefly to make
nutritional comparisons. When executed well such text design practices
look ordinary, but they actually call for extra planning, training,
and discipline by the technical writing student.
The Method: Cues
From 3:53 to 5:47 the cups-and-balls video focuses on three
psychological cues used to strengthen the illusion by misleading the
audience: tapping the cups to "remind" viewers that they are solid,
nesting them (to hide the extra ball), and using "a little gesture
with your fingers" to suggest how the ball walks between the cups
unseen. Of course the point here is MISdirection. But the use of
such cues strongly parallels comparable signals included in good
technical writing to AVOID just this kind of audience confusion.
Using overt items in numbered or bulleted lists, using overt headings
with parallel text structure, and using overt tables to visually
reinforce verbal relationships are all basic examples of carefully
learned psychological cuing by effective technical writers.
This simple video thus illustrates just how much teaching
technical writing to struggling science students resembles teaching
new illusions to struggling apprentice stage magicians. One must
carefully reveal the magic (the method), not simply perform it
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