Re: teaching technical writing to engineers

Subject: Re: teaching technical writing to engineers
From: "Chuck Martin" <cm -at- writeforyou -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 24 Mar 2004 09:03:13 -0800

"Evelyn G Barker" <ebarker -at- uta -dot- edu> wrote in message news:233357 -at- techwr-l -dot- -dot- -dot-
> I'm going to be teaching a technical writing class to junior-level
> university engineering students and wondered what the group thought it was
> important for them to learn.
> The students are all types of engineers--computer science, mechanical,
> This tech writing class is required for their degree, but I'm not trying
> prepare them for a career as a tech writer.
> It's a new class, so I can pretty much build from the ground up.
> I'm thinking that I should focus on communicating technical information to
> technical audience and that I should focus on the nuts and bolts of
> writing.
> But I would love to hear what others on the list think might be beneficial
> for them to learn. Any textbook suggestions?

Teach that it's not about writing, it's about communication.

Have them document something, then take samples (anonymously) and let others
critigue them.

Show them. Let them try to follow bad instructions.

Explain that communication isn't just in the manual, it's in the product.

Show them that too. Let someone try to adjust, say the overhead projecter in
the classroom.

Include in your reading materials "User Interface Design for Programmers" by
Joel Spolsky. Yes, it's not a true "technical writing" book, but there is a
section on documentation, but it does a good job of explaining how design
communicates, it's not that big (with lots of pictures), and the word
"Programmers" in the title may mean they're less likely to "shine on" the

Have them keep a journal. Write something every day. Write about how to use
something they've used during that day. That (a) will underscore the concept
that it's not always as easy to explain something as they may assume, and
(b) get them practicing writing.

Have them explain something very familiar to them to someone who has no
concept. Way back when, I took a class in Chinese Politics (as it happened,
the spring of 1989), and the instructor had spent time in China. She knew a
number of immagrants in the Seattle area from China. In our class that
quarter was soneone who worked at the Kingdome (where the Seattle Mariners
used to play baseball). He got a bunch of tiockets to a game, and several
people from the class went with several of the Chinese immigrants. We were
paired off and each attempted to explain the game of baseball to someone who
had never learned the game. For someone who can watch and play almost
without thinking, I found it a very difficult task.

Have everyone write instructions for something relatively complex, yet
unfamiliar. Pair them up. Have one person to the task while the other reads
the instructions. Watch how, not matter how clear the instructions, the
person doing the task will do something else, skip ahead, or any number of
other things that we know real people do.

Chuck Martin
User Assistance & Experience Engineer
twriter "at" sonic "dot" net

"I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. The day
may come when the courage of Men fail, when we forsake our friends and
break all bonds of fellowship. But it is not this day! This day, we fight!"
- Aragorn

"All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given you."
- Gandalf


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