Teaching technical (re-)writing

I think it would be great to have a more formal way of teaching technical writing for graduate students in engineering. It’s certainly not being taught at (most) undergraduate institutions, and the mistakes are so common across the examples that I’ve seen that there must be a way to formalize the process for students. Since we tend to publish smaller things a lot earlier in our graduate career, having a “checklist” approach to writing/editing could be very helpful to first-time authors. There are several coupled problems here:

  • students often don’t have a clear line of thought before they write,
  • they don’t think of who their audience is,
  • they don’t know how to rewrite, or indeed how important it is.

Adding to all of this is that they don’t know how to read a paper. In particular, they don’t know what to be reading for in terms of content or form. This makes the experience of reading “related work” sections incredibly frustrating.

What I was thinking was a class where students learn to write a literature review (a small one) on a topic of their choosing. The first part will be how to read papers and make connections between them. What is the point of a literature review, anyway? The first objective is to develop a more systematic way of reading and processing papers. I think everyone I know professionally, myself included, learned how to do this in an ad-hoc way. I believe that developing a formula would help improve my own literature surveying. The second part of the course would be teaching about rewriting (rather than writing). That is, instead of providing rules like “don’t use the passive voice so much” we could focus on “how to revise your sentences to be more active.” I would also benefit from a systematic approach to this for my own writing.

I was thinking of a kind of once-a-week writing seminar style class. Has anyone seen a class like this in engineering programs? Are there tips/tricks from other fields/departments which do have such classes that could be useful in such a class? Even though it is “for social scientists”, Harold Becker’s book is a really great resource.

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4 thoughts on “Teaching technical (re-)writing

  1. The UCLA Electrical Engineering PhD program also requires one-quarter technical writing class. I found it helpful.

    Here’s the description:

    295. Technical Writing for Electrical Engineers. (2) Lecture, two hours. Designed for electrical engineering Ph.D. students. Opportunity for students to improve technical writing skills by revising conference, technical, and journal papers and practicing writing about their work for undergraduate audience (potential students), engineers outside their specific fields, and nonscientists (colleagues with less expertise in field and policymakers). Students write in variety of genres, all related to their professional development as electrical engineers. Emphasis on writing as vital way to communicate precise technical and professional information in distinct contexts, directly resulting in specific outcomes. S/U grading.

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