Shelley, Powers. Consulting with Technical Writers. Praxis. 1:1 (2003).
Ms. Shelley Powers at the University of Texas PhD program in American Studies has written a clear, detailed guide for humanities writing tutors making the transition to technical writing tutoring. In it, she adresses the differences between the two writing styles, and provides many thoughtful approaches to help make the transition.
Powers’s introduction contains two important general guidelines that frame her all her subsequent points. Regarding the likely resistance to advice many engineers or other technical types may have, she states that “the simplest and most helpful thing we can do to address it is to adapt a little.” For many tutors coming from a humanities-based approach, this is important to keep in mind, as there are many differences between technical and non-technical writing, as will be seen below. The other main idea she presents to begin the article is: “we can offer suggestions to make writing as rational as possible—and that is exactly what we ought to do to help writers produce good technical writing.” This statement nicely sums up the requirements of both technical writing and technical writers; a piece of technical writing MUST be rational, clear, and precise. And, as might be guessed, many engineers, scientists, researchers and other technical-minded people respond most readily to structured, logical, reason-based approaches to writing.
Powers begins by considering the ‘prerequisites’ a technical writing tutor should expect from one seeking help. Firstly, she points out that unlike most humanities writing, engineers, scientists and the like usually work in groups, subdividing many tasks including the writing of papers by sections. Powers reminds us that the person coming in for help is often the team member tasked with “tying together” the sections written by others. She recommends that the consultant ask this team member to bring in the entire team – this may be difficult to achieve, but should be pursued. The second, and more critical point she makes, is to ensure that the appropriate format or style guide is available. Many different standards exist for technical writing, and each field or subfield has its own specific requirements and expectations. Powers calls the need for the proper style or format guide “crucial.”
Powers names four aspects of the paper as a whole to address: purpose, audience, clarity, and grammar. Regarding purpose, she states “the writer should be able to tell you, in one sentence, what the writing is supposed to do.” She also stresses the need to know if the focus of the paper “is on the process of acquiring the information or the information itself.” One example of this might be a laboratory experiment report versus a research paper.
Powers next aspect to consider is audience, and this can be a relatively simple determination. Usually an instructor will specify to the student to write for an “educated non-technical audience.” If not thusly specified, it can often be assumed (especially in lab classes) that it should be strictly technical writing, i.e. you are writing for the professor or TA, and they will expect rigorous compliance with the rubric given.
Clarity is the third consideration; here Powers stresses the need to follow the guidelines of the style sheet, as well as “getting into the data as quickly as possible”, which is something many humanities writers would fail to recognize, or consider ‘bad form’. Powers also provides some advice that applies to the variable requirements of technical writing across all fields: sentences/paragraphs can, and should, be fairly short; repetitions of definite nouns is much preferred to ambiguity in pronouns; negative constructions are weak and should be avoided; headings ought to be descriptive; be aware of emphasis, like two vastly different-sized charts; and to to remember that the data should be the focus of the writing.
Powers’s last ‘whole-paper considerations’ is what she calls ‘counterintuitive grammar’, presumably in a nod to humanities-based writing consultants. “Passive voice is not always bad,” she states, and in fact many professors and technical journals will insist on strict adherence to the passive voice. She also addresses the sometimes daunting tense requirements of technical writing. Her simple advice here is to “help the writer make sure the tense stays consistent within each section.”