Time to go home

This semester I’m teaching two classes at a local college. The first is Technical Writing and the second (which I took over mid-term) is Professional Writing.

Both similar, yet both different.

Technical writing covers reports, documents, and guides.

Professional writing covers the type of writing an employee would produce in a job setting. These include memos, letters, resumes, cover letters, and short reports.

But here’s the thing, both types of writing use *similar* organizational patterns. It doesn’t matter if you are writing a letter or a short report, you still have to collect the information for the:

  • Introduction – where you ground the reader by stating the purpose and defining any terms or explaining any relevant background information
  • Body – where you present facts and back them up or you anticipate disagreement and create a valid response.
  • Conclusion – where you summarize the main points and leave the reader with next steps or a recommendation, and contact information should they need additional information.

Students seem to have an innate allergic reaction to pre-planning a document. I suspect it was the years and years of forcing a report into an outline (because that’s what everyone did, you wrote the report first and then created the outline to hand in.) For the first few weeks of my classes, I get nothing but groans and resistance to writing outlines.

Do we have to use Roman numerals? Do we have to have a certain number of items in a sub-topic?

My answer is always “nope.”

A formal outline uses formal structure. An informal outline (which is what we use in my classes) is there to organize ideas into a logical progression. A formal outline is for the reader in order for her to find information in your document. An informal outline is for the writer in order to help *her* organize the information in her document.

Two different tools, two different uses.

I often do an exercise in the classroom, where I pick a topic and then I have the students brainstorm ideas. It is only when we have a white board filled with topics that we then go back and put them in to an order of ideas that works based on the document’s purpose.

It’s about organization, dummy.

Last week, when I was lecturing my class, I mentioned that I was seeing a tremendous improvement in the writing of many of the students in the class from the beginning of the semester.

“Change is the most difficult thing you can ask someone to do,” I told the class. “No one will change without first having a good reason. Why do you think it is that some of you are changing in the way you do your writing?”

“Because it’s easier,” a student blurted out.

Because it’s easier.

That’s it, my work is done here. We can all go home.

Photo credit: Eugene

Photo credit: Eugene


Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.

5 thoughts on “Time to go home

  1. Chaos – My biggest and most persistent enemy. Everything is easier to do when you can actually find whatever you need to do it! My heaps and piles don’t do me any favours. Thanx for the motivation to attempt getting organized!

  2. Change….well when the pain of holding on becomes more than the fear of letting go that’s when we accept change. It’s not easy to let go of our habits …those shells we have build around ourselves and let our souls bask in the sun or get drenched in the rain! But once we are able to do it…we find that the pain was worth it!

  3. I think planning and pre-planning isn’t in systems because we are also taught as culture to be “spontaneous” which somehow nowadays also correlates to “innovation”. I know I am quite resistant to planning too. My mind is reticent because I am not understanding the need for it. But then I realised on many projects it can be actually heaps helpful. I mean because it is. You are not always in a state of mind to produce or even if you can what the production needs requires setting and context which may be impaired by an overflow of ideas. Because one idea can be umbrella to many but which of those many do you need? Thank you so much for elucidating these details. Does technical writing also include like any subject?

  4. My absolute favourite line is: “Students seem to have an innate allergic reaction to pre-planning a document.” I have tried over and over and over to get my teenaged son to see the light i.e. pre-planning is so much better than ‘going with the flow’ and after a while the process becomes the norm, making life so much easier. And so I press on, while thanking you for this very timely post 🙂

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