Technical Writing


When I was still in the classroom teaching English, I dreamed of publishing something in The English Journal. That may not seem like a lofty ambition for folks outside my charmed circle, but it was a publication by teachers and for teachers, and I followed the work in the Journal of many of the practitioners I respected.

I’m proud of the books I’ve written and edited, but my appearances in The English Journal run a close second. I rang that bell three times that I can remember. The first time was a piece about a unit I had developed around Studs Terkel’s Working, which led the students to confront the important decisions about their future work choices, with a critical look along the way at the choices that their parents and other key adults in their lives had made and how those had worked out.

The second article – the one that I really want to focus on today – was a description of a course I had designed on technical writing which the EJ published in 1992.The third was about the effectiveness of a system of student self-evaluation I was using with my classes. The technical writing piecewas especially close to my heart because I had spent a good part of my teaching career focusing on “Creative” writing – stories surfacing from the depths of kids’ imagination or memoirs about significant moments in their lives. I wanted to demonstrate that direct, clear and accessible writing was also something to aspire to in many real-life situations.

I’ve told this story before, but it’s particularly relevant here and worth repeating. One summer our daughters had a job reading documents in a law office. After a few weeks of immersion in this material, one of them posed a question for us: “Do people have to learn to write this badly?” The law was not alone in its sins against the language. One could find examples among scientists, tech people, administrators of all stripes and art critics, to name a few.

The course was intended to meet this challenge head-on. The activities began with the ubiquitous task of writing instructions for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, with the typically laughable outcomes resulting from incomplete and faulty directions. This was followed by (at least these are the ones I remember after more than 30 years):

  • Designing games and writing directions for how to play
  • Writing How To instructions for a variety of tasks – closing the venetian blinds, bathing your dog, making the bed, etc
  •  Writing directions for using appliances, electrical devices or purchases that needed to be assembled. (This was a reaction to the period when many foreign-made products came with incomprehensible instructions translated from the Chinese or the Japanese.) Are you old enough to remember some of those laughers?
  The culminating project – the one that was intended to prove that all these exercises weren’t just party games – had students writing a proposal to someone in power describing a problem in their community and outlining a plan for fixing it. Again, we were serious about actually sending these screeds off to elected officials and agencies that were actually in a position to act on them.  

My experience with the Technical Writing course resurfaced this week when I received an email from a former student, a middle schooler I taught in Houston more than forty years ago
whom I’ll call Michael. I remember him as an awkward sixth grader who returned from lunch every day with the remains of that day’s menu on full display on his shirt. Now he is a successful research scientist, the founder of a company that is developing a new line of cancer drugs that promise to lead to breakthroughs in the treatment of that elusive disease.   Michael’s note, in addition to crediting me with teaching him how to write – an undeserved attribution of credit which I’ll accept for the moment – consisted of a long account of the evolution of the work on this new line of drugs. It’s a stunning piece of writing. It breaks down a very complex story into digestible and comprehensible language which allowed me the illusion of actually understanding the nature of his truly impressive work.  

I’m not a complete amateur in parsing scientific writing. I attended a technical high school and spent part of my college years as an engineering and later a physics major, but I often draw a complete blank trying to follow reports in the scientific literature. Someone, probably not me, had taught Michael to wield the tools of language to promote his significant scientific work. The presentation of the material is as admirable an accomplishment as the work itself.   Decades ago, the novelist and scientist C.P. Snow wrote about the unfortunate gap that has grown between what he described as “The Two Cultures.” We are experiencing a contemporary version of that abyss as evidenced by the decline of English majors in colleges everywhere in favor of computer science, information technology, A.I., etc. Michael’s work and the writing of physician/writers like Atul Gawande remind us of the possibility of valuable interactions between The Two Cultures. Chatbots will not solve the problems of clear and compelling writing about complex technical and scientific issues. They can never replicate the passion and excitement that Michael communicated about the work he is devoting his life to.    I’m hoping to hang around long enough to accompany him on the trip to Oslo to receive his Nobel Prize.         ReplyForward

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Marv Hoffman
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