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Technical Writing: Recipes Reflect Practices and Simulate Instructions

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

Technical Writing: Recipes Reflect Practices and Simulate Instructions

Students learning STEM through the NGSS framework quickly encounter
science/engineering activities or "practices," whose textual expression
is written instructions.  Learning to write effective, reliable
instructions is thus the literacy aspect of mastering technical practices.

Historians of science, always on the hunt for revealing past practices
and instructions, have increasingly found helpful the study of old
cooking recipes:

1. Practices usually develop incrementally, with refinements that
turn up, often unexpectedly, during long-term use.  Repeatedly
annotated or rewritten cooking recipes, passed from one family
member to another, reflect this same developmental pattern.

2. Practices involve knowing about both the materials needed and the
processes applied to them.  That corresponds nicely to the ingredient
proportions and the baking steps included in typical recipes.

3. Practices also embody technical know-how (procedural knowledge)
that has a personal social value (earns one a place among experts)
as well as an institutional value (advances science or engineering
generally).  Family recipes, shared through generations of cooks,
likewise embody both personal accomplishment in the kitchen and
general culinary progress.

Elaine Leong, a professional historian specializing in medical
cases, found that her analytical abilities sharpened when she
started pursuing "recipe salvage" as an intellectual hobby
("Swapping Recipes," History of Science Society Newsletter, July
2020, p. 13,
Science students too, even those somewhat intimidated by the technical
content they are studying, can hone their ability to draft and improve
instructions (for lab or clinical procedures, for operating complex
equipment, or for using software) by dissecting and refining cooking
recipes (such as those cleverly diagrammed at  

Leong's family cheesecake recipe, repeatedly edited, illustrates
the text usability improvements that recipes enable students to notice
and then practice:

1. Supplying helpful (or sometimes crucial) missing steps--
"mix all [ingredients] together" to achieve a desired consistency.

2. Adjusting quantities for optimal results (perhaps as baking
conditions change)--
replace "1/2 lb. butter"with "3/4 lb. butter."

3. Replacing (or updating) obsolete units--
"1/4 peck" becomes "1/2 cup" (for volume-based recipes) or the
equivalent in grams (for weight-based recipes).

4. Inserting vital nonquantitative "manner of execution" tips--
curds should be "well drained but NOT put in a press."

5. Fixing mechanical or grammatical flaws so they do not confuse
international ESL readers--
"add less then 1 cup" becomes "add less than 1 cup."

Recipe salvage thus makes concrete and personal the apparently
abstract and impersonal NGSS concept of documenting good
professional practices in written instructions.  Recipe
refinement is a literacy activity through which all students
can build their instruction-crafting skills.
[Want more background on technical writing in science class? See

Want to help students write effective instructions?  See the
checklist at ]



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