This Instructable designed to be a bit of a crash course on English, interspersed with strategies one can use when doing documentation, an idea pitch, or in your own lives. It encompasses a creative focus, but is directed towards those with a more naturally technical mindset.
Why Should Technical People Care About Writing?
•Any sort of Documentation
Step 1: Writing 101
Grammar and Spelling
Grammar and Spelling is important, however don't get hung up on it. Despite being a creative writing major I can tell you firsthand that the worst score I ever received on any test ever was on a grammar exam was in high school. 9/167 points. My teacher never looked at me the same way again. Yet somehow I have managed, but it's been less on my superior ability with the subject and more on my moderate ability to use the google machine as a reference tool. If your Grammar and Spelling is ADEQUATE then that is a great place to be.
Show, don't tell.
Especially relevant in persuasive writing or idea pitches, use less “check this out”, no “this is fun”. MAKE THEM CHECK IT OUT. FORCE THEM TO HAVE FUN.
Focus on Story.
In order for writing to be appealing. it is often necessary to tell a story. My personal approach when it comes to story is:
I believe that a story must simply be worth the paper on which it is written, or the oxygen required to tell it. A good story is when it is worth the time taken to read it or hear it. And a great story is when one cannot afford to miss it. Always remember when writing anything, one is almost never entitled to the readers attention.
You have to earn it!
Step 2: Story
So what makes a good story? Conflict. Why do we need conflict?
Writing is like talking trash about your friends behind their back.
Think about what makes good gossip. For instance, if I heard that Bethany just went shopping and got a cute new dress for prom, I am probably not as interested as I would be if Bethany went shopping and got a cute new dress in the same exact style as Cindy. On purpose.
Remember. We are all terrible people. We enjoy reading things with a little bit of drama in the overall story
Conflict Requires Structure
Now that we have accepted that conflict is an integral part of a good story, it is important to note
a common error when generating conflict.
Lack of structure.
If we don’t have a structure, or setting or any sort of context, it is going to be very difficult to create
conflict. Just like in physics, you cannot create tension on a string without suspending it between at least two other objects.
Step 3: Writing VS Engineering (and Other Technical Fields)
One key place English differs from engineering is in that it is better to overshare than under share. (trimming it down is easy, that's what editors are for). Where Engineering favors the simple and efficient, writing tends to favor the risky, the extravagant, the eloquent but still useful. This is not to say you have to expose your whole creative process or send out stuff you don’t feel is ready. Just to emphasis that writing is a field where it is more acceptable to be more open about incomplete work, your process, and you’re multiple iterations of failure in order to reach success.
Step 4: More Physics in Writing...
Another parallel can be drawn when it comes to a reader’s willingness to read your work. There is friction in writing, and in order to keep moving forward, the readers motivation must always exceed the amount/value of time it is taking them to read your work.
Maintaining Reader Motivation
It’s a full time job. You have to have something worth sticking around for. This is usually done through a combination of Relevant Information and Alluring Style (amusing, enjoyable to read).
Formula (1) for motivation
Another way to think of this concept is like a car going on a road trip. You need gas/energy/motivation to fuel the
car, directions (with gas stations marked out!) to guide the car, and tires (where the rubber meets the road/implementation) to actually start traveling to where you want to go.
Step 5: Writing Styles
There are of course infinite styles in formal writing. However most fall somewhere on this highly scientific spectrum:
The black area in the middle represents casual speech, or just raw words. However when attempting to translate thoughts into professional writing, it is common to end up veering too far off either end of the spectrum, either attempting to sound too "smart", or alternatively being unclear or informal with more simple language.
Step 6: Getting Started!
Oftentimes the hardest part of a paper is simply getting started. Sitting with your cursor in the top left corner of the page but having no idea how to implement your concepts. This can be difficult partially because writing a paper can sometimes be perceived as a very linear process, (probably because reading is such a linear process). However while some lucky papers can be written start to finish directly, most papers of moderate complexity require a much higher degree of design.
Step 7: Binary Trees
Writing includes a ton of decisions. It can be modelled using a binary tree, with each word/phrase/concept that you choose to include or not include represents a turn in the unique path that comprises your paper. It can be very useful when you’re stuck use red font or highlighter (in the document) and write out both ideas or possibilities, then mark the one you like less. That way you can go back and make those decisions later in a different light.
Step 8: Designing and Assembling
The concept of Top Down Design can actually be applied quite effectively to a variety of papers; the idea of creating the sub-parts and then assembling them into the final piece. This “assembly” approach can be used either simply as a mental consideration, or as an entire strategy. If one is using it as their primary strategy, it can be very helpful to open up a second word document, using the first to brainstorm and write as much as possible (basically “throw up on the page”) then copy/paste to transfer the parts you like into the second document. In computer science terms, write your functions first, then stick them in a main to thread it all together. This allows for unbridled creativity without compromising good organization and natural editing.
Step 9: Skeleton Approach
Another “getting started” strategy is the skeleton approach. Think of the paper anatomically, and create a skeleton of concepts you want to hit and points you want to make. Write these out as body paragraph theses (you can always take them out later). Now that you have the skeleton of your paper, go back and flesh out the muscles, the quotes, the evidence and meat of your work. Then add the nerves, the analysis that makes each piece of evidence relevant as an argument. Finally go back and overlay the skin, the writing itself, the stylistic coat that makes the paper polished and complete.
Step 10: Reverse Engineering
If you are really stranded on where to begin, what one can also do is find a similar work (could be something provided by the teacher, or a peer, or found online) and reverse engineer it. Take it apart. Examine the structure, the style. Break it down and see how it works, then apply the principles (not the words themselves, no plagiarism) to your own paper.
For example, if I was writing for a tech blog I would go and read some popular and successful blogs that have a similar niche.
Step 11: Editing
Once you have a draft of your paper, the editing process begins. In engineering terms, editing can be thought of as simply trimming and polishing your work so it is the most efficient, aerodynamic response to the prompt.
Step 12: Things to Keep in Mind
- Who is your demographic/audience?
- Why are they reading your work?
- If the inclusion of pictures is appropriate in your work, try to do so as much as possible!
- What resources do I have if I am stuck?
For example, the blog that I currently am writing for has the following demegraphics:
When I sit down to compose a blog post, one of the first things I have to decide is who am I trying to make this appeal to? It must be of interest to at least one of the three, two of the three is even better, and if it can manage to hit aspects of all three is usually a fantastic post.
Another huge question is why. Ask yourself, why would this hypothetical person/audience would read your writing? If your conclusion is "Because they have to for their job" then perhaps it is a good time to reconsider some aspects of the piece.
Step 13: One Last Thing!
Regardless of challenges, try to avoid getting discouraged or dismissing yourself off as "a terrible writer". Writing is not easy for anyone all the time (everyone has experienced writers block), nor is it the exclusive domain of the uber-creative types. Good writers encompass an incredible range of skill sets and backgrounds. And if you do end up feeling creatively drained, maybe try taking another attitude toward your assignment. For example, it is not always necessary to create an absolutely original literary masterpiece out of thin air every time your fingers touch the keyboard. Sometimes taking something that already exists and expanding on it in your own new way is just as exciting. Innovation in writing is just as important as invention!