Assignments: Process and Description

Technical Writing


Please Note: This assignment has five options. Please choose one of the options.

Option 1: Process Description

Learning Goals

In performing and completing this assignment, you should:

    • Learn conceptual strategies for explaining a complex process to a lay audience;
    • Learn stylistic strategies for writing to a lay audience;
    • Learn to further manipulate memo structure.

You have been asked to write a 500 to 1250 word process description of a technological artifact or of a scientific or technical process by Debra Beller, the online Editorial Director of HowStuffWorks.com. Ms. Beller asks you to consider the following steps in putting together, and submitting, your technical or process description.

    First, take a look at published "How … Works" articles on HowStuffWorks.com. Through a close reading of sample articles identify the form of the article, the intended audience, the style employed, the level of technical discourse and jargon, and the use of visual images and hypertext links;

    Second, choose a technological artifact or scientific or technical process the web site's audience will find interesting and with which you are familiar. While the originality of your submission is highly valued, you may find articles on the site cover, to some degree, the same subject in which you are interested. No matter. If the artifact or process you choose has been described in a previous article, you can offer a unique approach or perspective not found in the article (e.g., describing more or less fully an aspect of the technology or the process than the article or adopting a different point of view). Ultimately, what qualifies as "unique" is left to your discretion;

    Third, write an article of 500 to 1250 words, using modified memo form, that could be published on HowStuffWorks.com.

Option 1 Requirements

Due June 18 by midnight:

    • A 500-1250 word process description memo;
    • A cover memo (document file).

Please send all files to me — jim.collier@vt.edu — as document attachments in either .doc or .docx format.
I will use this grading rubric (document file) to evaluate the assignment.


Option 2: Expanded Definition

Learning Goals

In performing and completing this assignment, you should:

    • Learn to develop an expanded definition;
    • Learn how to research and consider the influences of specialized terminology;
    • Learn to further manipulate memo structure.

A definition explains the precise meaning a person intends to convey when using a specific term. Definitions are particularly important when specialists in one field must use terms to communicate with people who are not in the same specialty. Sometimes a term is so complex or important that its definition needs to be extended to more than a brief phrase or sentence. Any definition that is longer than a sentence or two is called an extended (also called an expanded) definition. An extended definition may in itself make up an entire document, such as a report or memo, or a large portion of that document.

Select a word or term common to (at least) two academic disciplines or field of inquiry. For example terms such as "theory," "result," "depression," "value," "formula," "procedure," "apparatus," and "experiment" are used differently in subtle, and not so subtle, ways in disciplines and fields in the natural sciences, the social sciences, business and engineering.

In a 500-1250 word memo directed to me, compare and contrast the uses of the common term you have selected in (at least) two disciplines or fields.

The purpose of your analysis is examine how language use shifts over time, in different intellectual contexts, and how language influences or ideas and perceptions of inquiry.

Consider the following steps for this assignment:

    Locate the etymology and history of the word or term by determining its basic elements, by tracing its transmission from one language to another, and by defining its cognates in other languages.

      The Oxford English Dictionary (OED; available on-line through the Newman library) is especially helpful in providing the etymology and history of a word or term. The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, The Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, books explaining the history of words and terms (e.g., Isaac Asimov's Words of Science and the History Behind Them, 1959), textbooks, on-line sources, and scholarly journals about linguistics will also be helpful. You can also look at Merriam-Webster on-line.

    Choose examples of how the word or term is used from any source or combination of sources such as textbooks, journal articles, newspaper accounts, popular magazines and on-line sources.

    Compare and contrast how the word or term is used in these sources. Feel free to quote material with proper attribution. Consider the following questions — you are not required to answer them directly:

      • Can the word or term be used to explain or describe a similar phenomenon in different disciplines? For example, is the word "theory" used in the same way by biologists defending evolutionary theory and by Intelligent Design advocates?
      • How did these similarities and differences develop historically?
      • Would the technically specific use of the term create confusion for a non-specialist audience?
      • Would a curious non-specialist audience typically encounter this term? Under what circumstances?
      • How is our understanding and treatment of otherwise distinct phenomena (say a tropical depression and an economic depression) shaped by using a common term or description? For instance, should one treat an economic depression like a natural occurrence? Would changing the term change the way we treat the phenomena? Would, for example, clinical depression be treated differently if not identified as a unique condition? Feel free to speculate on the answer based on evidence you have gathered in your research.

Option 2 Requirements

Due June 18 by midnight:

    • A 500-1250 word process description memo;
    • A cover memo (document file).

Please send all files to me — jim.collier@vt.edu — as document attachments in either .doc or .docx format.
I will use this grading rubric (document file) to evaluate the assignment.


Option 3: Analyzing Metaphor*

Learning Goals

In performing and completing this assignment, you should:

    • Learn to identify and analyze the use of metaphor in technical communication;
    • Learn the role of metaphor in scientific and technological controversies;
    • Learn to further manipulate memo structure.

Defined inelegantly, a metaphor is a play on words in which a comparison is made between two seemingly unrelated subjects. Typically, the first object is described as being the second object. For example: "The universe is a mechanical clock." The first object — "the universe" — is rather concisely described because the implicit and explicit attributes of the second object — "a mechanical clock" — provide an evocative description of "the universe." Metaphor, however, is not always used to describe the properties of an object; sometimes metaphor is used for purely aesthetic reasons.

We use metaphors to help define our natural and scientific world and explain our behavior and attitudes. As Anne Eisenberg says:

    "Once metaphors were the stuff of poetry not proteins — but no more. You are just as likely these days to turn across them in a scientific review as in a sonnet. Despite the 300-year effort by Hobbes, Locke and a legion of logical positivists to confine them to the English classroom, metaphors are suddenly inescapable in technical prose. From chemical scissors and solvent cage to optical molasses and squeezed light, from DNA fingerprints to read-only memory, metaphor is out of the scientific closet" (Scientific American, May 1992, p.144).

Metaphors in technical and scientific writing serve to convey the meaning of complex ideas or processes to a lay audience. In this assignment, I want you to examine the use of metaphors in the debate regarding evolution and intelligent design. Here's how to approach the assignment:

    • Select an article, or articles, of some length (use your discretion) on, or about, the evolution/intelligent design debate. Sources might include the New York Times Science Section, on-line magazines such as Slate, Salon, Popular Science (all have search options), or any number of web sites or blogs (a simple Google search with the key words "intelligent design" will yield hundreds of possible sources);

    • In a 500-1250 word memo directed to me identify, analyze and explain the function of metaphors in any article, or articles you have selected. You may choose to examine the use of different metaphors in one article, compare and contrast the use of a common metaphor shared in two or more articles, compare and contrast the uses of different, related, metaphors in two or more articles, or thoroughly analyze the use of one metaphor in one article.

    • Whatever focus you choose, please be sure to perform a close reading of the use of metaphor(s) in the article(s) by going to the text, by quoting the appropriate passages, and by offering a detailed analysis of the use of metaphor in those passages.

Here are some thought questions (you are not required to answer them directly) to help focus your analysis:

    • What concepts or processes are the metaphors attempting to help define? Elaborate on the concept and how the metaphor helps, or hinders, how it is explained. Does the use of metaphor, in this instance, help explain a concept or process to a lay audience? Why or why not? Are metaphors regarding the concepts or processes used among specialists in the field?
    • Many people think that metaphors are only used in poetry and literature. We use them so much that we are not even aware we are doing so. What are some metaphors you use frequently? Do these metaphors appear in the readings? Give examples of them and elaborate on their meaning. Are you aware that you are using metaphors? Is the writer aware of using metaphors? Do they lose their meaning when they become clichés?
    • Can metaphors simplify concepts too much? Do they serve a necessary function even with their limitations? What might some of the dangers be in using metaphors? What might some of the advantages be? Give specific examples from the article you have selected.

A few on-line resources:

Option 3 Requirements

Due June 18 by midnight:

    • A 500-1250 word process description memo;
    • A cover memo (document file).

Please send all files to me — jim.collier@vt.edu — as document attachments in either .doc or .docx format.
I will use this grading rubric (document file) to evaluate the assignment.

* This assignment is adopted from Virginia Montecino at George Mason University.


Option 4: Evaluating Video Instructions

Learning Goals

In performing and completing this assignment, you should:

    • Learn the elements of proper instructions;
    • Learn to make clear, informed recommendations based on concise analysis;
    • Learn to use further and to modify memo structure.

You work as a Teaching Assistant for Professor Stevens. Stevens teaches "Web and Digital Design" a course — intended for communications students with no web site design experience — that addresses how to build a web site from the ground up.

Stevens wants to include a unit in the course providing a hands-on approach to composing and manipulating digital images. To do so, Stevens decides to introduce students to Photoshop. But he candidly admits to you: "I am a complete novice regarding Photoshop." However, on the recommendation of a colleague, Stevens considers using a series of online tutorials, "You Suck at Photoshop", to aid instruction.

In a concise, 500-1250 word memo that provides a detailed analysis — considering the effectiveness of humor to convey instructions, for example — Professor Stevens wants you to evaluate the effectiveness of the "You Suck at Photoshop" tutorials as a way for beginning students to manipulate digital images. Your analysis and judgment of the tutorials will be based on the criteria for effective instructions that you have learned — from our course — and any informal usability testing you conduct by following a specific tutorial, or tutorials. Stevens asks that you please describe, and give example of, what you find successful, or unsuccessful, in the tutorial, or tutorials, you select. (As you "You Suck at Photoshop" series is quite extensive, you do not need to view all the tutorials.) Finally — while not required and done only if time and your learning goals allow — Stevens would like to see what image(s) you create.

Option 4 Requirements

Due June 18 by midnight:

    • A 500-1250 word process description memo;
    • A cover memo (document file).

Please send all files to me — jim.collier@vt.edu — as document attachments in either .doc or .docx and, possibly, .jpg format.
I will use this grading rubric (document file) to evaluate the assignment.


Option 5: Wiki Entry

Learning Goals

In performing and completing this assignment, you should:

    • Learn to develop an expanded definition for a popular audience;
    • Learn selected elements of web writing;
    • Learn the strengths and limitations collaborative writing.

Using Wikipedia entries as examples of structure, and referring to Wikipedia's Manual of Style, please write an entry on a word, subject, topic, person or process related to current discussions in popular media involving science and technology. An example of these discussions can be found in the Science News section of the New York Times and in popular science and technology publications. For example:

In writing your Wikipedia entry remember that you are writing for the web. Readers expect, at a minimum, links and references to resources.

Option 5 Requirements

Due June 18 by midnight:

    • A 500-1250 word Wikipedia entry.
    • A cover memo (document file).

Please send all files to me — jim.collier@vt.edu — as document attachments in either .doc or .docx format.
I will use this grading rubric (document file) to evaluate the assignment.