Technical Writing Basics: A Guide to Style and Form (2nd Edition)

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9780130291547: Technical Writing Basics: A Guide to Style and Form (2nd Edition)

For one-semester freshman/sophomore-level courses in Technical Writing; and an excellent reference for any course that requires technical writing.Using a reader-friendly approach that is incremental and cumulative, this short, uncluttered guide to technical writing shows students how to take the structures, patterns, and strategies of writing learned in a Basic Composition course (summary, process, analysis, and persuasion) and apply them in different kinds of technical documents. Direct practical explanations, copious real-world examples, and a variety of "role-playing" exercises lead students through the process of document production and assessment--or what the author calls "transactional" writing: getting another person to read one's material, presenting such material clearly and accurately, and adhering to standards of format acceptable in the field. Unlike most other texts (which focus on the writing needs in the executive domain of the major corporation only), this guide covers a variety of non-corporate working environments that also require skill in technical communications (e.g., social service agencies, institutions, and small businesses).

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From the Back Cover:

A guidebook for college and the workplace, this compact text introduces the basics and builds on them to cover:

  • practical examples of simple and complex tasks in technical writing
  • constructing the research report
  • planning and executing a job search
  • collaborative and international issues in communication

Its illustrations and exercises reflect real-world challenges in writing for business, agencies, and personal results.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

To the Student and Teacher

Special characteristics govern writing within, to, or for businesses, social-service agencies, health-care providers and government entities. Often, textbooks surveying the challenges of such "Writing have stressed one of its several functions. For example, some authors teach entirely from a "technical" perspective, limiting discussion to the mechanics of production. Manuals depicting the proper way to construct tables, pie graphs, and charts are valuable resources; however, they supplement—rather than explain—the process of communication in the workplace. Similarly, a text focusing entirely upon the presentation of data may create an impression that one does not use persuasive techniques when informing an audience. Yet most students know that even the driest report may be made appetizing if its "package"—the format—is enhanced. Communication theorists, in fact, have a difficult time determining where "information" ceases and where "persuasion" begins; the two overlap, rather than comprise the ends of a continuum. A third editorial choice made by writers of texts focuses upon the persuasive aspects of communication in the workplace, as if the modes of presentation mattered most.

This text draws from each of these partial perspectives in surveying holistic challenges within business and technical writing. Because this book is intended for students who have taken a freshman composition course but who have not necessarily worked in fields that demand the use of business and technical writing, its examples—real or fictionalized—are practical and basic. Writing letters of application and adjustment, constructing informational and persuasive reports, and encapsulating material so that it can be convincingly communicated are all activities shared by most college students; therefore, this book derives much of its illustration from such models. Throughout the text, then, three goals drive the content:

  1. Students should study the requirements of informative writing.
  2. Students should learn how the techniques of persuasion operate in writing in the workplace.
  3. Students should practice casting informative and persuasive writing into an appropriate format.

Since what we practice depends on different aspects of business and technical writing but transcends it, I recommend that we call such communication transactional writing. In a transaction, the communicator provides information to the recipient of communication, but the recipient often must give up something as well: a prejudice (against the action proposed), free time (which could be spent eating lunch instead of reading a memo), or a method of doing something (which the information just received happens to contradict). Frequently, one must offer the flattest data in terms calculated to make reading a report seem worthwhile. Getting the other person to read one's material, presenting such material clearly and accurately, and adhering to standards of format acceptable in the field become the goals of transactional writing.

Educational Approach. The exercises and assignments in this text build in complexity, chapter by chapter, as well as inside such chapters; for example, in Chapter 7 the preliminary report (Figure 7.16) contains material that can be used in the proposal (Figure 7.17), and the final report (Figure 7.18) includes imports from the proposal itself. Such an incremental, cumulative approach assists students who use computers in their writing, as saved material that constitutes a previous assignment can be retrieved, modified, and transferred to the new document. Should the final report be collaborative, students can integrate their reports on disk as well. Such a collaborative method might encourage students in similar fields to work together to create unified projects. This approach reaffirms the future value of the work the student has just completed, and is pragmatic-real examples and models demonstrate what should be done.

Synopsis of the Table of Contents

This text is conceptually divided into three sections. The first unit, the "apprenticeship;' covers the basics of transactional writing and encompasses Chapters I through 3. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 expand the scope of technical and business writing, building on the foundation established earlier but introducing more complex assignments. Chapters 7 and 8 put the acquired knowledge to work in creating two polished, multisectioned documents: the formal report and the job portfolio. A short list of references and an appendix on graphics follow.

Chapter 1—Introduction

The first section in Chapter 1 , What Is "Business" or "Technical" Writing?, surveys the features of transactional writing, exploring differences between such writing and the academic prose taught in composition classes. It discusses working together in small groups to achieve a writing goal, growing a larger document from a smaller one—or from fragments—and using computers to assist the process of creating a document.

Saying What You Mean surveys the basics: grammar and usage. It identifies sentence types and problems, focusing on the impact of phrasing but discussing other mechanical issues as well. A section on diction encourages writing within the context of "world English," avoiding localisms and expressions that might confuse or antagonize readers.

Chapter 2—Organizing Information

Chapter 2 discusses how we impose patterns of logical order upon the infinite field of data around us, selecting from this field that which is necessary to support our message. This chapter reviews specific templates that structure logical presentations—many of them called "modes" in writing texts—such as summary, process, analysis, comparison, and persuasion.

Chapter 3—Letters, Memos, and Related Forms

Chapter 3 presents a simple organizing framework of business communication: the message-support-closure framework. It next discusses the features of letters, memos, and transmittal documents, drawing on the writing patterns analyzed in Chapter 2.

Chapter 4—Our House to Yours: Using Summaries to Inform

Chapter 4 is a respite from all that memo writing, but surveys documents similar in form: bulletins, descriptive leaflets and flyers, and public service announcements. This discussion expands the work with summary begun in Chapter 2.

Chapter 5—Directions and Instructions: Writing About Process

Chapter 5 focuses on process writing: informative and persuasive documents explaining how to do something or how something gets accomplished. The chapter surveys posted directions, instructional pamphlets, and other examples.

Chapter 6—Using Analysis: Writing a Report

Chapter 6 explores analysis and its ally, comparison. It suggests ways to use the templates introduced in Chapter 2 and develops techniques of ensuring continuity when writing analytically. This section offers tips on constructing projects in groups.

Chapter 7—Writing the Formal Report

Chapter 7 puts into practice all the skills learned while using this book; the templates studied reappear as parts within a larger concept and assume subordinate roles within that bigger structure. This chapter also covers research techniques, the use of traditional and electronic sources, and writing practices. Reporting on work-in-progress leads to writing the formal proposal; this document can be expanded to construct the final report.

Chapter 8—Selling Yourself

Chapter 8 extends the art of informing and persuading to one's search for employment. This chapter covers the research involved in job seeking (both in .keeping a work-history file and in tracking down leads in the library). It reminds the reader that modern job searches can be greatly facilitated by new CD-ROM tools and the Internet. This chapter then looks at the components of a job seeker's arsenal: résumés, cover letters, vitae, and portfolios. The chapter discusses interviews and follow-up correspondence as well.


This section lists other sources of information about business and technical writing, which will enhance and augment the work begun in this text.

Appendix—Enhancing Your Document with Graphics

The appendix surveys integrating pictorial material into your document.


This little text's long genesis owes much to the students I've taught for more than twenty years who have helped me understand the challenges of teaching writing. Their energy and insights have enhanced each class. I want to commend Mountain State University, too, for its appreciation of my project and its support of my endeavors.

Neil Manning deserves thanks for sharing his perspectives from industrial research. (I now get to repay Neil for putting me in the dedication of his engineering dissertation.)

The camaraderie and hospitality of Doug, Mary Leigh, Jessica, and Jeff Burns have been outstanding. Thanks, too, Doug, for helping me learn about technical communication in the biosciences.

I'm grateful to Steve Helba, editor in chief; Frank Mortimer, executive editor; Nancy Kesterson, editorial assistant; Syl Huning, former editorial assistant; and the staff at Prentice Hall for believing in this project and for superlative guidance and support. Christie Catalano deserves thanks for encouraging me in the very beginning when I had a rough-hewn prospectus in hand.

I also thank the following reviewers for their helpful suggestions: Charles Albrecht, Waukesha County Technical College; Richard G. Anthony, Cuyahoga Community College; Woodbridge C. Brown, Central Missouri State University; Susan Chin, DeVry Institute of Technology; and Herb J. Smith, Southern Polytechnic State University.

Additionally, the comments of Kevin Nash, Lee Cook, Bonniejean Alexander, Staci Craft, Vincent Massey, and Paula Fields were particularly helpful in revising this edition.

Finally, my wife Kathy, my daughter Rachel, and my mother deserve, as always, my thanks and my love.

To these people, and to all my future, readers, I dedicate this book.

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