Embrace the Cliche!

Last Friday I asked the students in my Technical Writing group what sentence they found the most difficult to write. They answered the same way all my writing students do every time I ask that question: the first one. Once they have got started they are usually able to continue, but it is writing that first sentence that proves to be their biggest challenge.

Why? Even if my students are not linguists, they are mostly quite clever. You would expect them to be able to write something as simple as a good first sentence of an essay. But they’re not. And there are at least two reasons for this. One, it is actually quite difficult to write something that is easy to read. Two, my students don’t compromise. Being as clever as they are at calculating stuff, they are used to giving the correct answer to every question in one go. They don’t believe in drafts.

As a result, many students take a lot of time trying to say something brilliant in their first sentence. But writing something brilliant is bloody difficult and even experienced writers don’t usually manage to do that in a first attempt. So how to go about this? What can you do to write something clever?

My advice: start with something stupid. Something obvious. Use a cliché. And then continue writing. I promise this will be easy, because you’ve got your first sentence. Once you’ve got that one, the rest of the paragraph is easy. And before you know it you’ve written an entire section.

And then comes the magic trick. When you have finished the first couple of paragraphs or section, have a good look at your first sentence (the cliché one) and slowly and deliberately cross it out. Yes, I know this is very unpleasant (in the teaching world this is called “kill your darlings”). Now look at the sentence that was your second sentence and is now the first. See if you’ve come to the point yet in that sentence. If not, cross it out. Keep doing this until you have a first sentence that makes you happy. Sometimes you only need to cross out the first sentence, sometimes you’ll need to cross out the entire first paragraph. Usually, that is all you need to do to end up with a very good start.

Interestingly, there are quite a few students who almost get this right. They write wonderful clichés, utter grotesque platitudes or mind-boggling truisms and then they don’t recognise these for what they are. They don’t see that all they need to do to be brilliant is to cross out the first one or two sentences.

I have seen this a million times. Sometimes I have to help and occasionally a student will swear out loud when I solemnly cross out their first sentences for them – and then they grin. They swear because they suddenly realize they have been writing nonsense, which hurts, and they grin because two seconds later they see that their text is suddenly much sharper.

So next time when you’re having trouble writing those first sentences: embrace the cliché!

 

 

 

 

Answer the questions or question the answers?

Sometimes I drive my students mad. And I do it on purpose too. You see, instead of giving them answers to their questions, I give them more questions. I’ll give you an example.wrong_question_header

Student: “Please, Bob, should this trade-off table be included in the text or should I move it to the appendix?”

Bob: “Well, that depends. Who do you suppose will be reading it?”

Student: “Why, you are, I guess! I don’t know.”

Bob: “Would you agree maybe, that I am unlikely to read the professional technical reports that you will be writing after your graduation? Would you also agree then, that there must be somebody else who will be reading them, and that it would be wise to figure out who they are?”

Student: “Yeah but you are reading this one and there must be a proper place to put this table. Can’t you just tell us where it is?”

Bob: “Let me put it this way. Why did you make this table in the first place? What do you want your readers to do with it?

Student: “Well, we want them to be able to check whether the argumentation represented in the trade-off table is valid, so that they will understand and accept our choice for the best concept.” (I admit they don’t usually put it quite like this.)

Bob: “Okay. That accounts for its wonderful level of detail. And who would that be doing this checking?”

Student: “That’s easy. Engineers of course!”

Bob: “Excellent! Remind me, what kind of report are you writing again?”

Student: “A management report.”

Bob: “Ah. And do you maybe remember what we discussed during last week’s lesson on presentation skills?”

Student: “Yes, we discussed how there are several different ways to present scores in an oral presentation.”

Bob: “For example?”

Student: “You can give the actual scores, you can use symbols, like pluses and minuses. And colour codes, like red is bad and green is good.”

Bob: “And what might be the reason for the differences between these presentations?”

Student: “That way you can vary the amount of detail depending on your audience’s expertise and needs.”

Bob: “And?”

Student: “You can give them your interpretation of the scores this way.”
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Bob: “Brilliant! So how do you think this strategy might be applied in our present situation, considering that you are writing mainly for a manager who just wants to know the outcome of your trade-off and present this to her team?”

Student: “Ah! You mean that we might put this highly detailed version in the appendix for specialists, so they can check our results, and present a low-tech version for the project managers in the body of the report?”

Bob: “Wow!”

Student: “Why did you not just tell us what you wanted?”

Bob: “What would you have learned?”

Spoiler Alert!

Why bottom lines should be headlines.

What would your readers say if you put the conclusion of your report in its title?

A: Booh! Spoiler alert!

B: Aha!

I have asked that question in my writing groups for years and every time a few of my students answer ‘A’. Apparently they think that argumentation should come before conclusion. And of course it does – when you are doing the research and the designing. But does that mean that you should keep your conclusions secret until your reader has read the rest of the report? I think not!

Mind you: I am not talking about scientific papers or essays here. But your report should give the most efficient representation of your conclusions and argumentation possible, and that means that your reader should be able to see what your main conclusion is. Immediately. On the front page.

A title like: “An investigation into algae as an energy source” forces your poor readers to find the Summary or the Conclusion section and read until they come to the relevant bit, which they will find annoying. You don’t want your readers to find you annoying. Really. It’s bad for business.

Instead, write something like: “Three reasons why algae will never replace fossile fuel”, or: “Why algae are likely to be the biofuel of the future”. If you want (you do), you can combine them into a title and a subtitle (or primary and secondary, if you are American) like this:

Three reasons why algae will replace fossile fuel within five years.

An investigation into algae as an energy source.

Or:

Algare are not an acceptable alternative for fossile fuel.

Research shows algae are too slow to grow, expensive and inefficient.

I have said this in previous posts, but you may not (yet) have read them all (you should). People who read technical reports professionally don’t have a lot of time to read. Do them a favour: don’t waste their time by keeping your main findings a secret.

Section Intoductions: Tell Your Readers What to Expect

When you divide your text into subsections you will have to make your reader understand what you are doing and what you are doing it for. This means that all sections at first and second level that you split up into subsections get an introduction.

Third level sections  usually don’t get an introduction as they are not split up. You would get a fourth level, which is really too much of a good thing. The example below shows a first level section that is subdivided into two second level sections in which two systems are compared. Notice that Chapter 3.1 is not split up into fragments and therefore does not have an introduction.

Please bear in mind that in reality you would never call them system A and B. Give them names that explains how they are different form each other.


Chapter 3: Comparison: System B performs better than system A

Now that we have established that system A and system B both yield satisfactory results, it is time to see which system meets the requirements best. Chapter 3.1 shows how both systems compare on durability and maintainability, chapter 3.2 will show how they cope in extreme situations.

3.1: Both systems are durable and easily maintainable

According to Johnson (2015), System A was found to be extremely durable. Even after 15 years of non-stop service the accuracy remained …. This was confirmed in several experiments (e.g. Post 2011, Williams 2012). System B, likewise, has proved to be ….

Maintenance of both systems was different only in minor aspects. System A requires slightly more time for …., but his is negligible because …

3.2: System B is more reliable under extreme conditions

Even though both systems function similarly under most circumstances, some remarkable differences came to light when we tested them in extreme temperatures. Both systems were used to measure X at 12 different temperatures and it was here where system B proved to be … Chapter 3.2.1 will first show the results of …., chapter 3.2.2 describes …

3.2.1: Low temperatures

Our measurements show that at temperatures below 100K, system A started to show …. This means that an extra insulation …., which will lead to ….

3.2.2: High temperatures

The last two measurements, at 500 and 600K respectively, show a marked difference ….

3.3: Conclusion: system B will be more reliable in future deployments

In the current situation, system A and B will both work equally well, as the temperatures at which they are used are moderate. However, as the situations, and with these the temperatures at which the systems will be subjected, will become more extreme in the next 3 or 4 years ….

(Do you see, by the way, how all the headings together form a kind of summary?)