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Writing :: How Can Technical Communicators Study Work Contexts?

Posted by: on Dec 5, 2012 | No Comments
Spinuzzi, C. (2012). How can technical communicators study work contexts? Solving Problems in Technical Communication, Eds. Stuart Selber and Johndan Johnson-Eilola. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

This is the fifth in my ongoing series on writing publications. But that doesn't mean that the chapter I'm describing was written recently. In this case, I finished the chapter quite a while ago—I submitted a substantial draft in September 2009—and did some light fine-tuning in the years after that, freshening citations and so forth.

The chapter is for Selber and Johnson-Eilola's Solving Problems in Technical Communication, which is meant for technical writing undergrads and early grad students. In this particular case, the editors asked me to describe how to study work contexts, based on my workplace studies.

The topic was really timely for me. In the previous year (2008), I had teamed with Mark Zachry and Bill Hart-Davidson to present a workshop on field methods and analytical constructs at the RSA Summer Institute, so the materials were fresh. And I had been using the analytical constructs in various papers as well as in my undergraduate field methods class. In fact, I had been thinking about bundling some of these materials into a book (which I eventually did).

For this particular chapter, I focused on the meso-level analytical constructs that I thought would be most useful and accessible, the ones that Bill, Mark and I discuss in "Chains and Ecologies": genre ecology models, communicative event models, and sociotechnical graphs. In fact, you can think of the chapter as a popularization of that piece, one that uses an extended scenario to illustrate them.

Popularization is the key word. Since the chapter was meant to be read by undergrads, it required a different mode of writing, one that relied more on conversational language and less on dense citations—and, at least in 2009, it was a mode that I had a hard time entering. The editors patiently sent back my first draft (and, I believe, my second) with a lot of helpful comments on how to make the chapter more accessible. Comments such as "Fixing this may require creating a new scenario and a new extended example"—a comment that led me to completely rewrite and restructure the chapter!

Lessons? For this chapter, the big lessons are:

(a) Often a writer has to adjust for the audience. And those adjustments aren't always easy—in this case, they entailed a complete rewrite. At a couple of points, I became frustrated enough that I wondered whether this chapter was worth it. PS, it was: this exercise paid real dividends in terms of clearer writing and also in terms of doing a better job of teaching my own students.

(b) The chapter isn't the point. Speaking of, I want to emphasize something here that I tell my grad students. It's not about the publication. The publication is not the product of your scholarship, it's the exhaust or the condensate that comes as a byproduct of the scholarship. We measure progress in scholarship by publications, yes, but that's like measuring industry by measuring CO2 emissions or tracking a jet plane by looking for the contrail. Once you think of publications like these as the condensate that results from solving interlinked problems (e.g., How do we study context? How do I communicate my results to an undergraduate audience?), it becomes a lot easier to push them out, to invest less in them emotionally, and to see them as a trailing-edge measure of progress.

(c) Sometimes you have to be patient. In this case, "trailing edge" is a good description, since the chapter took a while to come out. In fact, seeing this chapter come out now almost feels like time travel, since that work from 2009 was an important step toward my new book, which will actually come out just weeks after this one!

No matter. Strategically, these publications link together, with each publication helping me to think through the next step in my scholarship. Tactically, they provide coverage: publications come to press at different rates, just as investments mature at different rates, so having several out there can pay dividends at different points. In this case, the chapter is coming out at a very good time in terms of my annual merit case and in terms of promoting my new book. (Did I mention my new book?)