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Effective Writing: a short review

Notes based on the book: "Effective Writing"
by Christopher Turk and John Kirkman.

Introduction

Like riding a bike, writing could be a great satisfaction if dominated and performed with passion. Judgement, tact, and resources of language are the means for what the audience needs, the best way of presenting the information, and to get it done. So, is writing a professional skill? it certainly is, and one should take as much pride of it as any other technical skill.

We have received teaching about writing based on a number of rules that help us to produce a clear piece of text. Yet, those rules were not meant for neither our technical writing skills nor the audience who is people with expertise in the subject.

So, the writing style is designed to impress rather than to communicate.

technical writing is often poor because writers are frequently not given a clear enough brief for the job. Asked to ‘write a report in production’, they may not be told for whom, why, and for what purpose. Vague and inadequate specifications invite poor reports.

Newton did not feel the need to obfuscate his meaning with inflated style; the simple language of clear thinking was exciting enough without decoration. Be careful with the lack of professionalism when trying to obscure the meaning of your work.

The principles: what are the basic constraints which apply to any form of communication? The first aim is communicating, not just a mere print of information; a text written down without this basic is a wasted work. The aim in most scientific and engineering writing must be to transfer ideas and present the information to other people; everything else is a preparation to this end.

The communication of information is the first basic principle. This principle is the basis of effective communication. A writer’s first job is to choose the medium according to the audience. He or she must ask; what sort of information, of what complexity, and in what language can the reader easily receive?

In technical communication, the more demanding the message, the less noise there must be. Any interference with the signal can be thought of as ‘noise’.

There are many kinds of interference in written communication which can be described as noise. For instance; irrelevant associations, confused arguments, pomposity, subconscious distaste, or if the reader feels that the writer is trying to sound clever, then the reception of the message may result disturbed.

For the reader there are others problems of noise; such as competing stimuli, all sort of stresses - both physical and mental, mechanical noise, lack of ventilation, tiredness, and factors such as health and general state of mind, all affect the way the message is decoded. Writers are not helpless when faced with these problems of noise. They can adjust the encoding to allow for distraction. By adjusting the rate at which they upload information they can allow for distraction. By careful signposting, and repetition of key points they can reinforce the reader attention making the reading less demanding.

The aim and the audience


Identifying the aim, what am I trying to achieve? which is not what is my subject? So, what is the aim of writing? Your will probably want:

  • to describe
  • to explain
  • to instruct
  • to specify
  • to evaluate and recommend
  • to provoke debate but not seem to lead
  • to persuade
  • to concede and apologize
  • to protest
  • to reject

Which information you include in a document and how you arrange it is dictated largely by your intention in writing it. Consider, for example, you might approach some of the different writing tasks we have mentioned, if your subject was a familiar fire extinguisher or an electric fire. Think what would be essential if you have to:

  • describe how it is built
  • explain how it works
  • tell a group how to use it
  • teach a group how to build one

Each task would start with different information: a description would start with a general appearance, an explanation with aim and purpose. Telling someone how to use it would start with an action, and teaching a group to make one might start by listing raw materials.

How it is built

A fire extinguisher is a metal cylinder about two feet high, and nine inch across, painted red, with an outlet at the top.

How it works

A fire extinguisher is used to spray water or chemicals under pressure on to a fire to control it...

How to use it

Pick up the fire extinguisher, point the nozzle away from yourself and towards the fire, and hit the knob smartly with your fist...

How to make it

Take a two-foot length of thick-wall steel tubing...

Although each of these pieces of information may appear at some point in each type of writing tasks, both the order and the amount of detail will vary.

Selecting information


Arrangement of information

We have suggested that a writer’s objective must be to make it convenient for readers to digest the information. But it is essential to do more than making information convenient to receive. It must command the readers’ attention: it must be presented in a way that looks attractive and useful. So, which points will strike the greatest response from the readers?. These points must be highlighted by careful ordering and emphasis.

  • There is no one correct way of organizing a technical or scientific document. The best choice of tactics depends on what you are trying to achieve, and for whom you are writing.
  • Seven point plan: effective writing.

Planning and preparation

  1. Analyse your aim: preferably write it down.
  2. Consider your audience: thinking about their needs will help you to orientate your information in a way which is reassuringly planned and decisive.
  3. Make a plan: write the main headings, go through your notes cross-referencing with the plan to fill the blanks. (ordering the individuals points as well as the main sections; none of them is forgotten or overlooked.) The tactic is to divide and conquer.
  4. Discuss a synopsis:

Writing


  1. Draft the text; the main thing is to not lose impetus conserving the flow during writing.
  2. Forget it! leave the draft overnight.
  3. Revise and edit; read the entire draft marking possible corrections. The best is done by stages: spend some time reflecting on the passages which need restructuring, then work through the facts which need checking (use sources, library). Finally turn your attention to the style and to the mechanics of language.

 

 

 

Francisco Calderon

Position: CFSA PhD Student
Supervisor: Sandra Chapman and Richard Dendy
Topic: Non-linear systems, fusion and Astrophysical plasmas.
Funding: Becas Chile
Background:

2009: Licentiate in Physics with mention in Astronomy, at UCN.

2010: M.Sc. in Physics, at UCN.