Analytical Writing for Science and Technology
Copyright © 1996 by T. M. Georges.
Foreword: What Exactly is Analytical Writing?
It's a way to get technical information across, so that your readers immediately find out what's important and why -- without getting bogged down in a swamp of details and technical jargon. Analytical writing is simple, direct, concise, and to-the-point. It leaves out gobbledygook and avoids the stilted, impersonal style that clutters journal pages and clogs the machinery of government, corporations, and academia.
WHY 'ANALYTICAL'?I wanted a word that communicates the idea of tuning your writing exactly to your readers' needs. Writing that tells your reader exactly what he wants to know, no more, no less, and leaves him saying, "That's exactly what I wanted to find out." Isn't that the effect you want your reports, memos and papers to have? The word I settled on is ANALYTICAL. When you analyze something, you take it apart and find out what's inside, how it works, what its purpose and meaning are. Your writing is analytical when you analyze the subject matter for your reader -- pre-digesting it, if you will. How many times have you read a report or memo and said, "What does this mean?" or "What am I supposed to do about this?" Analytical writing answers these questions for your reader.
The word analytical has been used before to describe a certain writing style that is crisp, concise, to the point, and informative. In 1966, Thomas P. Johnson wrote a book called Analytical Writing (Harper and Row). In it, he explained how the analytical approach permeates every aspect of your writing, from your choice of words and phrases to the way you organize and present your paper or report. Much of what I will share with you here is an expansion of Johnson's insightful concepts.
The idea behind analytical writing is easier to understand when you contrast it with its opposite: CATALOGICAL writing. The root word here is CATALOG. So catalogical writing looks like a catalog -- an undigested list of facts or information -- like a dictionary or a phone directory, devoid of meaning and significance. When your writing resembles a catalog, your reader has to decode and interpret it, to insert her own meaning and significance. The way she interprets it may have little to do with they way you intended. The result of this mismatch is that you "disconnect" from your reader.
The central idea in learning how to write analytically is putting yourself in your reader's place. This requires you to learn how to think like someone else. Because I can't stress the importance of this ability enough, I will seem to belabor it. Virtually every fault you will find in today's scientific and technical writing stems from the writer's failure to take the reader's point of view into account. Writing analytically requires you to change the way you think about your reader. Great scientific communicators, like Carl Sagan, James Burke, Isaac Asimov, George Gamow, and Richard Feynman, developed this instinct to a fine art. Their common-sense approach to bringing science and technology within the grasp of ordinary people is one you will learn to emulate.
WHO IS THIS COURSE FOR?It's for scientists, engineers, technical managers, technical writers, and editors -- anyone who has to communicate technical information in reports, proposals, journal articles, instruction manuals, in print or electronic media. It is not, however, a remedial course in English grammar. If you need help in this area, I recommend the very enjoyable book by S. F. Wallace called Practically Painless English (Prentice-Hall, 1980). Grammar help is available online from the Guide to Grammar and Writing. If you're not sure about the difference between principal and principle, what colons and semicolons are for, whether media and data are singular or plural, or when to use i.e. vs. e.g., you'll need to brush up in this area, too.
HOW DOES THIS COURSE WORK?In these lessons, you'll receive some simple, easy-to-use tools for evaluating and changing your own writing habits. These tools focus your attention on clear sentence structure, making your ideas flow logically, distinguishing the main point from masses of detail, and informative organization. There are lots of exercises that help you become proficient at using these tools to solve writing problems just like the ones that come up in your day-to-day writing asignments. Then, wherever you see this sign, you'll apply your new tools to samples of your own writing.
When you finish this course, you'll have your own writing tool kit, which you can use on your own scientific and technical writing assignments, to make your words, sentences, paragraphs, and overall presentation more readable, more informative, and more effective.
IMPORTANT: If you want to save your answers to the exercises, you will have to print out each lesson. (Under the copyright, you may print one copy for your own use.) If you reload (refresh) a lesson, your answers will be lost.
ALSO IMPORTANT: The answers you write to the exercises in this course don't go anywhere. They're just on your screen, for your own use. No one else can see them. So feel free to write and rewrite, as you see fit. Again, if you want to save your answers you will have to print them out before leaving your web-browser program. In fact, some of the exercises require you to mark up your printed copy.
BROWSER SETTINGS: This course works best on Netscape Navigator 3 or higher. Set your page width so the text is as wide as the color bar at the top of this page. If you can set font size and style, select 11- or 12-point Arial. Allow the document to set its own colors and background. If you are using a slow connection, you can turn off image loading without missing anything essential.
Although you may at times feel the need to have an instructor look over your shoulder to critique your writing and answer questions, it is important to understand that the purpose of this course is to give you your own objective tools that you can use to critique your own writing, even after you finish this course. I hope this will be even more useful.
If you are taking this course for credit, you will receive instructions about the examinations and grading.
"Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; but teach him how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime." -Mao Tse Tung
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