Re: Writing samples

Subject: Re: Writing samples
From: "Nina L. Panzica" <panin -at- MINDSPRING -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 25 Mar 1998 13:49:14 -0500

At 09:10 AM 3/24/98 -0600, Sharon Thomason wrote:

>This is my first tech writing position, and when I was asked to provide a
>writing sample, I gave a paper from a literature class. Even though the
>content wasn't technical, it showed my employer that I could write. I am
>now in a tech writing certification program, and my writing pedagogy class,
>comprised of teachers and tech writers, has been discussing whether their
>are really that many differences between technical and academic writing. I
>don't think that there are. What are your thoughts on the subject?

I think that there are big differences between academic writing and
technical writing. In fact, I think that someone overly schooled in
academic writing is much more difficult to train to be a technical writer
than someone who does not have so many bad writing habits to unlearn. If
I have to train a technical writer, I'll choose a former reporter over a
former academian _any_ day!

In my experience there are a lot of unspoken rules to academic writing that
students absorb and professional academic writers perfect. Following these
rules produces unclear, stilted, jargonish, overly complicated writing
meant more to show off one's ability to juggle words than to convey
information clearly. One unspoken goal in academic writing is to argue an
opponent into the ground by whatever rhetorical methods you can get away
with. Often these means--which can include obfuscation, red herrings,
attacking a person's style rather than ideas, presenting only the evidence
that supports your points--make for the opposite of clear,
easy-to-understand writing.

Another unspoken goal of academic writing is to provide an argument or
thesis that is incapable of being attacked. Students learn from bad or
dishonest academians that one often-successful way to achieve this is to
load your paper with so many obscure terms and invented words and long,
convoluted sentences and unusual organizational styles that your opponents
can't really get the thurst of what you are saying without spending an
enormous amount of time digging and deconstructing. I mean, can you imagine
how the average person with about an eighth-grade reading level would feel
if he picked up a word-processing manual and it read like Horkimer and
Adorno's _The Dialectics of Enlightenment_? ;) The whole point of techncial
writing is to clarify, simplify, and to organize informational material in
such a way that someone without a skilled background in the subject or an
ability to follow sentences longer than 10 words or so can learn how to use
or understand something without a great deal of anguish or difficulty. Now,
if you wrote an academic paper for your peers with that goal in mind, I
susepct you'd get laughed out the auditorium. In academia, the adult
version of "see spot run" does not sell. In technical writing, it
represents the very best of what we produce.

One area that techncial writers and academic writers have in common is
jargon. The ways in which each much treat jargon, however, are on opposide
sides of the spectrum. An academic is expected to learn and then to use
jargon--or the specialized terms related to his field of study--in ways
that demonstrate to an elite audience composed of other experts in the
field that he understands them thoroughly. Jargon's original use, of
course, is as a form of shorthand that specialists in a particular area of
study find invaluable when communicating very complex ideas to one another.
But even when used strictly for that benign purpose, jargon doesn't have
much of a place in communcations to non-experts, except in small,
carefully-applied doses. Thus, a good technical writer will often strive to
keep specialized terms in his writing to a minimum, and, when he must use
them, to clearly and simply explain each at its first occurance. Often the
"fights" that conscientious technical writers get into with engineering
staff or business managers have to do with the latter groups' tendency to
create multi-syllabic jargon terms and obscure acronyms at a prolific rate
when commonplace, simple terms for the same concepts or objects already

You understand I'm talking about the worst in academic writing, I hope. I'm
not suggesting that all academic writers pull these tricks--just that so
many of them do that the bad habits are not hard to pick up by
someone--like an overawed student--who admires the people who use them.

Even if you are a good academic writer, your intention is to develop an
argument or idea and convince others that it is true. The style of writing
you use, the way you organize your material, the way in which you structure
an individual paragraph, the words that you choose, etc., even if clear and
non-jargonish, still must fit themselves to your intention of proving a
point. In technical writing, there is no theory to convince others of, no
thesis to expand on, no new or startling ideas to present. Instead, you try
to make a person's understanding of software, equipment, or a system as
easy and as effortless as possible. Obviously, the styles and forms of
writing you use to achieve this goal are different from those you use in
rhetorical or argumentative writing.

Finally, even the best academic writers, in my experience, have great
difficulty in refraining from "showing off." It's a part of what you do to
prove you're a good academian. Even if that self-display is done by a
superb writer, who is capable of beautifully clear writing, it will
inevitably cause confusion and frustration in the lowest-common denominator
of reader, because it will probably include unfamilar words, unfamiliar
(athough elegant) usages, and very complex ideas. Any time a technical
writer indulges in this sort of self-display, the result is confusion (why
is he saying this? why is he saying it _this_ way?) and frustration. When
you read very good techncial writing, in my opinion, you should never be
aware that there is an author or that there is any point of view. The
"style" should be next to invisible and should serve to convey the meaning
so clearly and effortlessly that the thought that someone had to think up
these words at some point should never enter your head. Bad technical
writers are never invisible in this way in their work. Their "style" and
their agenda--as well as their usage errors--stick out like sunflowers in a
rose garden, and even if you are not a professional editor, even if you
don't know why, you will find yourself getting really pissed off at the
manuals they produce.

I guess most of what I'm saying above boils down to one word: complication.
In academic writing, although lots of lipservice is paid to "elegance" and
"simplicity," complexity is a goal that you strive for, whether you're
willing to admit it or not. In technical writing, where your primary goal
is to clearly explain something that already exists, not to contribute
something new or original to the subject matter, complication spells death.

Did you read the contributions to this thread from the people who
administer a test in which you write a user's manual for a tape dispenser
or some other simple object? I love that idea, and if I ever find myself in
the challenging position of having to hire other writers, I will apply it
assiduously. This sort of test should show up the people who do not
remember how to write clearly and simply, without unnecessary complications
or baroque verbal flourishes, much more clearly than an interview with them

Nina P.

Nina Panzica
Masterpiece Media
(404) 237-7889
Can't reach me at the above number? Try my pager: 404-596-7889
mailto:panin -at- mindspring -dot- com

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