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Technical Writing: Helping Students Write Text That Readers Can Skim

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore Nat. Lab. (retired)

Technical Writing: Helping Students Write Text That Readers Can Skim

The STEM Reading Problem

Scientists and engineers need to keep up with a flood of new
information, but they have only a limited budget of reading time to
invest.  So professional practice usually involves skimming...

    ...a form of rapid reading in which the goal is
    to get a general idea of the text or visual
    content, typically accomplished by focusing on
    information relevant to one's goals and skipping
    over irrelevant information.
    (Fok, et al., "SCIM: intelligent, faceted highlighting..." 2205.04561v1, May 2022)

Past empirical studies have revealed, however, that STEM text
skimming is often not very accurate (easy to miss relevant passages
while distracted by irrelevant ones) yet quite cognitively demanding,
a tiring task for busy readers.

Raymond Fok and his colleagues, mostly at University of Washington's
Allen Institute for AI, are exploring a high-tech response by
developing software to display "intelligent faceted highlights"
of a technical text.  But every student writing STEM text can make
skimming easier and more fruitful for readers simply by deploying
text features that scaffold future skimming as they draft and revise
the text that they create.   

How Writers Can Help

The standard well-known visual features that typify technical text
--and that make it look different at a glance from the pages of a
typical novel--will help STEM readers skim.  So young writers
certainly should learn to embrace those features when they design
their drafts:
1. topical section headings (even if just "introduction, methods,
   results, discussion"),
2. itemized, displayed lists (of actions taken, parts to use, or
   phases of a process observed, perhaps).

But many more skim-support features are available that also signal
key content chunks and transitions by purely verbal means:

* Within-text sequence signals.
Even without visual indenting, purely verbal sequence signals
("second," "next," "finally") help busy readers skim from item
to item, allowing them to pause only at the passages relevant to
their specific information needs.

*Relationship cues.
Writers can expose, rather than skip over, transition signals that
many readers could exploit while skimming a complex document:
--Elaboration:  "in addition" and "furthermore" signal coming
   additional details relevant to a theme already in play.
--Change of direction: "in contrast to" and "however" signal
   contesting claims that skimming readers could find revealing
   and hence helpful.
--Novelty alerts: "surprisingly" or "unexpectedly" telegraph that
   something new is disclosed, just what skimming readers hope
   to notice.  

*Figure captions.
Finally, the words that accompany STEM figures--the explanatory
captions for each diagram, drawing, or photograph--not only
reveal that figure's role in the text but have a secondary value
as valuable clues during text skimming.  Indeed, some scientists
notoriously skim articles or reports in figure-intensive fields
by jumping from figure to figure and reading only the captions,
treating them as capsule summaries of all key content.

Embracing Opportunity

None of these skim-support text features are exotic.  As readers of
other people's technical prose, students see these moves every day
(and hopefully learn to actually take advantage of them).  But none
happen automatically.  Every STEM text that offers such helpful
skimming aids has had them patiently installed by some thoughtful
writer who tried to responsibly anticipate their reader's needs.
Your students can become that writer as you call attention to the
skim-support possibilities in their drafts.

[To help your students view technical writing as text engineering, see
For more on crafting text that helps readers succeed, see ]



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