Teaching technical writing to engineers?

Subject: Teaching technical writing to engineers?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 24 Mar 2004 09:53:55 -0500

Evelyn Barker wondered: <<I'm going to be teaching a technical writing class to junior-level university engineering students...>>

Which inevitably reminds me of a Robert Heinlein quote about trying to teach a pig to sing. Something like: "It only frustrates you and annoys the pig." <g> Okay, more seriously now:

<<... and wondered what the group thought it was important for them to learn.>>

The biggest things by far:

1. Your audience is not composed of engineers, so you can't use the same language you would use when speaking to your colleagues. Some discussion of audience analysis would be appropriate: what words do they understand?

2. You are fascinated by features; they aren't. They just want to get the job done. Teach them how to do that. Again, tie in audience analysis: here, focus on a task analysis.

3. Don't write like an engineer. That's fine if you're writing a journal article or engineering specification, but not if you're writing to teach people how to do things. Here, discuss different styles (e.g., the difference between "distillation stack-mediated gas-exchange cold-fusion separation product" and "a product that, using cold fusion and a distillation stack, lets you mediate gas exchange" <g>).

4. Discuss real-world issues, like the need to do peer reviews (and the great benefits from doing so: it's not just an exercise in masochism) and how work with professional technical writers and editors.

5. Include a real-world exercise. I recommend documenting a VCR, since (by the evidence) succeeding at this task escapes most real-world technical writers. As an exercise, it includes both hardware and software, and offers an opportunity to discuss the use of visuals. You can also stretch out this exercise over the course of a full term, with each component of the exercise tied to the current week's lesson.

Note: Although you can teach them much about "assumptions and how to avoid them" with simple exercises such as "documenting the construction of a peanut butter sandwich", many techies are enormously offended by such seemingly trivial tasks that don't relate clearly to their chosen profession. If you use such examples, do so purely as an introduction to a more complex task (e.g., the VCR manual), emphasize that you're doing it to illustrate a point that they can then apply to a "real" example, and emphasize repeatedly that you're only using this exercise to lead into a "real" example.

6. Teach them the "blueprint" principle: Nobody builds a house by piling a bunch of materials on the ground and starting to lash them together. Yet that's precisely how many engineers (particularly programmers) do their job. Teach them the principle of "design thrice, cut once": plan something with excruciating care, then test your plans at least once (twice is better), before you actually start building. (Here, an exercise in UI prototyping would help.) Sure, you'll have to revise as you encounter obstacles, but at least that revision is much less severe than in a typical design process.

<<I'm thinking that I should focus on communicating technical information to a technical audience and that I should focus on the nuts and bolts of concise writing.>>

I wouldn't necessarily say "technical audience"; though most of your students will certainly have to communicate with their peers, most will also have to communicate with nontechnical "persons of importance" such as their managers, the marketing department, etc. (Think Dilbert!) In terms of textbooks, there are many available. If your university library stocks back issues of STC's _Technical Communication_, have a look at the back issues. They contain many book reviews, and you can almost certainly find something that sounds like it meets your needs.

--Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)


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teaching technical writing to engineers: From: Evelyn G Barker

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