Writing an Informational Report for Non-Experts

Asian woman working at a macintosh commercialThis term, I designed a new assignment for the major report in my technical writing course. Students focus on communicating a technical subject to an audience unfamiliar with their fields. Additionally, they must integrate readability features in their document design to give their documents a polished, professional appearance.

As with previous assignments in this series, the assignment below has some minor changes to remove specific information that is relevant only to the students in my classes. References to “Markel & Selber” in the assignment refer to chapters in Technical Communication. 

Background

You will write an informational report for non-experts (a white paper) that presents details on a specific issue related to your company and the work that it does. Your white paper will tie directly to the incubator goal of public outreach and education. Specifically, the incubator founders want to provide a library of documents that inform readers about how science, technology, and engineering work.

You proposed the topic for your White Paper Project in your Short Proposal. Your Poster Presentation Project will provide an alternate presentation of the information in your White Paper Project.

The Scenario

This week, you received the following memo, accepting your proposal for the Incubator’s December White Paper Publication:

Ut Prosim Incubator logo Ut Prosim Incubator

   1872 Inventors Way, Blacksburg, Virginia 24060

   Interoffice Memo

To: December White Paper Authors
From: Traci Gardner, Ut Prosim Director
Manolito Reyna Bautista, Manager of the Public Outreach Office
Subject: Preparing Your White Paper
Date: October 8, 2018

Congratulations! We are pleased to accept your proposal for a white paper and research poster for December publication. We look forward to learning more about your topic and working with you to share the information with the public on our website.

Your white paper and poster presentation are due by November 26 [Portfolio 2 due date] and will ultimately be published as PDFs in the December 2018 release on the Incubator website.

Today, we are sharing details on the expectations for your white paper. We will send details on the research poster later this month.

White Paper Purpose and Audience

As explained in the call for proposals, your white paper will inform non-expert readers about a technical topic relevant to the work and mission of your company. These documents will share what we do and why we do it with the university, alumni, and local community. Your documents will also contribute directly to our goal of public outreach and education by adding to our growing library of documents that inform website readers about how science, technology, and engineering work.

As an objective white paper, your document will either provide knowledge or information about a subject relevant to your company or provide solutions to a problem or challenge that relates to your company—or even a combination of both goals.

The audience for the white paper is the general public and the university community Readers with no background in your field should be able to fully understand your white paper.

White Paper Content

Your report will define or explain your topic with the goal of informing your readers about it fully and with relevant, specific details. You should focus on answering questions such as these:

  • What is it?
  • When was it invented or discovered and by whom?
  • Where did it originate and why?
  • What does it involve?
  • How does it work?
  • What is its possibility or potential impact on the future?

You should present the information in your report objectively, that is, without letting opinion shape what you have to say. Do not draw conclusions, make recommendations, argue for one side or the other, or in any way take a position on the subject. Its goal is to provide a response to the question “What is [your subject] all about?” This doesn’t mean you can’t present opinions about it, but those opinions must come from experts in the field. For example, Expert A thinks the subject of your article is a fantastic option for reducing the need to irrigate crops, but Expert B is sure it won’t work as planned. You can present these opposing viewpoints, but you must remain objective and let readers make their own decisions.

White Paper Expectations

  • Length: 25 pages or less. The length typically depends upon the document layout. If your white paper looks like a double-spaced research paper, it will be longer than a white paper that is formatted in single-spaced columns and sidebars (more like an industry magazine or journal article).
  • Document Design: Use a polished, professional layout that relies on design strategies that increase the document’s readability. You are encouraged to use a non-traditional format that incorporates sidebars, columns, and other visually-interesting design strategies. Do not include a cover page.
  • Graphics and Visual Elements: Include relevant graphical elements (e.g., photos, diagrams, graphs, tables). Avoid clipart (which typically looks unpolished or unprofessional), and use only graphical elements that directly relate to the information in the white paper. All graphical elements must be your company’s intellectual property, or you must provide complete documentation. Graphical elements that are not your own intellectual property must meet fair use guidelines.
  • Research Support: Information must be supported by fully-documented research, including relevant quotations. In addition to citing published research studies, you can take advantage of the campus community by tapping university experts on the topic you are discussing.
  • Documentation Format: APA citation style (or the appropriate style for your field, if desired—for instance, an electrical engineer can use IEEE).
  • Submission Format: *.doc, *.docx, *.pdf, or Google Document link. While your document will be published on the Incubator website, it will be published as a PDF (not as HTML).

Deadlines

To ensure that we have time to review and edit your submission, please submit your white paper by 11:59 PM on Monday, November 26. If additional time is necessary, you can take advantage of the grace period, which ends at 11:59 PM on Thursday, November 29.

Any Questions?

If you need any help with this project, please let either of us know or contact Traci’s assistant, Leslie Crow <lcrow@utprosimincubator.org>.

Relevant Details

Note: These details apply to all of the projects you include in your portfolio.

Your company’s address is [Your Company Name], Ut Prosim Incubator, 1872 Inventors Way, Suite #[you choose a number], Blacksburg, Virginia 24060. Your company’s phone number is 540-555-5555. You may create a fictional Internet domain for your company, and use that domain for a web page address and your email addresses. If you’d like, you may create other information (including a logo) for your company as appropriate. Be sure that you use the information that you create consistently across all of your projects.

The Project Assignment

Step 1: Review your notes on the topic and audiences, as established in your proposal.
Your proposal should have the basic starting information that you need to begin the research for your white paper. Be sure that you have a strong, well-focused topic before you begin your research.

Step 2: Examine the information about white papers in the readings.
Review the assigned readings for specific details on the information and details to include in your white paper.

Step 3: Begin your research, taking notes and paying attention to documentation and citation details.
The textbook provides complete details on how to conduct your research and keep track of your notes and sources. Follow the textbook as you work on your project. In particular, be sure that you do the following:

  • Follow the instructions in the “GUIDELINES: Researching a Topic” list (starting on page 119 of Markel & Selber) to gather information.
  • Identify the best kinds of sources for your research by exploring the examples in “TABLE 6.1 Research Questions and Methods” (starting on page 120 of Markel & Selber).
  • Assess your sources with the “GUIDELINES: Evaluating Print and Online Sources” (starting on page 128 of Markel & Selber) to ensure your sources meet the evaluation criteria listed in the text (e.g., that they are accurate, unbiased, comprehensive, appropriately technical, current, and clear, as stated above the guidelines). You should also consult the web resource Evaluating Web Resources: The CRAAP test from North Carolina A&T.
  • Use the “GUIDELINES: Conducting an Interview” (starting on page 137 of Markel & Selber) if you talk with experts in your field (on campus or off) who provide information for your projects.
  • Review the information in “Appendix Part A: Skimming Your Sources and Taking Notes” (starting on page 613 of Markel & Selber) to be sure that you use the notetaking strategies of paraphrasing, quoting, and summarizing accurately.
  • Use the details in “Appendix Part B: Documenting Your Sources” for information on APA citation style (starting on page 622 of Markel & Selber) and information on IEEE citation style (starting on page 639 of Markel & Selber) to gather relevant details for your documentation and citations. Note you may alternately use the citation style that is relevant for your field if you prefer.

Step 4: Write your white paper.

Work steadily on your report for the entire three-week period. Do not leave the work until the last minute!

Compose your white paper, as requested in The Scenario above, with all the details you have gathered in your research. Remember that your white paper should be a factual and objective document. Do not include fictional information about your topic. Review the assessment guidelines below to ensure you have met all the requirements for the instructions.

As you work, also keep the following points in mind:

  • Use plain language to make the ideas easy to find and read. Refer to the resources from Module 2 as needed.
  • Follow all relevant ethical guidelines as you work using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Chapter 2 (on page 40 of Markel & Selber).
  • Follow the suggestions for emphasizing important information, using the Writer’s Checklist for Chapter 9 (on page 211 of Markel & Selber) to check your work.
  • Use the Writer’s Checklist for Chapter 11 (on page 288 of Markel & Selber) to ensure that your document takes advantage of design principles to make it reader-friendly.
  • Make a good impression with accuracy and correctness. Your document should be polished and professional.

Step 5: Check your draft against the Writer’s Checklist.
Be sure that you include the required features for your white paper. Review your project, using the Assessment Criteria below.

Step 6: Review your draft for design and basic writing errors.
Everything you write should use accurate/appropriate image editing, grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting. These are important basic writing skills that you should have developed in high school. Review your project, using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Markel & Selber, Chapter 10 (on page 242).

You can also consult the information on “Sentence-Level Issues” in Markel & Selber, “Appendix, Part D: Guidelines for Multilingual Writers (ESL)” (on page 683 of Markel & Selber). While the section is labeled for multilingual writers, it is useful for everyone. It includes explanations and examples for many common mistakes writers make.

Step 7: Submit your draft to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Post a rough draft of your technical description to your Writing Group in Canvas in the 10/25 Draft Feedback Discussion in Canvas. Additional instructions are in the Discussion. Post a draft of your technical description by September 20. If you are late submitting a draft, your group may not have time to provide feedback.

Step 8: Provide feedback to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Provide feedback to the members of your writing group in the 10/25 Draft Feedback Discussion in Canvas, by September 24 (end of the grace period). Use the information on the Writing Groups page to provide constructive feedback that will help your group members make concrete improvements to their drafts. 

Step 9: Revise your draft.
Use the feedback that you receive from your group members to revise and improve your document. You can share your draft again with your Writing Group, if you desire. As you revise, keep in mind the advice in the steps above, as well as the Assessment Criteria below.

Step 10: Include a polished version of your project in Project Portfolio 2, due November 26.
Have your Technical Description Project finished and ready for submission in your Project Portfolio 2, which is due Monday, November 26. The grace period for Project Portfolio 2 ends at 11:59PM on Thursday, November 29.

Assessment Criteria

For All Technical Writing Projects

All technical writing projects should meet the following general criteria:

  • Makes a good first impression as a polished and professional document.
  • Meets the needs of the intended audience.
  • Demonstrates how to emphasize important information.
  • Uses layout and formatting that makes information easy for readers to find and read, and that follows the standards you have set for your company.
  • Is written in plain language, which communicates the ideas clearly.
  • Follows all relevant ethical guidelines.
  • Uses accurate/appropriate grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting.

For White Papers

Your project should meet the following criteria for effective instructions:

  • Has a clear, compelling title that is specific to the document.
  • Adopts a tone and approach that will appeal to readers.
  • Demonstrates a clear understanding of the research literature on this topic.
  • Provides details and explanation of the information that
    • Presents an objective summary of the facts.
    • Discusses the importance of these facts.
    • Forecasts the importance of these facts in the future.
  • Relies on sources that are accurate, unbiased, comprehensive, appropriately technical, current, and clear.
  • Uses quotations from research sources to support and strengthen the project.
  • Provides accurate and complete in-text citations for all information that is not the author’s own work (including information that is paraphrased, quoted, and summarized).
  • Includes a references section (e.g., bibliography) that does the following:
    • identifies each source cited in the white paper.
    • contains complete and accurate information for each citation.
    • uses either APA citation style or the preferred citation style for your major.
  • Demonstrates a clear relationship between the graphics and the accompanying text. 

This assignment was challenging for students, who were less familiar with the genre than they typically are with more generic technical reports. The demands of an audience of non-experts complicated the assignment for some students who were unaccustomed to explaining the concepts and technical lingo of their field. Those aspects made for a rewarding project. When I use the assignment again however, I want to have more supporting resources for students to draw on. Specifically, students would benefit from more examples and some explicit instruction on document design for this genre.

Based on these white papers, students next work on research posters. I’ll share that assignment in my next post, so be sure to come back for the details. If you have any feedback on this assignment or useful resources on white papers, please leave me a comment below.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

A Short Proposal Assignment

Typing content by Search Engine People Blog on FlickrThe last three assignments in the Incubator series of assignments that I have designed for my technical writing courses are directly related to one another. Students write a Short Proposal for the White Paper and the Research Poster projects that they will complete during the second half of the term. In today’s post, I will share the assignment for the Short Proposal.

Because I want them to focus their energy on the major report (the white paper), I ask for a short, memo-based proposal, rather than a longer document. The assignment gives students very specific guidelines to follow so that the more in-depth coverage from the textbook does not lead them to do more than they need to. My underlying goal for the activity is two-fold: I want them to learn to write a proposal, but just as importantly, I want to spot-check their topics for the white paper and research poster before they get too far into the project.

As with previous assignments in this series, the assignment below has some minor changes to remove specific information that is relevant only to the students in my classes. References to “Markel & Selber” in the assignment refer to chapters in the class textbook Technical Communication by Mike Markel and Stuart Selber.

Background

You will write a short proposal that presents the topic you will explore for your white paper and poster presentation. Your proposal should explain not only what the topic is but how it relates to your company (and therefore your career field and major) and the incubator goal of public outreach and education.

The Scenario

Today, you received the following memo, asking you to submit a proposal for a white paper and related poster presentation:

Ut Prosim Incubator logo Ut Prosim Incubator

   1872 Inventors Way, Blacksburg, Virginia 24060

   Interoffice Memo

To: All Incubator Companies

From: Traci Gardner, Ut Prosim Director

Subject: RFP: White Papers and Poster Presentations for December Publication

Date: October 1, 2018

Our Public Outreach Office is requesting proposals for white papers and research posters that will inform non-expert readers about a technical topic relevant to the work and mission of your company. These documents will share what we do and why we do it with the university, alumni, and local community. Your documents will also contribute directly to our goal of public outreach and education by adding to our growing library of documents that inform website readers about how science, technology, and engineering work.

As an objective white paper, accepted documents will either provide knowledge or information about a subject relevant to your company or provide solutions to a problem or challenge that relates to your company—or even a combination of both goals. These white papers will also be the basis of a presentation that will be part of the quarterly poster session we sponsor for the local community in December. As an extension, additional investors and clients also attend the session, so you have the potential to make critical connections for your business.

These white papers and poster presentations are due by November 26 [Portfolio 2 due date] and will be published in the December 2018 release on the Incubator website.

White Paper Expectations

  • Length: 25 pages or less.
  • Document Design: Polished, professional layout that relies on design strategies that increase the document’s readability. You are encouraged to use a non-traditional format that incorporates sidebars, columns, and other visually-interesting design strategies. Please do not include a cover page.
  • Graphics and Visual Elements: Include relevant graphical elements (e.g., photos, illustrations, graphs, tables). All graphical elements must be your company’s intellectual property, or you must provide complete documentation. Graphical elements that are not your own intellectual property must meet fair use guidelines.
  • Research Support: Information must be supported by fully-documented research, including relevant quotations. In addition to citing published research studies, you can take advantage of the campus community by tapping university experts on the topic you are discussing.
  • Documentation Format: APA citation style (or the appropriate style for your field, if desired—for instance, an electrical engineer can use IEEE).
  • Submission Format: *.doc, *docx, *.pdf, or Google Document link.

Additional criteria and examples will be provided once proposals are accepted.

Poster Presentation Expectations

  • Size: 48″ X 36″, presented in landscape orientation (horizontal).
  • Document Design: Polished, professional layout that relies on design strategies that increase the document’s readability. Must use appropriately-sized headings, text, and images.
  • Graphics and Visual Elements: Include as many relevant graphical elements (e.g., photos, illustrations, graphs, tables) as necessary to present your ideas. All graphical elements must be your company’s intellectual property, or you must provide complete documentation. Graphical elements that are not your own intellectual property must meet fair use guidelines.
  • Research Support: Information must be supported by fully-documented research, including short, relevant quotations. In addition to citing published research studies, you can take advantage of the campus community by tapping university experts on the topic you are discussing.
  • Documentation Format: APA citation style (or the appropriate style for your field, if desired—for instance, an electrical engineer can use IEEE).
  • Submission Format: *.ppt, *pptx, or Google Slides link.

Additional criteria and examples will be provided once proposals are accepted.

Proposal Requirements

Your proposal should be in memo format, be no more than four pages in length, and provide the following information to help us gauge the appropriateness of the topic for December publication:

  • Background (or Introduction)
    Give some background on your topic, your experiences with it to date, what you already know, etc. Then clearly state, “[We, OR your company name, OR similar] would like to produce a white paper and poster presentation on [your topic] for the following reasons: . . . .” In your statement, explain your motivations for sharing information about the topic with the public.
  • Areas to be Studied
    Provide more details on the proposed topic for your white paper and poster presentation so that the Public Outreach Office understands the approach you will take. Consider the following questions:
    • What are the key points you will explore or explain?
    • What are some questions you will ask and try to answer in this white paper and poster presentation?
    • How do the areas to be studied relate to your company’s mission?
    • What ethical and/or intercultural and global issues will you consider as you examine the topic you have chosen?
  • Methods of Research
    Explain how you will gather the information that you present in your white paper and poster presentation. Tell the Public Outreach Office your research strategy by outlining exactly how are you planning to gather information and find answers to your questions explored in the white paper and poster presentation.
  • Timetable
    Share a calendar that includes the target dates for various milestones that will lead to completion of your white paper and poster presentation. Be sure that your schedule allows you to finish by the white paper and poster presentation due date, November 26 [Portfolio 2 due date].
  • Qualifications
    Explain why you are qualified to do this research and outline the skills you have that will help you deal with this topic effectively.
  • Request for Approval
    Ask for approval; ask for guidance, articulate your biggest concerns at this point; ask for suggestions about next right steps; provide contact information.

Due Dates

October 8, 2018: Proposal submitted as a memo, addressed to me and to Manolito Reyna Bautista, Manager of the Public Outreach Office

November 26, 2018: Finished White Paper and Poster submitted [in Canvas, as part of Portfolio 2]

Any Questions?

If you need any help with your proposal, please let me know or contact my assistant, Leslie Crow <lcrow@utprosimincubator.org>.

Relevant Details

Note: These details apply to all of the projects you include in your portfolio.

Your company’s address is [Your Company Name], Ut Prosim Incubator, 1872 Inventors Way, Suite #[you choose a number], Blacksburg, Virginia 24060. Your company’s phone number is 540-555-5555. You may create a fictional Internet domain for your company, and use that domain for a web page address and your email addresses. If you’d like, you may create other information (including a logo) for your company as appropriate. Be sure that you use the information that you create consistently across all of your projects.

The Project Assignment

Step 1: Decide on the focus for your white paper and poster presentation(which you will write as future projects).
Your focus will be to inform non-expert readers about a technical topic that is related to your company (and therefore, related to your career field and major). Try to limit yourself to topics with which you have some expertise (or at least some experience) to simplify the research process. These example white papers may help you think of appropriate topics and/or approaches:

Step 2: Examine the information about proposals in Markel & Selber.
The textbook provides complete details on how to write proposals. Follow the textbook as you work on your project. In particular, be sure that you do the following:

  • Follow the “GUIDELINES: Demonstrating Your Professionalism in a Proposal” (starting on page 430 of Markel & Selber) to ensure you adopt the appropriate tone.
  • Use the “ETHICS NOTE: WRITING HONEST PROPOSALS” (starting on page 430 of Markel & Selber) to make your proposal professionally acceptable.
  • Work through the “GUIDELINES: Introducing a Proposal” (starting on page 432 of Markel & Selber) to gather information for your proposal’s Background section.
  • Explore the information in the “Tech Tip: Why and How to Create a Gantt Chart” (starting on page 436 of Markel & Selber) to see an effective strategy for explaining your timetable.

Step 3: Write the proposals for your white paper and poster presentation.
Compose your proposal, as requested in The Scenario above, with all the details you have gathered. Review the assessment guidelines below to ensure you have met all the requirements for the proposal. As you work, also keep the following points in mind:

  • Use plain language to make the ideas in your proposal are easy to find and read. Refer to the resources from Module 2 as needed.
  • Follow all relevant ethical guidelines as you work using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Chapter 2 (on page 40 of Markel & Selber).
  • Follow the suggestions for emphasizing important information, using the Writer’s Checklist for Chapter 9 (on page 211 of Markel & Selber) to check your work.
  • Use the Writer’s Checklist for Chapter 11 (on page 288 of Markel & Selber) to ensure that your document takes advantage of design principles to make it reader-friendly.
  • Make a good impression with accuracy and correctness. Your document should be polished and professional.

Step 4: Check your draft against the Writer’s Checklist.
Be sure that you include the required features for instructions. Review your project, using the Writer’s Checklist for Chapter 16 (on page 439 of Markel & Selber) and the Assessment Criteria below.

Step 5: Review your draft for design and basic writing errors.
Everything you write should use accurate/appropriate image editing, grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting. These are important basic writing skills that you should have developed in high school. Review your project, using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Markel & Selber, Chapter 10 (on page 242 of Markel & Selber).

You can also consult the information on “Sentence-Level Issues” in Markel & Selber, “Appendix, Part D: Guidelines for Multilingual Writers (ESL)” (on page 683 of Markel & Selber). While the section is labeled for multilingual writers, it is useful for everyone. It includes explanations and examples for many common mistakes writers make.

Step 6: Submit your draft to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Post a rough draft of your Proposal to your Writing Group in Canvas in the 10/04 Draft Feedback Discussion in Canvas. Additional instructions are in the Discussion. If you do not post your draft by noon on Sunday, October 7, your group may not have time to provide feedback.

Step 7: Provide feedback to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Provide feedback to the members of your writing group in the 10/04 Draft Feedback Discussion in Canvas, by October 8 (end of the grace period). Use the information on the Writing Groups page to provide constructive feedback that will help your group members make concrete improvements to their drafts. You are not obligated to provide feedback for any drafts posted after noon on Sunday, October 7.

Step 8: Revise your draft.
Use the feedback that you receive from your group members to revise and improve your document. You can share your draft again with your Writing Group, if you desire. As you revise, keep in mind the advice in the steps above, as well as the Assessment Criteria below.

Step 9: Include a polished version of your project in Project Portfolio 2, due November 26.
Have your Proposal finished and ready for submission in your Project Portfolio 2, which is due Monday, November 26. The grace period for Project Portfolio 1 ends at 11:59PM on Thursday, November 29.

Assessment Criteria

For All Technical Writing Projects

All technical writing projects should meet the following general criteria:

  • Makes a good first impression as a polished and professional document.
  • Meets the needs of the intended audience.
  • Demonstrates how to emphasize important information.
  • Uses layout and formatting that makes information easy for readers to find and read, and that follows the standards you have set for your company.
  • Is written in plain language, which communicates the ideas clearly.
  • Follows all relevant ethical guidelines.
  • Uses accurate/appropriate grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting.

For Proposals

Your project should meet the following criteria for effective proposals, based on the checklist at the end of Chapter 16 of Markel & Selber:

  • Meets the guidelines established in the request for proposals (see The Scenario, above).
  • Demonstrates professionalism and honesty.
  • Includes an introduction that indicates the following:
    • the problem or opportunity.
    • the purpose of the proposal.
    • the background of the problem or opportunity.
    • your sources of information.
    • the scope of the proposal.
    • the organization of the proposal.
    • the key terms that you will use in the proposal.
  • Provides a clear, specific plan for research and justifies that methodology.
  • Describes the qualifications and experience clearly outlining
    • relevant skills and past work.
    • relevant equipment, facilities, and experience.
  • Includes full documentation for all ideas, words, and visuals that the work of others (see Part B, “Documenting Your Sources,” in Markel & Selber).

This assignment has gone relatively well. The most frequent issue has been confusion about memo format. Students either didn’t follow the instructions and used other formats, or they did not follow the format accurately. The most serious issue that has come up has been failure to provide enough details and development of the proposal. I wonder if the emphasis on a “short” proposal has misled some to think that general and underdeveloped ideas were adequate. When I use this activity again, I will work to address both of these issues.

My next post will share the instructions for the white paper, which is the next project students worked on. Be sure to come back to read more about that activity, and in the meantime, if you have any feedback to share, please leave a comment below.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

A STEM-Based Instructions Assignment

I've done assembly and teardown of inline-4 combustion engines in my life you think I can do this?#ikeaThe fourth assignment in the Incubator series of assignments that I have designed for my technical writing courses connects directly to the STEM-Based Technical Description Assignment I shared in my last post. In this project, students write a an instructional document related to their field, which will be part of a diversity initiative to interest local students in STEM careers (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).

The instructions project pairs with the Technical Description Assignment, which described an object, mechanism, or process common in the student writer’s career field. This assignment asks students to write an instructional document that relates to their technical description document. In the scenario for the paired assignments, the technical writing students discuss a task that local middle and high school students will complete as they shadow someone in the companies that students have created for the course. They will provide step-by-step details on how to complete a simple and appropriate task that will help local students learn more about what someone in their career does.

The assignment below has some minor changes to remove specific information that is relevant only to the students in my classes. References to “Markel & Selber” in the assignment refer to chapters in the class textbook Technical Communication by Mike Markel and Stuart Selber. Additionally, the scenario memo that sets up this week’s assignment is identical to that included in last week’s post. So that the assignment is complete, I have repeated it this week.

Background

You will write a user document (instructions) related to your field. The instructions will be part of a diversity initiative to interest local students in STEM careers (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). The user document will relate to a task that local middle and high school students will complete as they shadow someone in your company. You will provide step-by-step details on how to complete a simple and appropriate task that will help local students learn more about what someone in your career does.

Your user document that students will pair with the Technical Description Project that you worked on last week.

The Scenario

Note: We will use this scenario for two projects: Technical Descriptions (this week) and User Documents (next week).

Last week, you received the following memo, explaining your responsibilities for the Incubator’s annual Try-It-Out Day:

Ut Prosim Incubator logo Ut Prosim Incubator

   1872 Inventors Way, Blacksburg, Virginia 24060

   Interoffice Memo

To: All Incubator Companies

From: Traci Gardner, Ut Prosim Director

Subject: Preparing for Try-It-Out Day

Date: September 10, 2018
 

RDECOM Scientist and Engineers bring their special skills and enthusiasm to STEM Night at Fallston Middle SchoolOn Try-It-Out Day, students from Montgomery, Giles, Pulaski, and Floyd Counties will spend most of the day working one-on-one with employees from every company in the Incubator to learn about what careers in STEM involve. We will match students with the company that fits their interests, and then you will determine the employees who will work with those students.

What Happens on Try-It-Out Day?

Try-It-Out Day will take place on Wednesday, September 26, from 8AM to 4PM.

Students will arrive at the Incubator at 8AM and spend the entire day with their assigned company, following this general schedule:

Time Activity
8:00 AM Welcome assembly for all students and company representatives
8:30 AM Students tour their assigned company, learning about what the company does and how it works
9:00 AM Students pair off with employees, who tell the students about their specific careers
10:00 AM Refreshments in the Incubator Atrium
10:30 AM Students learn to complete an activity that their employee-hosts do in the normal course of work
12:30 PM Lunch in the Incubator Cafeteria
1:30 PM STEM Challenge (a competition, students and employees collaborate in teams based on the schools students attend)
3:30 PM Refreshments in the Incubator Atrium and Closing Comments
4:00 PM Students board buses to return home

What Do You Need to Do to Prepare?

From 10:30 to 12:30, employees from your company will teach students about some activities that they do in the normal course of their work. To prepare for this portion of the day, please choose a specific activity that students can safely complete in 15–30 minutes. Ideally, choose an activity that students can complete more than once, such as examining and sorting specimens as shown in the image above.

Once you have chosen an activity, create two documents that students can take home and share when they return to their schools:

  • A technical description of an object, mechanism, or process that relates to the activity students will complete.
  • A user document that includes instructions the student can follow to complete the activity.

Any Questions?

If you need any help with this project, please let me know or contact my assistant, Leslie Crow <lcrow@utprosimincubator.org>. You can also talk with Incubator members who participated in the event last year.

Relevant Details

Note: These details apply to all of the projects you include in your portfolio.

Your company’s address is [Your Company Name], Ut Prosim Incubator, 1872 Inventors Way, Suite #[you choose a number], Blacksburg, Virginia 24060. Your company’s phone number is 540-555-5555. You may create a fictional Internet domain for your company, and use that domain for a web page address and your email addresses. If you’d like, you may create other information (including a logo) for your company as appropriate. Be sure that you use the information that you create consistently across all of your projects.

The Project Assignment

Step 1: Review your notes on the focus and audiences for your two projects.
You are using the same focus for your User Document that you choose for the Technical Description that you worked on last week. Review the audience analysis that you completed last week to remind yourself of the characteristics and needs of the middle and high school students who will be following the instructions in your user document. Be sure that you have chosen a workplace task that they could believably complete and that will not place them in a dangerous situation.

Step 2: Examine the information about instructions in Markel.
The textbook provides resources on how to write instructions. Follow the textbook as you work on your project. In particular, be sure that you do the following:

  • Work through the questions for “Designing a Set of Written Instructions” (on page 560 of Markel & Selber) to make final decisions about how to adapt your instructions to meet the needs of your readers.
  • Keep your readers safe by following the advice in the section on “Planning for Safety” (starting on page 562 of Markel & Selber).
  • Follow the “GUIDELINES: Drafting Introductions for Instructions” (starting on page 566 of Markel & Selber) to ensure you include the proper level of specific information.
  • Use the “GUIDELINES: Drafting Steps in Instructions” (starting on page 566 of Markel & Selber) to make the activity easy to understand and complete.
  • Explore the examples in the section “A Look at Several Sample Sets of Instructions” (starting on page 568 of Markel & Selber) to see some of the options for layout and formatting as well as the details to include.

Step 3: Write the user document for students to follow.
Compose your instructions, as requested in The Scenario above, with all the details you have gathered and created. Review the assessment guidelines below to ensure you have met all the requirements for the instructions. As you work, also keep the following points in mind:

  • Use plain language to make the ideas easy to find and read. Refer to the resources from Module 2 as needed.
  • Follow all relevant ethical guidelines as you work using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Chapter 2 (on page 40 of Markel & Selber).
  • Follow the suggestions for emphasizing important information, using the Writer’s Checklist for Chapter 9 (on page 211 of Markel & Selber) to check your work.
  • Use the Writer’s Checklist for Chapter 11 (on page 288 of Markel & Selber) to ensure that your document takes advantage of design principles to make it reader-friendly.
  • Make a good impression with accuracy and correctness. Your document should be polished and professional.

Step 4: Check your draft against the Writer’s Checklist.
Be sure that you include the required features for instructions. Review your project, using the Writer’s Checklist for Chapter 20 (on page 576 of Markel & Selber) and the Assessment Criteria below.

Step 5: Review your draft for design and basic writing errors.
Everything you write should use accurate/appropriate image editing, grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting. These are important basic writing skills that you should have developed in high school. Review your project, using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Markel & Selber, Chapter 10 (on page 242 of Markel & Selber).

You can also consult the information on “Sentence-Level Issues” in Markel & Selber, “Appendix, Part D: Guidelines for Multilingual Writers (ESL)” (on page 683 of Markel & Selber). While the section is labeled for multilingual writers, it is useful for everyone. It includes explanations and examples for many common mistakes writers make.

Step 6: Submit your draft to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Post a rough draft of your technical description to your Writing Group in Canvas in the 09/20 Draft Feedback Discussion in Canvas. Additional instructions are in the Discussion. Post a draft of your technical description by September 20. If you are late submitting a draft, your group may not have time to provide feedback.

Step 7: Provide feedback to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Provide feedback to the members of your writing group in the 09/20 Draft Feedback Discussion in Canvas, by September 24 (end of the grace period). Use the information on the Writing Groups page to provide constructive feedback that will help your group members make concrete improvements to their drafts. 

Step 8: Revise your draft.
Use the feedback that you receive from your group members to revise and improve your document. You can share your draft again with your Writing Group, if you desire. As you revise, keep in mind the advice in the steps above, as well as the Assessment Criteria below.

Step 9: Include a polished version of your project in Project Portfolio 1, due October 1.
Have your Technical Description Project finished and ready for submission in your Project Portfolio 1, which is due Monday, October 1. The grace period for Project Portfolio 1 ends at 11:59PM on Thursday, October 4.

Assessment Criteria

For All Technical Writing Projects

All technical writing projects should meet the following general criteria:

  • Makes a good first impression as a polished and professional document.
  • Meets the needs of the intended audience.
  • Demonstrates how to emphasize important information.
  • Uses layout and formatting that makes information easy for readers to find and read, and that follows the standards you have set for your company.
  • Is written in plain language, which communicates the ideas clearly.
  • Follows all relevant ethical guidelines.
  • Uses accurate/appropriate grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting.

For Instructions

Your project should meet the following criteria for effective instructions, based on the checklist at the end of Chapter 20 of Markel & Selber:

  • Demonstrates a clear relationship between the graphics and the accompanying text.
  • Has a clear title that is specific to the instructions.
  • Opens with an introduction that
    • states the purpose of the task.
    • describes the safety measures or other concerns that readers should understand.
    • lists the necessary tools and materials.
  • Includes step-by-step instructions that are
    • numbered.
    • expressed in the imperative mood.
    • simple and direct.
    • accompanied by appropriate graphics.
  • Ends with a conclusion that includes
    • any necessary follow-up advice.
    • if appropriate, a troubleshooting guide.

Image Credit from Memo: RDECOM Scientist and Engineers bring their special skills and enthusiasm to STEM Night at Fallston Middle School by U.S. Army RDECOM on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license

I supplemented the assignment and the textbook information with some short videos and other materials that discussed how to decide between arranging instructions in a sequence and breaking instructions out in steps. Class discussion focused on students’ experience with following instructions. They offered many examples of instructions that didn’t give the end user enough details, primarily from instructions for building furniture.

Things have not been all smooth with this assignment, however. Some students were confused about the connections between the technical description and the instructions. I thought that breaking the activity into two separate pieces would help them focus on one genre at a time. Instead, I complicated the projects. I will likely use one assignment, combining the two projects, in the future.

Next week, I will share details from the portfolio submission assignment, including an infographic I created to help them understand the process. Students have completed half of the writing projects, so they will turn in their collected works. Until next week, let me know if you have any questions or suggestions by leaving me a comment below.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

A STEM-Based Technical Description Assignment

Jared Taylor, 16, scans a package under the guidance of Senior Airman Nolan Luna-Chavez at the RAF Mildenhall post office Aug. 3, 2012This week I am sharing the third writing assignment in the series of assignments I designed for my technical writing course. The series focuses on tasks related to a fictional business incubator, the Ut Prosim Incubator. In this week’s assignment (which is a revision of an activity I shared in the past), the fictional companies students have been working with are participating in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education initiative.

At this point in the course, students have established a company and given it an identity by designing visual and writing guidelines for the ways that their companies use the different kinds of correspondence. This week’s assignment asks students to turn to a short document that focuses directly on a technical task, describing an object, mechanism, or process for an audience of middle- and high-school students.

The assignment below has some minor changes to remove specific information that is relevant only to the students in my classes. References to “Markel & Selber” in the assignment refer to chapters in the class textbook Technical Communication by Mike Markel & Selber and Stuart Selber.

Background

You will write a technical description related to your field (such as of a tool that is typically used or a process that is part of your industry). The description will be part of a diversity initiative to interest local students in STEM careers (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). The description will relate to a task that local middle and high school students will complete as they shadow someone in your company.

You will also write the user document that students will use in the diversity initiative described above. You will provide step-by-step details on how to complete a simple and appropriate task that will help local students learn more about what someone in your career does.

The Scenario

Note: We will use this scenario for two projects: Technical Descriptions (this week) and User Documents (next week).

This week, you received the following memo, explaining your responsibilities for the Incubator’s annual Try-It-Out Day:

Ut Prosim Incubator logo Ut Prosim Incubator

   1872 Inventors Way, Blacksburg, Virginia 24060

   Interoffice Memo

To: All Incubator Companies

From: Traci Gardner, Ut Prosim Director

Subject: Preparing for Try-It-Out Day

Date: September 10, 2018
 

RDECOM Scientist and Engineers bring their special skills and enthusiasm  to STEM Night at Fallston Middle SchoolOn Try-It-Out Day, students from Montgomery, Giles, Pulaski, and Floyd Counties will spend most of the day working one-on-one with employees from every company in the Incubator to learn about what careers in STEM involve. We will match students with the company that fits their interests, and then you will determine the employees who will work with those students.

What Happens on Try-It-Out Day?

Try-It-Out Day will take place on Wednesday, September 26, from 8AM to 4PM.

Students will arrive at the Incubator at 8AM and spend the entire day with their assigned company, following this general schedule:

Time Activity
8:00 AM Welcome assembly for all students and company representatives
8:30 AM Students tour their assigned company, learning about what the company does and how it works
9:00 AM Students pair off with employees, who tell the students about their specific careers
10:00 AM Refreshments in the Incubator Atrium
10:30 AM Students learn to complete an activity that their employee-hosts do in the normal course of work
12:30 PM Lunch in the Incubator Cafeteria
1:30 PM STEM Challenge (a competition, students and employees collaborate in teams based on the schools students attend)
3:30 PM Refreshments in the Incubator Atrium and Closing Comments
4:00 PM Students board buses to return home

What Do You Need to Do to Prepare?

From 10:30 to 12:30, employees from your company will teach students about some activities that they do in the normal course of their work. To prepare for this portion of the day, please choose a specific activity that students can safely complete in 15–30 minutes. Ideally, choose an activity that students can complete more than once, such as examining and sorting specimens as shown in the image above.

Once you have chosen an activity, create two documents that students can take home and share when they return to their schools:

  • A technical description of an object, mechanism, or process that relates to the activity students will complete.
  • A user document that includes instructions the student can follow to complete the activity.

Any Questions?

If you need any help with this project, please let me know or contact my assistant, Leslie Crow <lcrow@utprosimincubator.org>. You can also talk with Incubator members who participated in the event last year.

Relevant Details

Note: These details apply to all of the projects you include in your portfolio.

Your company’s address is [Your Company Name], Ut Prosim Incubator, 1872 Inventors Way, Suite #[you choose a number], Blacksburg, Virginia 24060. Your company’s phone number is 540-555-5555. You may create a fictional Internet domain for your company, and use that domain for a web page address and your email addresses. If you’d like, you may create other information (including a logo) for your company as appropriate. Be sure that you use the information that you create consistently across all of your projects.

The Project Assignment

Step 1: Decide on the focus for your two projects (this week’s Technical Description and next week’s User Document).
Your focus will be to talk about a simple task that someone in your career field would complete. As you decide on your focus, think about activities that will meet these goals:

  • give the students an idea of what someone in your career does.
  • excite the students about the prospects of a career like yours.

Try to limit yourself to topics with which you have some expertise (or at least some experience). Since middle and high school students will be following the instructions, choose something that they could believably complete and that will not place them in a dangerous situation.

Step 2: Analyze the audiences for your two projects.
You will write a technical description and user document that middle and high school students can use as they complete an activity on Try-It-Out Day. Use the information from Markel & Selber, Chapter 5 to decide how the characteristics of the audiences will influence your writing. Consider the questions in Figure 5.2: Audience Profile Sheet and/or the Writer’s Checklist at the end of the chapter to guide your analysis.

Step 3: Examine the information about technical descriptions in Markel & Selber.
The textbook provides step-by-step details on how to write a technical description. Follow the textbook as you work on your project. In particular, be sure that you do the following:

  • Incorporate definitions for unfamiliar terms and ideas, following the “GUIDELINES: Writing Effective Sentence Definitions” (on page 539 of Markel & Selber) and the related information in the textbook.
  • Use the questions in “TABLE 20.1: Questions To Answer in Introducing a Description” (on page 550 of Markel & Selber) to gather the relevant details for your description.
  • Follow the “GUIDELINES: Providing Appropriate Detail in Descriptions” (on page 551 of Markel & Selber) to ensure you include the proper level of specific information.
  • Explore the examples in Markel & Selber to see some of the options for layout and formatting:
    • Figure 20.4: Inside Asimo
    • Figure 20.5: How Our Solar Electric System Works
    • Figure 20.6: Drivetrains
    • Figure 20.8: Turning Biomass into Fuel

Step 4: Write the technical description for students.
Compose your description, as requested in The Scenario above, with all the details you have gathered and created. Review the assessment guidelines below to ensure you have met all the requirements for the description. As you work, also keep the following points in mind:

  • Use plain language to make the ideas easy to find and read. Refer to the resources from Module 2 as needed.
  • Follow all relevant ethical guidelines as you work using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Chapter 2 (on page 40 of Markel & Selber).
  • Follow the suggestions for emphasizing important information, using the Writer’s Checklist for Chapter 9 (on page 211 of Markel & Selber) to check your work.
  • Use the Writer’s Checklist for Chapter 11 (on page 288 of Markel & Selber) to ensure that your document takes advantage of design principles to make it reader-friendly.
  • Make a good impression with accuracy and correctness. Your document should be polished and professional.

Step 5: Check your draft against the Writer’s Checklist.
Be sure that you include the required features for technical description. Review your project, using the Writer’s Checklist for Chapter 20 (on page 576 of Markel & Selber) and the Assessment Criteria below.

Step 6: Review your draft for design and basic writing errors.
Everything you write should use accurate/appropriate image editing, grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting. These are important basic writing skills that you should have developed in high school. Review your project using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Markel & Selber, Chapter 10 (on page 242 of Markel & Selber).

You can also consult the information on “Sentence-Level Issues” in Markel & Selber, “Appendix, Part D: Guidelines for Multilingual Writers (ESL)” (on page 683 of Markel & Selber). While the section is labeled for multilingual writers, it is useful for everyone. It includes explanations and examples for many common mistakes writers make.

Step 7: Submit your draft to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Post a rough draft of your technical description to your Writing Group in Canvas in the 09/13 Draft Feedback Discussion in Canvas. Additional instructions are in the Discussion. Post a draft of your technical description by September 13. If you are late submitting a draft, your group may not have time to provide feedback.

Step 8: Provide feedback to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Provide feedback to the members of your writing group in the 09/13 Draft Feedback Discussion in Canvas, by September 17 (end of the grace period). Use the information on the Writing Groups page to provide constructive feedback that will help your group members make concrete improvements to their drafts. 

Step 9: Revise your draft.
Use the feedback that you receive from your group members to revise and improve your document. You can share your draft again with your Writing Group, if you desire. As you revise, keep in mind the advice in the steps above, as well as the Assessment Criteria below.

Step 10: Include a polished version of your project in Project Portfolio 1, due October 1.
Have your Technical Description Project finished and ready for submission in your Project Portfolio 1, which is due Monday, October 1. The grace period for Project Portfolio 1 ends at 11:59PM on Thursday, October 4.

Assessment Criteria

For All Technical Writing Projects

All technical writing projects should meet the following general criteria:

  • Makes a good first impression as a polished and professional document.
  • Meets the needs of the intended audience.
  • Demonstrates how to emphasize important information.
  • Uses layout and formatting that makes information easy for readers to find and read, and that follows the standards you have set for your company.
  • Is written in plain language, which communicates the ideas clearly.
  • Follows all relevant ethical guidelines.
  • Uses accurate/appropriate grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting.

For a Description of an Object or Mechanism

Your project should meet the following criteria for effective technical descriptions, based on the checklist at the end of Chapter 20 of Markel & Selber:

  • Indicates the nature and scope of the technical description clearly.
  • Opens with an introduction that explains these major components:
    • what the item is.
    • how it functions.
    • what it looks like.
    • what its parts are.
  • Includes a graphic in the introduction that identifies the principal parts.
  • Uses an appropriate organizational principle.
  • Includes a graphic for each of the major components.
  • Summarizes the major points in the part-by-part description in the conclusion.
  • Includes (if appropriate) a description of the item performing its function.

For a Description of a Process

Your project should meet the following criteria for effective technical descriptions, based on the checklist at the end of Chapter 20 of Markel & Selber:

  • Indicates the nature and scope of the technical description clearly.
  • Opens with an introduction that explains the following:
    • what the process is.
    • how it functions.
    • where and when it takes place.
    • who or what performs it.
    • how it works.
    • what its principal steps are.
  • Includes a graphic in the introduction that identifies the principal steps.
  • Discusses the steps in chronological order or some other logical sequence).
  • Makes the causal relationships among the steps clear.
  • Includes graphics for each of the principal steps.
  • Summarizes the major points in the step-by-step description in the conclusion.
  • Discusses, if appropriate, the importance or implications of the process.

Image Credit from Memo: RDECOM Scientist and Engineers bring their special skills and enthusiasm to STEM Night at Fallston Middle School by U.S. Army RDECOM on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license

In addition to this assignment, I shared information on readability statistics with students. While I believe such statistics have definite limitations, tools such as the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level help students determine if they are writing too far above or too far below their audiences’ comprehension level.

The second part of this assignment focuses on writing the instructions that the middle and high school students will follow on Try-It-Out Day. I’ll share that activity next week. Until then, if you have any questions or comments about the assignment, please leave me a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

A Correspondence Writing Assignment

Yellowed business letter, written in 1925 by a Rivets companyThis week I am sharing the second writing assignment in the series of assignments I designed for my technical writing course. The series focuses on tasks related to a fictional business incubator, the Ut Prosim Incubator. The first assignment asks students to share the basic information about their company in a memo.

Once they establish a company name and focus, students are ready to undertake messages related to their companies. In the scenario for the second writing assignment, students deal with changes they need to make to support an influx of new employees, hired with the investment funds provided by the incubator.

The goal of this assignment is to help students learn about the differences between letters and memos by designing guidelines for the ways that their companies will use the different kinds of correspondence. Specifically, in order to fulfill the assignment, students have to be able to explain how letters are different from memos.

The assignment below has some minor changes to remove specific information that is relevant only to the students in my classes. References to “Markel & Selber” in the assignment refer to chapters in the class textbook Technical Communication by Mike Markel & Selber and Stuart Selber.

Background

You will create guidelines that your employees will use as they communicate with others inside and outside the company. The goal is to ensure that your company’s letters, memos, and emails have a uniform appearance and style.

The Scenario

Using the investment funds from the Ut Prosim Incubator, you have just expanded your company by hiring 20 new people. When there were just a few of you, it was easy to make sure everyone presented a consistent message. Now that there are nearly two dozen people making contacts, you will need to be more proactive to ensure that your company correspondence with clients, vendors, local regulators, and the public represents your company consistently and professionally.

To address this need, you will write a memo to all employees that explains the letter-writing style and format that your company follows and include a sample letter that illustrates the style and format as an attachment.

For your assignment, write the related documents:

  • the memo explaining your letter-writing style and format
  • the letter illustrating the style and format

Relevant Details

Your company’s address is [Your Company Name], Ut Prosim Incubator, 1872 Inventors Way, Suite #[you choose a number], Blacksburg, Virginia 24060. Your company’s phone number is 540-555-5555. You may create a fictional Internet domain for your company, and use that domain for a web page address and your email addresses. If you’d like, you may create other information (including a logo) for your company as appropriate.

The Project Assignment

Step 1: Explore the characteristics typical of correspondence in your field.
Think about the documents that you have seen from businesses in your field as your own. You can search the Internet and the textbook for examples as well. Consider characteristics of these documents such as the following:

  • Are they formal, informal, or somewhere in between?
  • How is the company’s contact information conveyed in/on the document?
  • Does the document take advantage of any special features to establish a company brand?
  • What sets the documents apart from those that would be created by people in a different field?
  • What sets the documents apart from those of competitors in the same field?
  • What strategies does the correspondence typically use to emphasize important information?

Step 2: Decide on the general style your business will follow.
Decide on the expectations you will set for your company’s correspondence. Brainstorm a list of required information, details on the typical look and feel, and other features you want employees to include in the letters that they write. Include everything from how to open the letter to the closing and expectations for signatures. If there is specific information that should always be included in letters, model how that information should be included and demonstrate it in your example.

Be sure to consider how to emphasize important information and create organizational structures in your letters (relying in particular on Markel & Selber, Chapter 14). Additionally, create a letterhead format for your company, using appropriate details.

Step 3: Analyze the audiences for your memo.
You will write a memo to all employees in your company that explains your company’s style and format for letters. Use the information from Markel & Selber, Chapter 5 to decide how the characteristics of the audiences will influence the writing that you do. Consider the questions in Figure 5.2: Audience Profile Sheet and/or the Writer’s Checklist at the end of the chapter to guide your analysis.

Step 4: Compose a letter illustrating the style and format your company will follow.
Use the information your gathered in Steps 1 and 2 to write your example letter. Be sure to demonstrate how to emphasize important information and how to organize the letter in a way that makes it clear and easy to read.

For the content of the letter, you can use placeholder text. See the article, How to Use Lorem Ipsum Dolor Placeholder Text, for examples. If you prefer, you may use real letter text that you write as well. Despite the use of placeholder text, be sure that the required layout and format is clear and that any specific details required (such as the signature expectations) are demonstrated.

Step 5: Write a memo to all your employees with the details on your company’s letter style and format.
Compose your memo, as requested in The Scenario above, with all the details you have gathered and created. Attach your example letter, and point to it as examples of your style as appropriate. You may add annotations to your letter, like the examples in the textbook, if you choose; but be sure that you connect your annotations to your memo directly.

As you work, keep the following points in mind:

  • Use plain language to make the ideas easy to find and read. Refer to the resources from Module 2 as needed.
  • Follow the suggestions for emphasizing important information, using the Writer’s Checklist for Chapter 9 to check your work.
  • Follow all relevant ethical guidelines as you work using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Markel & Selber, Chapter 2.
  • Make a good impression with accuracy and correctness. Your correspondence should be polished and professional.

Step 6: Check the drafts for your example letter and your memo for correct use of memo style and format.
Be sure that you include the appropriate headings and expected features for correspondence. Review your project, using the Writer’s Checklist for Chapter 14 (on page 386 of Markel & Selber).

Step 7. Review your draft for design and basic writing errors.
Everything you write should use accurate/appropriate image editing, grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting. These are important basic writing skills that you should have developed in high school. Review your project, using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Markel & Selber, Chapter 10.

You can also consult the information on “Sentence-Level Issues” in Markel & Selber, Appendix, Part D: Guidelines for Multilingual Writers (ESL). While the section is labeled for multilingual writers, it is useful for everyone. It includes explanations and examples for many common mistakes writers make.

Step 8: Submit your draft to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Post a rough draft of your info sheet to your Writing Group in Canvas in the 09/05 Draft Feedback Discussion in Canvas. Additional instructions are in the Discussion. Post a draft of your bio by September 6. If you are late submitting a draft, your group may not have time to provide feedback.

Step 9: Provide feedback to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Provide feedback to the members of your writing group in the 09/05 Draft Feedback Discussion in Canvas, by September 10 (end of the grace period). Use the information on the Writing Groups page to provide constructive feedback that will help your group members make concrete improvements to their drafts. 

Step 10: Revise your draft.
Use the feedback that you receive from your group members to revise and improve your document. You can share your draft again with your Writing Group, if you desire. As you revise, keep in mind the advice in the steps above, as well as the Assessment Criteria below.

Step 11: Include a polished version of your project in Project Portfolio 1, due October 1.
Have your Correspondence Project finished and ready for submission in your Project Portfolio 1, which is due Monday, October 1. The grace period for Project Portfolio 1 ends at 11:59PM on Thursday, October 4.

Assessment Criteria

For All Technical Writing Projects

All technical writing projects should meet the following general criteria:

  • Makes a good first impression as a polished and professional document.
  • Meets the needs of the intended audience.
  • Fulfills the purpose or goal of the project.
  • Demonstrates how to emphasize important information.
  • Uses layout and formatting that makes information easy for readers to find and read, and that follows the standards you have set for your company.
  • Is written in plain language, which communicates the ideas clearly.
  • Follows all relevant ethical guidelines.
  • Uses accurate/appropriate grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting.

For Letters

Your project should meet the following criteria for effective letters, based on the checklist at the end of Chapter 14 of Markel & Selber:

  • Uses letterhead stationery for the first page.
  • Includes the date.
  • Includes the complete and correct inside address.
  • Uses the appropriate courtesy title.
  • Includes an attention line, if appropriate.
  • Includes a subject line, if appropriate.
  • Uses the appropriate salutation.
  • Capitalizes only the first word of the complimentary close.
  • Includes a legible signature legible, with the writer’s name typed beneath the signature.
  • Includes an enclosure line, if appropriate.
  • Includes a copy and/or courtesy-copy line, if appropriate.
  • Uses one of the standard letter formats.

For Memos

Your project should meet the following criteria for effective memos, based on the checklist at the end of Chapter 14 of Markel & Selber:

  • Uses the identifying information that adheres to your organization’s standards.
  • Includes a specific subject line.
  • States your purpose clearly at the start of the memo.
  • Summarizes your message, if appropriate.
  • Provides appropriate background for the discussion.
  • Organizes the discussion clearly.
  • Includes informative headings to help your readers.
  • Highlights items requiring action.

As I originally designed the assignment, it also included an email message. Students were to write an email to their co-founders, asking them to review the memo and letter and offer any advice for improving the message. I like the idea of asking students to demonstrate an understanding of the characteristics of email messages in addition to letters and memos. Given the other work in the course however, I decided that adding an email component would be too much. With more time for the unit, I would certainly consider including it.

The next assignment in the sequence focuses on technical description in a rewrite of an assignment I designed to ask students to think about diversity in the workplace. Come back next week to read more, and if you have any feedback for me, please leave a comment below.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Incubator Info Sheet Assignment

Black fingers typing on a computer keyboardIn my last post, I described my plan to organize a series of assignments for my technical writing course around a fictional business incubator. This week, I have the first of those assignments to share with you.

For the series to work, I need students to choose a company that they will focus on for the assignments they will write. The first assignment asks students to share the basic information about their company in a memo. In the scenario, their information will be combined with that of other new companies that are joining the incubator for a presentation at the first meeting of all the members of the incubator.

The assignment below has some minor changes to remove specific information that is relevant only to the students in my classes. References to “Markel” in the assignment refer to chapters in the class textbook Technical Communication by Mike Markel and Stuart Selber.

Background

All of the projects will relate to your membership in a fictional business incubator, the Ut Prosim Incubator. The projects you will complete for your portfolios will be documents that you create as a member of this incubator. You will create a business and then write the pieces for your portfolio from the perspective as a starting business owner. You will collaborate with other members of the incubator and contribute materials to the endeavors that the incubator undertakes. You can read more about the incubator and how the projects connect on the Writing Projects Overview page.

The Scenario

During your first week as an Ut Prosim Incubator member, you receive the following memo:

Ut Prosim Incubator logo Ut Prosim Incubator

   1872 Inventors Way, Blacksburg, Virginia 24060

   Interoffice Memo

To: CEOs of New Incubator Companies

From: Traci Gardner, Ut Prosim Director

Subject: Your Company Info Sheet

Date: August 27, 2018

Welcome to the Ut Prosim Incubator! We are all so happy to have you join the Fall 2018 class of entrepreneurs.

I know you are still settling into your office, so our first all-company meeting will not take place for a few weeks. At this meeting, you will introduce your company to the other members of the Incubator.

The meeting will be informal, but we do want to prepare handouts and slides to share with attendees. We will also post the basic information that you provide on the Incubator website, for the possible research partners on campus, potential investors, and the public.

Please send the following information to me by September 7:

  • Your Company Name
  • Your Company CEO (use the name you want to appear in official documentation)
  • Your Company Mission Statement (a statement of your company’s goals and values)
  • Your Company Overview (explain what you company does, including whatever research you do, products your create, or services you provide)
  • Your Company’s Target Audience (who are the customers you serve or hope to serve)

Do not worry about formatting or design in your response. We will format the information for all the companies according to the Incubator’s branding and style guidelines.

We will send out a meeting announcement once a place and time have been confirmed. In the mean time, if you need any help settling in, please let me know or contact my assistant, Leslie Crow <lcrow@utprosimincubator.org>.

The Project Assignment

Step 1: Decide on the focus for your business.

Decide what your company will do—will you focus on products or services? You will focus on the company that you imagine for the entire term, so choose something that you know well. Sure, you can be creative, but create something doable that you have experience with (or at least strong knowledge of). Additionally, your focus must directly relate to your major.

As long as you comply with those two stipulations, you can focus on anything you want to. You have capital, staff, and resources to do whatever you set your mind to.

Step 2: Analyze the audiences for your memo.
Review the memo above and decide who the audience is for the memo you have to write and for the information that you have to gather. Use the information from Markel, Chapter 5 to decide how the characteristics of the audiences will influence the writing that you do. Consider the questions in Figure 5.2: Audience Profile Sheet and/or the Writer’s Checklist at the end of the chapter to guide your analysis.

Step 3: Determine the information that the memo requests.
Work through the memo above and find the information that you have to provide in your response. Once you find the list of requested information, decide on your responses. You are creating your business, so you get to create the answers for all the requested information. Don’t get stuck on perfectionism at this point. Compile your ideas, but know you can always come back to revise.

Step 4: Write a memo to me with the details.
Compose your memo, as requested in The Scenario above, with all the details you have gathered and created. As you work, keep the following points in mind:

  • Even though sophisticated formatting is not required, ensure that your answers are easy to find and read.
  • Check your draft for the use of plain language.
  • Ensure that you follow all relevant ethical guidelines as you create your responses, using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Markel, Chapter 2.
  • Be sure that your memo makes a good impression with accuracy and correctness. It should be polished and professional.

Step 5: Check your draft for correct use of memo format.
Be sure that you include the memo headings (To, From, Subject, and Date). For more details on memo format, consult Chapter 14 of Markel.

Step 6. Review your draft for design and basic writing errors.
Everything you write should use accurate/appropriate image editing, grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting. These are important basic writing skills that you should have developed in high school. Review your project, using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Markel, Chapter 10.

You can also consult the information on “Sentence-Level Issues” in Markel, Appendix, Part D: Guidelines for Multilingual Writers (ESL). While the section is labeled for multilingual writers, it is useful for everyone. It includes explanations and examples for many common mistakes writers make.

Step 7: Submit your draft to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Post a rough draft of your info sheet to your Writing Group in Canvas in the 08/29 Peer Feedback Discussion in Canvas. Additional instructions are in the Discussion. Post a draft of your memo by August 30. If you are late submitting a draft, your group may not have time to provide feedback.

Step 8: Provide feedback to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Provide feedback to the members of your writing group by September 4 (end of the grace period). Use the information on the Writing Groups page to provide constructive feedback that will help your group members make concrete improvements to their drafts. 

Step 9: Revise your draft.
Use the feedback that you receive from your group members to revise and improve your document. You can share your draft again with your Writing Group, if you desire. As you revise, keep in mind the advice in Steps 4, 5, and 6 above, as well as the Assessment Criteria below.

Step 10: Include a polished version of your response in Project Portfolio 1, due October 1.
Have your Info Sheet memo finished and ready for submission in your Project Portfolio 1, which is due Monday, October 1. The grace period for Project Portfolio 1 ends at 11:59PM on Thursday, October 4.

Assessment Criteria

Your project should meet the following criteria:

  • Makes a good first impression as a polished and professional document.
  • Uses memo format with the appropriate headers.
  • Meets the needs of the intended audience.
  • Uses layout and formatting that makes information easy for readers to find and read.
  • Is written in plain language, which communicates the ideas clearly.
  • Follows all relevant ethical guidelines.
  • Uses accurate/appropriate grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting.

Credit: Ut Prosim Incubator logo created with “Incubator” by lastspark from the Noun Project, used under a CC-BY 3.0 license.

So far the assignment has gone well. The biggest challenge I have had to deal with (other than the typical questions about due dates and the like) has been ill-chosen companies that do not actually relate to the student’s major. Many of the students are new to the memo format, but the peer feedback activity and the revision time they have should take care of any issues that come up.

In my next post, I will share a correspondence assignment that is the next step in the course. In the meantime if you have any comments to share on this assignment of the series in general, I would love to hear from you in the comments below.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Updating Your Word Cloud Tools

Word clouds can give writers helpful information as they revise their work. As I explained in my previous post Word Clouds as Revision Tools, “Word clouds highlight the most frequently used words in a text, using larger font sizes for the words used most often and smaller sizes for those used less often.”

Using Word Clouds

In the writing classroom, word clouds can help students identify words that they have overused or identify themes in their writing. In technical writing classes, I ask students to create word clouds from their job application materials and then evaluate whether the words that they use the most project the image that they want potential employers to see.

In classes that focus on reading, students can use word clouds to analyze passages from poetry, essays, fiction, and other readings. The resulting word clouds can help students identify themes and symbols in the texts, just as a concordance might. Here’s the word cloud for the 50 most frequent words in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

Word Cloud for T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

Once a word cloud like the one above is generated, students can talk generally about the frequently-used words, and then search for the words in the original text to see how they are used.

Problems with the Most Commonly Used Word Cloud Generator

So word clouds can be a fun tool to use in the classroom; recently, however, I have run into trouble when assigning word cloud activities. My go-to tool, Wordle, is no longer working consistently. When I follow their troubleshooting instructions, I end up finding this Java error:

Java error: The Chrome browser does not support NPAPI plug-ins and therefore will not run all Java content. Switch to a different browser (Internet Explorer or Safari on Mac) to run the Java plug-in.

Wordle has been my favorite and the tool that I have seen other teachers use most frequently, but with the end of Java support, I can’t rely on Wordle anymore. I need to find tools that students can use easily and reliably.

Word Cloud Alternatives to Try

After testing several options, I found three alternatives that seem useful:

These three tools create word clouds easily, giving the user the same basic settings. Word Cloud Generator (for Google Docs) is limited in the ways that you can manipulate the layout of the words. For instance, to switch to the landscape layout shown for The Waste Land example above, I had to open the image in Photoshop and rotate it. It’s not a hard change to make, but it is an extra step. Word Cloud Generator includes the unique ability to add a table of the most frequently used words and their frequency of use to the end of the analyzed document. To share this add-on with students, use the How to Create a Word Cloud in Google Docs video and instructions.

Pro Word Cloud (for Microsoft Word and PowerPoint) does allow you to change the layout of the words, giving you a range of options that includes Higgledy Piggledy. I love anything that offers me the chance to make things “Higgledy Piggledy.” This Word add-in falls short, however, since it has no option to exclude words from the cloud. There is a check box to “Remove common words,” but no option to customize the words that are removed. To share the add-in with students, you can use the Create a Word Cloud in a PowerPoint Presentation video and instructions. The instructions are generally the same to install and use the add-in in Microsoft Word.

WordClouds (for web browsers) is the best choice if the source text for your word cloud is a web page or PDF. You can upload a file or enter a web link, and the tool will make a related cloud. WordClouds also includes the largest number of options of the three tools. In addition to the customary settings for the color, font, and the layout of the words, you can change the shape of the cloud (e.g., a heart, an apple, a cat), set the distance between words (or the gap size), and add a mask. The shape option includes not only basic shapes, but also the ability to choose a letter or number as the shape of the cloud and the ability to choose a colorful icon (such as a rainbow). There’s even a sneaky way to track multi-word phrases (e.g., writing center). Just add a tilde (~) between the words (i.e., writing~center). While there is no page of instructions for WordClouds, students can use the Wizard on the site to get started and find the answers to any questions on the FAQ page.

Final Thoughts

I am always looking for more ways to use word clouds in the classroom. They are so easy to create, and they quickly reveal keywords and themes in the analyzed texts. I am working on some additional word cloud activities for next week’s post. If you have an activity to share, please leave me a note below, and be sure to come back next week for those additional assignments that use word clouds.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Asking Students to Visualize Their Progress

Since I am currently teaching technical writing, progress reports are on my regular list of assignments this term, but I also use them in both my first-year composition (FYC) and my digital media classes. The assignment works well in the middle of a longer project, be it something like a research project in FYC or a documentary video project in a digital media class.

At its most basic, the progress report is a simple genre with a organizational structure that makes sense to students. I ask students to focus on three sections:

  • Section 1: Tell me what you have done
  • Section 2: Tell me what you still need to do
  • Section 3: Tell me how you will get the remaining work done and let me know about any of your concerns

Students can often accomplish the task in a quick one-page document. The activity works well as an in-class writing exercise, since it requires no research and has a set structure with clear requirements. When students work on progress reports outside of class, I can step up the expectations. For instance, I frequently ask students to include a calendar or a table that shows their remaining milestones or to add specific information that shows their progress.

One of my favorite additions focuses on using visual elements in their progress reports to demonstrate something about the work they have completed or the work they plan to complete. To explain the expectations for this visual addition to the assignment, I post the following description and example on the course website:

Visualize Your Progress

You can often show trends and comparisons with graphical elements better than with text descriptions. Consider the difference between describing the performance of a stock or a portfolio during the last year and showing that performance with a line graph. Here’s an example from the Student-managed Endowment for Educational Development (SEED) 2016 Annual Report [an investment portfolio managed by a student at Virginia Tech]. Which seems easier to read and process to you?

Text Description

The portfolio performed relatively in line or slightly below the respective benchmark until the final quarter, as shown in Exhibit 1. We included the Consumer Price Index as a preservation of spending power benchmark to monitor changes in our real returns. From mid-November to year-end, the portfolio significantly outperformed and finished 2016 with an active return of 5.13%. In order to calculate our risk-adjusted return, we incorporated our portfolio’s beta of 1.2 and historical average for yields on the 1-Year Treasury note (1.84%) in order to compute a CAPM-based implied alpha. This calculation resulted in an implied 2016 alpha of 3.11%.

Line Chart

SEED 2016 Performance

For my money (pun intended), the line chart is much easier to understand quickly. In many circumstances, you will include both a text description and a graphical representation, which helps ensure accessibility for all readers. The point of today’s post is that the graphical version is not just an illustration. It is critical to showing the reader information about the topic.

Think about how you can add graphical representation of information in your progress report. The infographic How to Think Visually Using Visual Analogies from Anna Vital to see a collection of charts and graphs you can use to communicate information. Once you explore the options, add a pertinent visualization to your progress report.

After this reviewing this information, students have improved their progress reports by adding visual elements like pie charts and timelines as well as photos and screenshots that show their work. It’s definitely one of my favorite class activities because it takes students from reflective text descriptions to considerations of visual rhetoric in just one class session. Have you tried an activity that teaches students to make and use visual elements in their writing? Please share your ideas in the comments below. I’d love to hear about what works for you.

 

Image credit: Graph from the Student-managed Endowment for Educational Development (SEED) 2016 Annual Report.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.