Help w/TW skills

Subject: Help w/TW skills
From: Bill Sullivan <bsullivan -at- SMTPLINK -dot- DELTECPOWER -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 31 Jan 1996 12:32:07 -0800

Dear Lynn: I am thinking that the environment in which you will be
working is more of a university environment (developing students with
some culture, presenting the big picture) than a trade school
environment with a single focus. If I am wrong, please hit your
Delete key now.

To teach writing, of course, you have your pupils read and write. It
can't be a head trip. You just have to do it. Get a Nike tee-shirt,
one that says Just Do It. An individual's writing is best evaluated
one-on-one by the teacher, and this puts lectures at a disadvantage
or makes more work for the teacher. For would-be technical writers
and editors, I would want them capable of discussing the technical
aspects of sentences. I would also like to point out that technical
writing and editing is about as demanding a profession as you can
aspire to.

When people ask me what a technical writer does, I sometimes smile
and say I am a sentence engineer and I work with other engineers in
other fields. Perhaps I could call myself a paragraph architect.
Architects are profoundly concerned with the needs of building users.
We writers have to be concerned with the needs of the users of our
documents and help files (enter: Usability Testing).

I think poets and novelists may be able to get away with explaining
something they wrote by saying they wrote it because that is what
they felt. But when you carry the mantle of technical writer or
editor, you better be able to explain yourself technically. That
means knowing your grammar, and if you ever follow any of the threads
on TECHWR-L about grammar-related subjects, I think it will become
clear that not all of us have a firm fix on our tools. I leave it to
you to decide who are better prepared. If you want amplification on
this, please let me know. PS: Classroom suggestion: I would require
my students to stand up and read all or part of their assignments to
the class, and ask the class to criticize. I think this would come
under the heading of preparation for life in the real world.

As far as reading is concerned, I don't know if our schools or the
STC pay enough attention to its importance. The quarterback on your
college football team probably has a better understanding of the
history of the forward pass than your students do of where today's
technical writing has come from. I would like to see a history of
technical and scientific writing, perhaps going back to Julius Caesar
(which could be read in Latin) and certainly to Galileo. Today's
world is rich with all kinds of writing which brings technology,
science (some of it flawed and hysterical), and even the technical
aspects of sports to mass audiences. And don't forget cookbooks and
cooking magazines and newspapers either.

As a believer that education should follow a broad path rather than a
narrow one, I would try to lead my students to see good technical
writing in a variety of places. These places could include the
sports page, Gourmet magazine, or a good novel like Umberto Eco's The
Island of the Day Before where I recently read descriptions of a ship
that were as technically pleasing and satisfying as anything ever
written for a navy, I am sure. Technical writing assignments could
be about software, or they could include things like a technical
description of a sporting event, of your family kitchen or workspace,
or anything else that could be written about technically that the
student might care to try. Diversity works here.

Also under reading, I would encourage your students to build their
own technical writing libraries the way doctors and lawyers build
theirs. The cornerstone would be a good dictionary. I would
probably have them bring their dictionaries to class and make ways
for them to use them. I would also have them carry books on the
technical aspects of grammar, including Fowler and perhaps the
Chicago Manual, although it's expensive for a college kid. Their
role model should be Casey Stengel: You Could Look It Up. As a
matter of fact, that would be a good idea for a poster for the STC.

Let them not ignore the physical, either. Writing is a sedentary
profession that makes you a haven for bad cholesterol. Mens sana in
corpore sano, as Horace said. Hemingway, I have read, charged his
batteries by swimming all the time. My thing is walking. As a
matter of fact, most of these paragraphs were thought out on my
4-mile walk home last night.

I also haved gained a lot, I feel, by cross-disciplinary work. I
would hesitate to prescribe a program here. I think we all have our
strengths, and we all have to study to improve upon our weaknesses
and lack of education, and that is what makes our field so good. In
college, my activities always concerned the written word, mostly the
college paper and yearbooks. I broadened my knowledge of the
creative process and creative teamwork about 10 years after
graduation when I took part in the chorus of a couple of musical
comedies. Exposure to journalism is great. Learning interviewing
techniques is fantastic. I wish I could remember the name and author
of that swell old pop psychology book about active listening and
win-win situations; it might be filed under parenting. Different
discipline, same techniques. Public speaking classes are
indispensable. Perhaps you could make a good class out of bringing a
scientist or engineer or even the football coach to class for a group
interview. Perhaps they could learn things from watching Baba
Walters reruns if they exist. When it comes to graphics (my
weakness), I would suggest art, art history, cartoons, and something
about making block diagrams. I know I personally have learned from
the photography I do, maybe that I can't possibly do everything in
top form.

Another point that I was made to one of my sons this morning.
Education is a lifelong process. It hardly stops when they hand or
mail you your degree, and just because you learned something (even an
entire discipline) without getting college credit for it doesn't mean
you haven't learned it. Technical writing today means one thing and
one set of output (manuals, OLH, maybe some multimedia), but as the
years wear on this quite likely will change. Tell those kids they
better plan to keep on learning, keep on adapting, but mostly keep
on. Their class songs could be Ol' Man River and Row Row Row Your
Boat.

Enough.

Bill Sullivan
bsullivan -at- deltecpower -dot- com
San Diego, California

>>> LynnDianne Beene <lbeene -at- unm -dot- edu> - 1/30/96 7:53 AM >>>
In the fall semester I'll be teaching technical writing
in a computer lab for the first time. The students will
be mostly undergraduates wanting to become professional
writers and editors. Their writing skills vary greatly,
from some who are great writers to some who can't recognize
a sentence fragment from a graphic. As professionals,
what would you all say are the top skills I should push in
this class?

Any and all help will be *greatly*!! appreciated. Thanks!

Lynn Beene email: lbeene -at- unm -dot- edu
B & F Writers Albuquerque, New Mexico
87123

Is it not, then, better to be ridiculous and friendly than clever and
hostile?
--Socrates


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