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									                    An Overview of Technical Writing


The objectives of this chapter are to

      Explain how technical writing differs from academic writing.
      Explain the key elements of technical writing.
      Explain the role that communication plays within an organization.
      Explain the importance of good communication skills.
      Identify the foundations of technical writing.
      Identify the qualities of good technical writing.


The point of this initial chapter of Reporting Technical Information is to ensure that
students understand what technical writing is and to dispel any misapprehensions they
may have about it or the course. The chapter also establishes goals for the rest of the
textbook (See the section on issues for teaching technical writing in the introduction to
this instructor’s manual for further discussion of these global or first-day concerns.).
On the first full class meeting of your technical writing course, consider doing some
combination of the following:

      Define technical writing (for other resources on technical writing, see the
       “Connecting with the Profession” section on page 17 of this instructor’s manual).
      Show how technical writing is important to professionals in a wide range of
      Show students some samples of technical writing.
      Explore the meaning of the term technical to indicate the broad application of
       technical writing.
      Find out who your students are, what their majors are, and what special skills or
       knowledge they have. (See page 2 in this instructor’s manual for an informal
       review of the types of students whom you may encounter in your technical
       writing class.)
      Discuss the importance of good communication skills to the careers of college-
       educated professionals.
      Present your course plan, objectives, schedule, and policies. Show how these
       integrate with technical communication and with your students’ own majors and
      Discuss the benefits of taking a technical writing course.


Here are some ideas for things to do in class to help students learn about technical writing
and get ready for the semester.

Traditional Classroom

1. Discuss writing done by professionals. Get your class to describe the kinds of
   writing they know that people in their professions do. This can be a risky enterprise if
   your students are naive about what professionals do and how much writing is
   involved in their regular work. (It can also be risky if they enter your course resistant
   to the notion that professionals in their line of work do any writing at all.) If you pla n
   to conduct a discussion like this, you might ask students to be thinking about this
   issue until a subsequent class meeting and even suggest that they make a few phone

2. Pass around samples of technical writing. It’s a good idea to hand out a sampling
   of technical writing in the first week. This will give students a solid idea as to what
   they are aiming for. Technical writing courses are typically writing- intensive courses;
   it’s also a good idea to hand out complete portfolios of the typical writing
   assignments that students do in this course.

3. Identify the characteristics of technical writing in those samples. Show the point
   summary of the qualities of good technical writing found on page 9 of the textbook,
   and have students identify those characteristics in the samples of technical writing
   that you hand out. Encourage them to think of additional characteristics not listed in
   the book.

4. Explore the range of “technical” knowledge your students already have. Some of
   your students will assume that they know nothing—and in particular nothing
   technical. It’s a good idea to explore the definition of “technical,” in the sense of
   specialized knowledge within any field, not just electronics or computers.

Computer Classroom

1. Have students search the Internet for documents they think reflect technical
   writing. Innumerable examples of actual technical writing, from proposals to
   quarterly reports to feasibility and planning studies, are available online. Have student
   pairs find an example of technical writing from their field(s) and prepare to discuss
   two or three elements of the example that qualify it as “technical.” As the instructor,
   be open- minded about what document types qualify as technical since the Web offers
   such a wide variety of writing. Stick closely to the characteristics of technical writing
   discussed in this chapter, and ask the opinions of others in the class if you’re

2. Select a series of Web sites or sample documents from the Companion Web Site
   (, and have students examine those and prepare to
   discuss them as technical communication. This activity is a more controlled form
   of the activity listed above.

3. Have students locate several online job postings in their fields and be prepared
   to discuss how many of the postings list requirements about communication
   skills. Students may go to job search sites like, or they may choose to
   search sites of specific employers. Encourage your students to note if a job listing
   identifies broad communication skills as a requirement of the job or if it identifies
   specific communication skills (presentation skills, grant proposal writing skills, etc.).

4. Have students develop a set of intervie w questions for a professional in their
   field(s) about the types of writing he or s he performs. Think in terms of broad
   questions such as, “What are the various audiences you write for/to?” and in terms of
   narrower items such as, “What percentage of your day or week do you spend
   writing?” and “What is your biggest pet peeve about others’ writing?” Remember to
   include questions about technology use on the job and the future of communication in
   that field. Coach your students on how to avoid pious responses such as, “Oh yes,
   writing is very important in my line of work.” Get your students to ask about
   objective, quantifiable matters such as what types of documents, how many pages,
   how many hours of preparation, how often, to whom, and what consequences result
   from good or bad documents.


Here are some ideas for writing projects related to Chapter 1.

Traditional Assignments

1. Survey the technical writing done by professionals. Have your students interview
   professionals in their fields concerning the kinds and amount of writing those
   professionals do. Have students write this information up as a memo, or have them
   present it orally in class, showing actual examples of the writing if possible.

2. Analyze a sample of technical writing. Have your students select a sample of
   technical writing that they can understand but that most nonspecialists would not.
   Have them write a memo in which they discuss the characteristics they find in that
   sample and then explain the meaning of the sample in nonspecialist terms (or have
   your students present this information orally to the rest of the class).

Distance Learning Assignments

1. Have students e-mail their intervie w questions to two professionals and write a
   me mo to you summarizing the results. Make sure to coach your students on using
   netiquette and on framing the interview request in terms of deadlines, the reason for
   the interview, etc. Review Chapter 7 for information on preparing for interviews, and
   make sure that you and the students allow a reasonable amount of time for the
   interviewee to respond. A thank-you note provides a courteous follow-up for the
   interviewee and a great minor assignment for the student.

2. Have your students compare two online technical documents. Ask them to
   compare audiences, purposes, authors’ roles, etc., and to make judgments on which
   sample is the better one. Encourage them to find samples that are similar in some
   aspects (technicality and/or purpose) and different in others (approach, design, etc.).
   If you’re feeling brave, this can be assigned as an online pairs’ project. Each student
   can write his or her own response and then compare it to a peer’s reaction, or the two
   can collaborate online to produce one analysis.

      Society for Technical Communication (
      Writers Write: Technical Writing (
      Resources for Technical Writers (
    Technical Writing (
      Directory of Electronic Journals, Newsletters and Academic Discussion Lists
      RULES, Rules, and rules: How to tell them apart

You may wish to reproduce the following worksheet and have students fill it out prior to
a class discussion of technical writing, or perhaps have students fill it out during class.

  Comparison Chart: Academic versus Technical Writing

                      Academic Writing      Technical Writing




Document Life Span


   Writing Style


 Design Elements

The figures on the following pages may be reproduced as overhead transparencies or
simply shown on a computer. The following set of discussion questions associated with
each of the figures may be used to elicit student reflections on the concepts.

Discussion Questions for Figure 1-1

      What documents have you used or seen that contained these characteristics?
      Have you developed any documents in your other courses, in a job, or in an
       internship that used these characteristics?

Discussion Questions for Figure 1-2

      What jobs have you held or organizations have you been involved with that relied
       heavily on communication to function?
      Do the terms clarity, conciseness, organization, and correctness apply to your

Discussion Questions for Figure 1-3

      Have you, as a student, used these imperatives in your writing?
      How significant are these imperatives in academic writing?

Discussion Questions for Figure 1-4

      In what ways has the writing you have done in the past exemplify these
      How do you think that these characteristics further business goals?

    Writing at Work versus Writing at
    School: Eight Basic Differences

 Writing at work achieves job goals

 Writing at work addresses a variety of readers

 Writing at work addresses readers with
  different perspectives

 Writing at work creates excessive paperwork
  and e-mail

 Writing at work may be read by readers
  unknown to the writer

 Writing at work has an indefinite life span

 Writing at work creates legal liability for the
  writer and the organization

 Writing at work uses a variety of written

Figure 1-1: Writing at Work versus Writing at School
   Writing and Communicating at Work
   Role of communication: to share information
    and ideas and to show that work has been or
    is being done

   Importance of communication:

      College-educated workers spend 20 percent
       of their time at work writing
      The ability to communicate well is critical to
       job performance
      Strong communication skills are required for
       most positions requiring a college degree

 Manufacture of communication: an industry in its
  own right

 Writing skills of importance to workers:

  1. Clarity
  2. Conciseness
  3. Organization
  4. Correctness—use of standard English

 Audience awareness: a necessity

  Figure 1-2: Writing and Communicating at Work
         The Foundations of Effective
              Technical Writing

      1. Know your reader

      2. Know your objective

      3. Be simple, direct, and concise

      4. Know the context in which your
         communication will be received and used

      5. Design your communication with
         imperatives 1–4 as guideposts

Figure 1-3: The Foundations of Technical Writing
      The Qualities of Good Technical
 Exemplifies effective design; makes a good

 Is designed so that it can be read selectively

 Has a rational and discernible plan

 Reads coherently and cumulatively throughout

 Answers readers’ questions as they arise in
  the readers’ minds

 Has the necessary front matter to characterize
  the report and disclose its purpose and scope

 Has a body that provides essential information
  and that is written clearly without jargon or

 When appropriate, uses tables and graphs to
   present and clarify its content

Figure 1-4: The Qualities of Good Technical Writing
      The Qualities of Good Technical

 Has, when needed, a summary or set of
  conclusions to reveal the results obtained

 Conveys an impression of authority,
  thoroughness, soundness, and honest work

 Can stand alone and be understood by
  readers who are not part of the initial audience

 Makes a positive statement about the writer
  and the organization

 Is free from typographical errors, grammatical
   slips, and misspelled words

Figure 1-4: The Qualities of Good Technical Writing

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