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Technical Writing: Checklists for Overcoming Slips and Mistakes

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
trgirill@acm.org

Technical Writing: Checklists for Overcoming Slips and Mistakes

Medical care offers several parallels with technical writing that often
make it a fertile source of insights and techniques to improve
(standard) performance.  But sometimes these fields diverge, and in ways
that are themselves usefully revealing.  Such is the case with checklists.

Medical Slips and Mistakes

A study on checklists by the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and
Quality (https://psnet.ahrq.gov/primer/checklists#) mines out the
medical distinction between slips and mistakes when exploring techniques
to improve performance quality.  Slips are caused by "lapses in
concentration, distractions, or fatigue."  Mistakes, however, result
from "lack of experience or insufficient training."  

Most healthcare errors are slips rather than mistakes.  Since "checklists
represent a simple, elegant method to reduce the risk of slips," they
offer a reliable, low-cost way to improve medical care quality (for
example, dropping line infections after surgery or boosting public
health interventions).  Other medical problems--such as diagnostic or
handoff errors--are mistakes that demand more training or decision
support to fix.  So they "may not be an appropriate subject for a
checklist."  

Writing Slips and Mistakes
 
Interestingly, standard practice in STEM publishing offers a clear,
authentic counterexample to this medical view of the role of checklists.
In journal article refereeing, working scientists and engineers review
the drafts of others before publication, often guided by (publisher-
provided) checklists, and with the specific goal of managing textual
mistakes, not merely attentional slips, in the draft under review.

In technical writing, a "slip" would be an inadvertent grammar or
spelling problem ("the group of tests were/was adequate"), or perhaps
a reference to another paper not formatted according to a journal's
expected style.  A "mistake," on the other hand, involves a more
substantial content or presentational flaw or gap.

To promote consistency and thoroughness during the prepublication
review of a submitted article, many STEM publishers provide their
referees with checklists to help them spot and suggest relevant
improvements for such common mistakes (not "slips") as:
* not enough relevant (or too many irrelevant) details when
  explaining methods used,
* inappropriate technical terminology for the audience,
* confusing, rather than clarifying, organizational/structural choices,
* failure to place goals or results in the context of related work, or
* inadequate or confusing text/graphics integration.

Scaffolds for Skill Building

The whole point of such journal checklists is to lead scientist/engineer
referees beyond attention to mere slips (most journals have staff
members to check for such flaws) and focus instead on content or
presentation mistakes before publication.  

Responsible, influential referees use this opportunity to coach STEM
authors on ways to provide more adequate, technique-enriched textual
performance.  A journal referee checklist often serves as a scaffold
for skill-building for junior scientists, enriching their sophistication
as writers as well as highlighting specific flaws in one single draft
article.  Addressing design "mistakes" and not just mechanical "slips"
during a checklist-mediated article review thus benefits the whole
profession.  It can also deliver vital cross-cultural support for
scientists or engineers publishing in English when their native
language is something else.  

Technical writing checklists can benefit your students in similar
ways.  Good-description or good-instruction checklists (see below)
can can make mistake-avoiding or inadequacy-repairing techniques
explicit, visible for your students to try while drafting and
deploy while improving their drafts.  Grammar and spelling slips
should be avoided or repaired too, of course.  But writing checklists
can help students (including ESL students) build beyond mere
mechanical adequacy to meet reader needs reliably and effectively
in their science prose.

[Want more background on technical writing in science class? See
http://writeprofessionally.org/techlit/handbooktoc
For a description-support checklist, see
http://writeprofessionally.org/techlit/analysisgd
For an instruction-support checklist, see
http://writeprofessionally.org/techlit/instructions ]

 

 

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