T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore Nat. Lab. (retired)
Technical Writing: Microwriting
The Time Challenge
The December 1, 2022, issue of Science featured a one-page essay by
research scientist Alexandra Ridgway titled 'Uninterrupted writing
time is rare' (doi.org/10.1126/science.adg0307). Ridgway recounts
how hard it was to find big blocks of time to draft her STEM Ph.D.
dissertation once her twin sons were born--she clocked one writing
attempt at only 6 minutes! So she consciously changed how she
managed her STEM writing opportunities:
I would just have to use the rare minutes
I had....microwriting, which began as a
necessity, has become core to my
[professional] writing practice.
That such a discussion of managing one's writing opportunities
(rather than some specific text-design technique) was featured
for a cross-disciplinary worldwide audience of technical
professionals shows how authentic and enduring are the time-
management challenges that active scientists and engineers face.
Just because Ridgeway's reconfigured commitment to technical
'microwriting' focuses on managing small textual opportunities,
however, does not mean that text-design techniques are irrelevant
to its practical success.
1. Chunking reader needs.
One practical way to break a long, complex technical writing project
into small pieces that can each be drafted during a short time slot
and then combined is to focus each chunk on one audience need.
Some reader needs are not separable, of course--a process explanation
must be both clear and accurate at the same time, not clear in some
places and accurate in others. But when comparisons, examples, and
warnings are called for, it may be possible to draft each during
its own microwriting opportunity and then combine them on yet another
brief occasion. Likewise, a technical writer doesn't need to draft
instructions for every step in a complex process all at once.
They can each be captured during a series of microwriting episodes
and then chained together during an additional one (with a check
for consistency and completeness).
2. Iterating toward success.
The recognition that effective technical writing almost always
results from iterative text revisions also facilitates successful
microwriting. The (student) writer who captures a set of
microdrafts (as suggested above) and then cycles thorough them
during other brief writing opportunities can repeatedly adjust
the drafts, alone and (later) together, to iteratively improve
their relevance, clarity, and vocabulary/style coordination
(along with fixing mechanical flaws too, of course). While some
inconsistencies can only be spotted with a whole-text review,
many localized gaps (content) or slips (format) can be seen and
improved one microwriting session at a time.
So successful technical mircowriting is a valuable life skill,
more likely if one approaches the effort as building beads
that must (eventually) go together on a chain. Each small
textual nugget--each prose bead--can (and indeed must) be
crafted on its own, possible even if one's writing opportunities
are brief. But then other microwriting sessions must be
invested to (gradually) coordinate all those little pieces of
prose--those explanatory beads--so a reader gets the benefit
of a unified, consistent document. Fortunately, as Ridgway
pointed out, this approach to writing-opportunity management
works both in school and in real life.
[Want more background to help STEM students become 'microwriters'?
For a review of basic technical writing issues for teachers
see http://writeprofessionally.org/techlit/twe2 ]