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

Lesson 8

Checklists for Specific Writing Tasks

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In this Lesson, you'll learn how to answer the most important questions about seven different writing tasks. You can design your whole document around your careful answers to these questions.

Every writing task you tackle is different. Here are the most common writing jobs scientists and technical people face:


Some have large audiences; some very limited audiences. All of your readers will have different levels of understanding about your area of expertise and different needs and predispositions toward what you have to say.

Yet the audiences for each of these categories tend to have some needs in common. That makes it possible to make a checklist for each category that addresses those needs -- the most important things to pay attention to as you put your pencil to paper (or finger to keyboard).

You can use these checklists in three ways: Fill one out before you begin work on your next paper, to form the core outline. The more detailed and specific your answers, the more useful they will be for putting your outline together, and the less work you will have to do to flesh it out. You can also use it to check completed papers. And third, you can even attach a blank checklist to copies you submit for review or approval, to speed the review process.

Here, then, are seven checklists you can use on the job to make sure you're including the essential elements of your particular writing task. Look them all over. Then we'll practice applying one of them to a writing task of your own.


HOW TO WRITE PROPOSALS THAT WIN

When you write a proposal, you are usually offering to do some work or produce some product at a specified price for a specific customer. Your proposal has the best chance of succeeding if your product closely matches your customer's need, the price is one he can afford, and if you can deliver on time.

Here are some questions to answer while you are writing a proposal. Make sure the answers are prominently spelled out where your customer can easily find them.

SUPPOSE YOU HAD TO REVIEW THIS PROPOSAL AND TO DECIDE WHETHER OR NOT TO FUND IT. WHAT WOULD YOU LOOK FOR FIRST TO HELP YOU MAKE THAT DECISION?

IS THAT INFORMATION UP-FRONT AND EASY TO FIND?

WHAT SPECIFIC NEED OR PROBLEM DOES YOUR PRODUCT OR SERVICE ADDRESS?

HOW WILL YOUR PRODUCT OR SERVICE MAKE YOUR CUSTOMER'S LIFE EASIER?

IF YOU ARE OFFERING A SERVICE, HOW WILL YOUR CUSTOMER KNOW WHEN THE JOB IS DONE?

WHERE ARE THE COSTS OF THE PRODUCT OR SERVICE CLEARLY SPELLED OUT?

WHERE HAVE YOU CONVINCED YOUR CUSTOMER THAT YOU CAN ACTUALLY SUPPLY THE PROPOSED PRODUCT OR SERVICE?

WHERE ARE COSTS BROKEN DOWN SO THAT THE CUSTOMER CAN SELECT PARTS OF YOUR PRODUCT OR SERVICE THAT BEST SUIT HIS NEEDS?

WHERE DO YOU CLEARLY STATE HOW LONG IT WILL TAKE YOU TO DELIVER YOUR PRODUCT OR SERVICE?

IF YOU ARE SELLING A PRODUCT, WHAT AFTER-SALE ARRANGEMENTS DO YOU OFFER FOR TRAINING, MAINTENANCE, PARTS AND SERVICE?

WHAT EXTRA-COST ITEMS ARE LIKELY TO BE NEEDED, WHICH ARE NOT INCLUDED IN YOUR PROPOSAL?

WHAT BEST QUALIFIES YOU TO SUPPLY YOUR PRODUCT OR SERVICE, RATHER THAN ANY OF YOUR COMPETITORS?

IF YOU ARE PROPOSING A RESEARCH PROGRAM, DO YOU AVOID VAGUE WORDS LIKE "INVESTIGATE" OR "DEVELOP" WITHOUT BUILT-IN INDICATORS THAT TELL WHEN THE JOB IS DONE?

HAVE YOU RELEGATED MOST OF THE DETAILS AND SPECIFICATIONS TO APPENDICES?


HOW TO WRITE RESEARCH REPORTS THAT INFORM

When you report on your research or investigation, you are telling a specific audience what you have found out and why it is important. Some audiences are interested in how much it cost and other administrative details.

Make sure you clearly answer all these questions where your readers can quickly and easily find them:

WHO, SPECIFICALLY, ARE YOU WRITING TO? DEFINE A TYPICAL READER OF YOUR REPORT.

WHAT ARE HER MAJOR CONCERNS?

SUPPOSE YOU ARE THE ONE YOU ARE WRITING THIS REPORT FOR. WHAT WILL YOU LOOK FOR FIRST AS YOU BEGIN READING THIS REPORT?

IS THAT INFORMATION UP-FRONT AND EASY TO FIND?

STATE THE PROBLEM YOUR RESEARCH PROJECT ADDRESSES, IN THE FORM OF A QUESTION.

WHY IS THIS PROBLEM IMPORTANT?

WHAT PROGRESS HAVE OTHERS MADE TOWARD SOLVING THIS PROBLEM?

WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO ATTACK THIS PROBLEM?

WHAT IS THE PRINCIPAL NEW RESULT OF YOUR RESEARCH?

HOW DOES THIS RESULT RELATE TO THE PROBLEM AS STATED ABOVE?

WHAT DO YOU EXPECT YOUR READER, DEFINED ABOVE, TO DO ABOUT YOUR RESULT? HOW MIGHT HE USE IT?

LIST SEVERAL IMPORTANT DETAILS ABOUT WHAT YOU DID, AND HOW YOU DID IT, THEN ARRANGE THEM IN DESCENDING ORDER OF IMPORTANCE TO YOUR READER. LIST THE FIRST THREE HERE.

(IF REQUIRED) HOW MUCH DOES YOU RESEARCH COST, IN EQUIPMENT, MANPOWER, TIME AND DOLLARS?

ARE DETAILS THAT ARE OF INTEREST TO ONLY A SMALL PART OF YOUR AUDIENCE PUT INTO APPENDICES?


HOW TO WRITE HELPFUL INSTRUCTION MANUALS

Instruction manuals and product documentation, more than any other kind of writing, require you to have a clear grasp of the needs, the level of intelligence, and training of your audience. Because your readers will generally have a very different understanding of your product than you have, putting yourself in their place may be especially difficult. Therefore, you should make full use of feedback from representative users of your product during both the design and the documentation phases.

DOES YOUR TITLE CLEARLY TELL WHAT THE MANUAL IS FOR?
COMPLETE: "HOW TO...."

WAS THIS MANUAL WRITTEN AS AN AFTERTHOUGHT, OR WAS IT INTEGRATED WITH THE PRODUCT DESIGN?

DO YOU CLEARLY UNDERSTAND THE BACKGROUNDS AND DIFFERENT LEVELS OF EDUCATION OF THE USERS OF YOUR PRODUCT? HOW IS THIS DOCUMENT DESIGNED TO ACCOMODATE THOSE LEVELS?

SUPPOSE YOU ARE THE USER FOR WHOM THIS MANUAL IS WRITTEN. WHAT IS THE FIRST THING YOU WILL LOOK FOR AS YOU BEGIN TO READ THE MANUAL?

IS THAT INFORMATION UP-FRONT AND EASY TO FIND?

HAVE YOU ADEQUATELY EXPLAINED THE BASIC PRINCIPLES OF HOW YOUR PRODUCT WORKS AND WHERE TO FIND MORE DETAILED EXPLANATIONS?

HAVE YOU THOROUGHLY TESTED YOU PRODUCT UNDER ACTUAL FIELD CONDITIONS AND MADE FULL USE OF FEEDBACK FROM THOSE TESTS?

HAVE YOU TAKEN INTO ACCOUNT ALL THE DIFFERENT ENVIRONMENTS YOUR PRODUCT MIGHT BE USED IN?

HAVE YOU INCLUDED A CLEAR STEP-BY-STEP SET OF INSTRUCTIONS FOR GETTING STARTED USING YOUR PRODUCT FOR THE FIRST TIME?

HAVE YOU MADE FULL USE OF PHOTOGRAPHS AND DRAWINGS TO INTRODUCE DIFFICULT OR UNFAMILIAR CONCEPTS OR PROCEDURES?

IF YOU ARE DOCUMENTING A COMPUTER PROGRAM, HAVE YOU INCLUDED A SAMPLE RUN WITH INSTRUCTIONS FOR DUPLICATING IT? ARE ANY MACHINE-DEPENDENT ASPECTS CLEARLY SPELLED OUT?

HAVE YOU ANTICIPATED USER DIFFICULTIES AND PROBLEMS AND TOLD THEM WHERE TO FIND ADDITIONAL HELP?

DOES YOUR MANUAL PROVIDE FOR UPDATES AND IS IT MODULAR SO THAT NEW SECTIONS CAN BE EXCHANGED FOR SUPERSEDED ONES?

HAVE YOU CLEARLY EXPLAINED WHAT ADDITIONAL OPTIONS MIGHT BE AVAILABLE TO ADAPT YOUR PRODUCT TO SPECIAL USES?

HAVE YOU CAREFULLY EXPLAINED ANY DANGEROUS ASPECTS OF USING YOUR PRODUCT?


HOW TO WRITE PROGRESS REPORTS THAT SAVE EVERYONE'S TIME

Progress reports are a part of all scientific, industrial, and business activities. They're supposed to keep managers or sponsors informed about progress toward some goal. Most progress reports are much longer than they need to be, often, ironically, to cover up a lack of progress. The only essential parts of a progress report are a restatement of the goals and subgoals, a statement of how many of the subgoals have been reached, and any changes in plans since the last report.

Because your audience is generally busy executives, make sure your progress report answers these questions concisely, where they can be easily and quickly found:

HAVE YOU REMINDED YOUR READER WHAT THE MAJOR GOALS AND MILESTONES ARE?

SUPPOSE YOU ARE THE MANAGER OR SPONSOR YOU ARE REPORTING TO. WHAT DO YOU MOST WANT TO KNOW ABOUT HOW THIS PROJECT IS GOING RIGHT NOW?

IS THAT INFORMATION UP-FRONT AND EASY TO FIND?

IS WORK PROCEEDING ON SCHEDULE OR NOT?

ARE EXPENDITURES WITHIN BUDGET OR NOT?

IF NOT, WRITE YOUR EXCUSES IN THIS SPACE > (NOT IN YOUR REPORT).

WHAT IS THE MOST SIGNIFICANT THING THAT HAPPENED SINCE THE LAST REPORT?

HOW DO NEW DEVELOPMENTS AND UNFORESEEN DIFFICULTIES AFFECT THE OVERALL OBJECTIVES, MILESTONES, BUDGET AND TIMETABLE?

IS ANYTHING NEW NEEDED?

IS ANY ACTION REQUIRED?

You might want to give this form to those who write progress reports to you.


HOW TO WRITE FEASIBILITY STUDIES THAT MAKE CHOICES EASIER

You write a feasibility study to help someone make a choice. Your job as the writer of such a study is to make that choice as easy as possible, without influencing or biasing it. Choices are easiest when all the alternatives and their consequences are clearly visible and easy to compare.

Make sure your feasibility study answers these questions:

SUPPOSE YOU ARE THE ONE WHO HAS TO DECIDE WHAT TO DO ABOUT THIS STUDY. WHAT DO YOU NEED MOST TO HELP MAKE THAT DECISION EASIER?

IS THAT INFORMATION UP-FRONT AND EASY TO FIND?

HAVE THE ALTERNATIVES BEEN CAREFULLY, THOROUGHLY AND OBJECTIVELY EXAMINED?

WHAT ARE THE CONSEQUENCES OF EACH CHOICE ON ALL RELEVANT AREAS?

WHAT ARE THE RESULTS OF ANY COST/BENEFIT STUDIES?

WHAT ARE THE COSTS AND CONSEQUENCES OF NO ACTION?

WHAT ARE THE IMPACTS ON AND BY THE VARIOUS INTEREST GROUPS?

WHAT ARE THE TIME DEADLINES FOR DECISIONS?

ARE THE CONSEQUENCES GRAPHICALLY DISPLAYED, WHERE POSSIBLE, TO MAKE COMPARISONS EASIER?


HOW TO WRITE JOURNAL ARTICLES FOR LARGE AUDIENCES

Journal articles have the largest audience of all the kinds of writing we consider. Therefore, you have to very carefully select your details for the broadest possible interest. In a journal article, it is most important to state the problem and the reasons behind your work, up front and in words that every reader of that journal will understand.

Most of the questions you have to answer are the same as for a research report. These additional questions also apply:

SUPPOSE YOU ARE A TYPICAL READER OF THIS JOURNAL. WHAT WILL YOU LOOK FOR TO HELP YOU DECIDE WHETHER OR NOT TO CONTINUE READING THIS PAPER?

IS THAT INFORMATION UP-FRONT AND EASY TO FIND?

WHAT ARE THE PARTICULAR INTERESTS OF THE READERS OF THE JOURNAL YOU HAVE SELECTED?

HOW HAVE YOU EDITED AND ARRANGED YOUR DETAILS TO TUNE YOUR PAPER TO THIS AUDIENCE?

HAVE YOU GREATLY SHORTENED YOUR PAPER TO SAVE JOURNAL SPACE?

HAVE YOU CLEARLY PUT YOUR WORK IN PERSPECTIVE WITH THAT OF OTHERS WHO HAVE GONE BEFORE?

DO YOU CITE REPORTS THAT CAN SUPPLY MORE DETAILS FOR ANYONE WHO MIGHT BE INTERESTED?

ARE YOUR ILLUSTRATIONS CLEAR AND SIMPLE?

ARE THEIR CAPTIONS COMPLETE AND SELF-SUFFICIENT?

WHAT WILL A READER LEARN WHO JUST LOOKS AT YOUR ILLUSTRATIONS AND READS THEIR CAPTIONS?

DO YOU HAVE AT LEAST ONE ILLUSTRATION THAT SHOWS THE BASIC CONCEPT BEHIND YOUR PAPER?



HOW TO KEEP EVERYDAY CORRESPONDENCE UNDER CONTROL

If your job requires you to keep up with lots of letters and memos every day, you can quickly get buried in paper if you don't have systematic ways to process it all.

Here's how to keep memos and written orders you generate short and to-the-point:

FIRST AND MOST IMPORTANT: IS THIS LETTER OR MEMO REALLY NECESSARY? (OR COULD I ACCOMPLISH THIS MORE EFFICIENTLY WITH A PHONE CALL?)

DOES YOUR MEMO HAVE A TITLE THAT SAYS WHAT YOU WANT?

DOES YOUR FIRST SENTENCE TELL WHAT {ACTION} YOU WANT THE RECEIVER TO TAKE?

HAVE YOU CLEARLY ANSWERED YOUR READER'S QUESTION: "WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO WITH THIS?"

HAVE YOU CLEARLY STATED WHETHER YOU EXPECT A RESPONSE AND WHAT KIND?

ARE YOU ABLE TO LIMIT YOUR RESPONSES TO JUST THE INFORMATION REQUIRED, WITHOUT INSERTING IRRELEVANT BACKGROUND AND PERSONAL PHILOSOPHY?

DO YOU MAKE FULL USE OF MEMO FORMS WITH BUILT-IN REPLY SHEETS?

Here's a checklist to help you get through the correspondence you receive more efficiently:

DO YOU AND YOUR ORGANIZATION HAVE A WAY TO DISTINGUISH CLEARLY BETWEEN CORRESPONDENCE THAT REQUIRES AN ANSWER AND THAT WHICH DOESN'T? (ACTION MEMOS, ETC.)

ARE YOU ANSWERING AS MUCH OF YOUR CORRESPONDENCE AS POSSIBLE BY PHONE?

DO YOU MAKE FULL USE OF DICTATION AND WORD-PROCESSING EQUIPMENT?

DO YOU MAKE SURE YOUR "IN" BOX IS EMPTY AT THE END OF EACH WORKING DAY?


Now that you've looked over the checklists, pick a sample of your own scientific or technical writing that falls into one of the seven categories. Apply the appropriate checklist to your sample and note with an "N" or "Y" on the checklist which items your piece clearly addresses -- and which have been left out. After each "N," briefly explain how you will take care of each point you left out.


LESSON SUMMARY AND WHERE WE GO FROM HERE

The checklists in this lesson should get you well on your way toward deciding WHAT TO SAY in your paper or report. Once you have your detailed answers, the rest is just filling in the details.

Now you're going to spend a lot of time learning HOW TO SAY IT. The impact of your message depends as much on the way you choose your words and put them together into coherent sentences and paragraphs as it does on the message itself.


-- End of Lesson 8 --

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