Analytical Writing for Science and Technology
Copyright © 1996 by T. M. Georges.

Lesson 3

How to Overcome Writing Handicaps

colorbar

In this Lesson:

This lesson calls attention to some harmful attitudes and conditioning that can handicap you from the start and keep your scientific and technical writing from being as effective as it could be. Some of these attitudes come from how you were taught to write in school. Others come from bad habits you picked up on the job. You'll have a hard time changing any of your writing habits until you free yourself of some of these writing hangups.

At this point, you may be saying, "Let's get to the meat and stop belaboring these philosophical preliminaries!" If you feel that examining the reasons behind your writing problems is wasting your time, you can always skip ahead to the part that looks most interesting to you. But I urge you to be patient. You'll make much better use of the tools I'll give you later if you first get rid of these barriers that can keep you from even learning about clear writing.


YOUR BIGGEST HANDICAP OF ALL: DECIDING TO WRITE

Writing is a terrible way to communicate. Why? Because the most important element of any communication is usually absent from all written communications. Can you guess what that missing element is?

Of course -- it's FEEDBACK. When you're in a face-to-face conversation, you can watch the other person's facial expressions and body postures and listen to the responses you get. You can immediately tell whether your message is "getting through." If you see or hear something that tells you you're not having the impact you wanted, you can immediately change your message, add information or try something else. Even when visual information is missing, as in a phone conversation, auditory cues, both words and tone of voice, give you enough feedback to tell you whether the person on the other end understands or needs more information.

Is this document really necessary?

As you might guess from the volume of paper (and E-mail) addressed to you each day, we could all get along just fine without a lot of it. Much writing is simply a waste of time and resources (sender's and receiver's). Before you decide to write anything, ask yourself first whether you're handicapping yourself by eliminating the feedback you could get by communicating in person. Then ask yourself if you're placing any undue burdens on others by adding to the volume of paper (and electronic documents) they have to process. In other words, ask: Is this document really necessary?

In spite of its inefficiency, almost everyone in science and technology today has to communicate in writing to some extent. Writing is justified, of course, when you have to reach a large audience quickly and can't make personal contact with each one. You also need to write when the information you have is complicated and takes a lot of thought and concentration to understand, and if you want your audience to keep the information for future reference.

So, even though writing is a terrible way to communicate, there seem to be times when nothing else will do. But when you do choose to write, recognize that you're depriving yourself of valuable feedback. The question is: what can you do to compensate for that missing feedback?

You have several choices. One is to proceed without feedback. That, unfortunately, is most people's choice and leads to all the misunderstanding that written messages cause.

Another choice is to make up feedback. Depending on how good you are at putting yourself in someone else's shoes, and imagining the responses you'll get, this can work pretty well. It can also backfire, if you anticipate incorrectly (or wishfully).

A third choice is to actually solicit feedback in advance from your audience, or at least a reasonable sample of it. As we go along, I'll give you more information about how to anticipate your readers' responses and how to get some real feedback while you write.


WHY WRITING SEEMS LIKE HARD WORK FOR MOST OF US

If you find your scientific and engineering writing assignments difficult, even painful, it's probably because you're trying to do something you were never trained to do. While you were preparing for your present career, you probably never realized how important writing would be in your day-to-day job.

Questions about your writing attitudes

1. Do you believe that clear writing requires inborn talent?

2. Can clear, effective writing be taught?

3. Is technical writing more like an art or a science?

4. Is it necessary to get "inspired" before you can get started on a writing assignment?

5. Do you think there are objective ways to measure your writing's effectiveness?

If you're a scientist or engineer, you may have imagined your time being spent designing spacecraft or discovering cures for cancer. Whatever your dreams, no one ever told you how much of your time and energy would be taken up with various kinds of writing.

For most of you, your formal education didn't help much, either. Maybe you had to write lab reports, but no one really explained how to do it. So the strategies you use to get through your daily writing assignments are based on a lot of myths and misinformation you picked up along the way. What you need now is a way to erase those inefficient writing habits and to replace them with new skills that will get you through your writing tasks quickly and efficiently. And more important, you need specific tools that will give your writing power.

Take a look at the questions in the box at the right. Think about these or any other beliefs and attitudes you harbor about writing. Prepare to question and reject any that might be holding you back.

This course is based on five premises: (1) inborn talent is not required, (2) techniques for clear, effective writing can be taught, (3) you can more usefully view technical writing as a science, (4) it is not necessary to "get inspired", and (5) there are objective ways to measure your writing's effectiveness.

Let's look closely at six common myths that can get in your way and make writing harder for you than it has to be:


MYTH NO. 1: CLEAR WRITING REQUIRES INBORN TALENT

A lot of people still believe you can't teach another person how to write clearly and effectively. In other words, if "the gift" isn't there in your genes, forget it. If you've been frustrated by previous efforts to improve your own writing, or by efforts to get others to improve their writing, you may think that it's possible to teach only the rules and mechanics, so that whether you're great or just mediocre still depends on innate, intangible "talent"

Do you have to get inspired?

A first cousin to the "talent" myth is the "inspiration" myth. Many people think they can't get started on a writing task until they feel inspired. So they wait around and seek diversions until that "spark" arrives. Waiting for inspiration is OK for poets, but if you're trying to get a job done, it's just plain wasting time. This course replaces inspiration with specific procedures, so that you never have any doubt about what has to be done next.

Is clear writing really a mysterious creative talent like the ability to compose music or cook a gourmet meal? This course is based on the premise that talent is just a word we use to describe an ability to perform a complex task whose detailed workings we don't yet understand. Because many talents appear to employ subconscious resources, they seem to operate in mysterious ways. But the mystery disappears when the steps are set forth and the procedures for making them automatic are defined.

The history of science is full of examples of black arts that have been transformed into more-or-less exact sciences. Physics and chemistry evolved from the mysticism of astrology and alchemy. The transformation of medicine and the social sciences is as yet incomplete. Things that we still call arts, like "creative" writing, are practiced by imitation and by trial and error, and artists have to wait for the right "inspiration" before they can get started.

Because the detailed process that a good expository writer goes through in organizing and communicating his thoughts has not yet been precisely defined, technical writing, as it is now practiced, must still be regarded as part art and part science. In this course, we'll treat the task more like a science by reducing it to a sequence of well-defined and teachable operations and by adopting objective tests for measuring how well you're doing. But before you can automatically write clearly, you'll still have to practice a lot -- as with any "talent". But I hope that the specific principles I'll give you here will make that task more systematic and purposeful and will help you treat the process more scientifically and less like an art form.


MYTH NO. 2: THAT'S THE WAY THEY TAUGHT ME IN SCHOOL

Answer these questions about what you learned about writing in school:

1. When Miss Fernpot gave you a test asking you everything you knew about the Spanish Inquisition, was it best to write an essay with 50 words? 100 words? 250 words? 1000 words?

2. Are ambiguity and suspense useful things to incorporate in your writing?

3. Did you ever really understand what a dangling participle is?

4. Did you ever figure out how to diagram sentences?

Which of these words would you use?

studyinvestigate
doperform
airatmosphere
carry outimplement
bestoptimum
useutilize
showindicate
startinitiate
nowcurrently
helpfacilitate
tryendeavor
find outascertain

5. Suppose you have to write an essay for English class and have to choose between using words in the left or right columns in this table. Which column will get you the better grade?

6. Which of these aspects of your writing do you think most influenced your final grade in English Composition?

SPELLING

GRAMMAR

PUNCTUATION

GRAMMATICAL USAGE

"STYLE"

READABILITY

CLARITY

VOCABULARY

LOGICAL REASONING

ORGANIZATION

Can you see the inverse relation between the qualities that are easiest to grade and the skills you need today to communicate scientific and technological concepts clearly?


EXPOSITORY VS. CREATIVE WRITING

The Purposes of Three Kinds of Writing

Novel/DramaPoetry Exposition
narration,
tell a story
insight,
personal view
inform,
persuade

Most of the writing you were exposed to were literary classics -- novels, drama and poetry -- entirely different kinds of writing from what you need in today's scientific and technologcal communities. To see how different they all are, look at this table, which has been adapted from Analytical Writing by Thomas P. Johnson.

Notice that each of the three different kinds of writing has a different purpose. In a novel or drama, the purpose is narration; you're telling a story. In poetry, the purpose is quite different. The poet is not usually as interested in telling a story as in providing a kind of insight or personal perspective on some event. Poetry is usually so vague and subjective that each reader gets something different from it. Each interpretation is shaped by each reader's own experience.

The Subjects of Three Kinds of Writing

Novel/DramaPoetry Exposition
people: their
lives and problems
ideas &
feelings
things &
developments

In fiction, it doesn't matter very much whether every reader interprets a written passage in exactly the same way. In fact, as in the visual arts, ambiguity often enhances the artist's message. But in science and technology, it's a disaster if everyone interprets what you're saying differently. So one good test of effective technical writing is: Will everyone who reads this message interpret it in exactly the same way?

This table lists the subject of each kind of writing you learned about. In the novel or drama, the subject is usually people and what they do with their lives. Otherwise, it's not very interesting. In poetry, the subject matter is usually a little more abstract -- universal ideas or feelings. Things that are subjective and have different meanings for each reader. The subject of exposition is things or developments, and most often, things.

The Character of Three Kinds of Writing

Novel/DramaPoetry Exposition
suspenseful,
withholds
information
allusive,
indirect,
ambiguous,
metaphorical
direct,
objective,
specific

What, then, is the character that results from the different purpose and subject matter of these different kinds of writing? A novel or drama is often suspenseful. The writer hopes that by withholding information he will make you hang in there until the end. So suspense is just a trick to hold your attention.

The character of poetry is allusive, or indirect. It's ambiguous and never gets directly to the point. It skirts around the point and gives you insight about a feeling or an abstract idea, but it never faces the point directly. In exposition, the character is objective, just the opposite of poetry.

As you might expect, the structure of these three kinds of writing is entirely different, too. A novel "climbs up" from a beginning to an end, so you don't really get to the main point, or "punch line," until the end. When you go to a play, you don't leave before the end -- unless it's really boring -- because you'll miss the most important part. The same for a novel, especially a whodunnit.

The Structure of Three Kinds of Writing

Novel/DramaPoetry Exposition

In poetry, the structure circles around the main point and never faces it directly. It's not supposed to -- the purpose is to provide insight by comparing the author's subjective account of something with your own feelings about it.

So what is the right structure for exposition? Contrary to what you may have learned in school, I will argue that the best structure is represented by a pyramid, in which the main point is supported by a base of amplifying details. In other words, you get to the point right away and then give the details.

Are you still writing for your English teacher?

When Miss Fernpot told everyone to write a thousand-word essay on everything you knew about the Spanish Inquisition, didn't you really feel that fifty words would have done the job? You were probably right, but that wasn't the proper attitude if you wanted an A. That's where you learned verbosity -- the art of padding your writing to create the impression that you knew what you were talking about. There were no lessons on how to get an idea across as plainly and concisely as possible. Instead, you learned to write as though you were paid by the word.

If you learned to use long words, verbose essays, suspense, and ambiguity to get an A in English, you've been conditioned to produce writing that conforms instead of informing. If spelling, punctuation and grammar were the "important" things in school, you missed the essential elements of informing clearly and logically.

Can you see how much trouble you can get into if you apply what you learned about classical English composition to the task of writing a technical memo or report? Who will read your memos if you create suspense by saving your "punch line" until the end? What kind of impact will your technical papers have if you skirt around the main point and never face it directly? Or if you keep your reader in doubt by making your language deliberately vague and ambiguous? Such devices are the useful tools of playwrights, novelists and poets, but have no place in today's science and technology.

Another difference between the writing you did in school and the writing you do today is that in school you generally worked alone, in forced isolation from others. You wrote your composition, submitted it to the instructor and waited for your grade. That kind of isolation from your audience can be deadly in science and technology. You have to work with others, to find out in advance what they expect, and to learn how to tune your writing to their needs. No one taught you in school how to get the feedback you need in your writing today.

Probably the most damage to your writing skills during your education was inflicted by those who taught you about the structure of the English language. Most grammar courses have left us with such a terror of rigid rules about dangling participles, split infinitives and sentence diagramming, that any mention of grammatical terminology immediately strikes fear into most of our hearts. (This, by the way, is a good reason to avoid books and courses put together by anyone who has ever had anything to do with teaching English.) Later on, I'll show you how to make grammar work for you, not against you, and how to fearlessly throw around subordinate clauses with the best of them.

For now, my point is that most of your formal training about writing may be useless and even counterproductive, so don't be surprised if I give you new information that contradicts everything you learned in school.


"I like the exact word, the clarity of statement, and here and there a touch of good grammar for picturesqueness." - Mark Twain


Beginning of Lesson 3 || Contents || Continue with Lesson 3