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Technical Writing: Lists as a Cognitive Tool

Technical Writing: Lists as a Cognitive Tool

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T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
trgirill@acm.org

Technical Writing: Lists as a Cognitive Tool

The Uses

I often encourage students with weak technical writing skills to
deploy LISTS more often to make their text more useful for their
readers (including for themselves).

1. Instructions.
Overt lists of steps (= actions to take), usually numbered, make
each move obvious and the whole sequence more memorable, reducing
confusion and performance errors.

2. Notes.
Itemizing sets of names, observations, people, or claims makes
them easier to find and use later. Lists promote noticing
common item features or contrasts (different times or locations,
for example), revealing the comparative significance of both
the items and the group. Notes with lists help students use
them more effectively.

3. Posters.
The model science poster distributed to interns sponsored by
the U.S. National Science Foundation contains virtually no
text paragraphs. Materials, procedures, results, and conclusions
are all (diagrams and) bulleted lists--so that they are quicker
to absorb and easier to appreciate by readers who visit the
poster in a noisy, crowded meeting room. Every science student
can benefit from emulating this list-rich model.

The value of such lists is not just superficial visual convenience.
As Steffan Mueller-Wille and Isabelle Charmantier point out in a
recent article ("Lists as research technologies," Isis, December
2012, 103:743-752), lists are really a simple but valuable
cognitive tool for research.

The Benefits

Abstraction.
Listing items overtly begins to "decontextualize" them, to at least
partly remove them from one framework and let you see them another
way. While sequential lists (of steps or parts or events) begin to
reveal each item's role in the larger sequence, even simple
alphabetical lists promote faster item retrieval during later
searches.

Geometry.
Lists have a more useful shape that do mere paragraphs. Each item
plus the whole has clear edges and spatial relations (adjacent,
above, bigger than) that often suggest or reveal helpful
intellectual relations. This makes a list a simplified or
prototype version of a map, and maps are (as Edward Tufte always
notes) especially useful for disclosing key relationships among
the data that they carry.

Manipulation.
Because of the two properties above, lists in science "invite
manipulation through reordering" (p. 745). They encourage coming
up with news ways to classify listed items (by kind of rock, rather
than by time or location of discovery, for example). And of course
new lists capture new thoughts so that the abstraction and
spatial-relation benefits above can apply recursively to the new
items too. They are an easy yet fertile intellectual aid.

The History

Mueller-Wille and Charmantier illustrate the benefits of list making
for working scientists with the historical case of Carl Linneaus.
Linneaus began his botany classification efforts as early as 1725
by making random observational lists from which he later transferred
the entries into more organized patterns (for example, his list of
"Unfamiliar plants that I had not seen before I came to Skaene,"
1727). This is the reservoir or "waste book" model of list making
(named for a random-list approach to capturing accounting
transactions). Later in his career, Linnaeus switched to the
more sophisticated calendaring or "double-entry" way of list making:
he first created bins or categories (for example, a hierarchy of
plant genus or order names) and only then populated them with list
items (such as itemized observed specimens).

These two approaches to list making and the three intellectual
benefits noted above show that while lists may be a simple
technology, they are certainly not a stupid one. Encouraging
your students to list as they write equips them with a basic
but genuine cognitive tool.


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