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Technical Writing: Sketchiness to Plan STEM Writing

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

Technical Writing: Sketchiness to Plan STEM Writing

Sometimes a concept emerges from accumulated professional practice
that in the abstract seems irrelevant to student STEM writing, but a
closer look shows it to be surprisingly useful, a neglected path to
greater writing sophistication.  Sketchiness is such a concept.

Argument Sketches

Recently, an engineering team at the University of Konstanz developed
software to help professional linguists annotate complex published
arguments, such as presidential debates (Fabian Sperrle, et al.,
"VIANA: visual interactive annotation of argumentation,",
1907.12413v1, July 29, 2019).  

During tests of their tool, the developers found that "one frequently
mentioned complaint was the lack of [perceived] connection between
extracted locutions and their context," important because often
multiple versions of a locution ended up expressing the same underlying
argument premiss.  The tool developers responded by building into
their software "sketch-rendering techniques when displaying locution
annotations."  They even added a "sketchiness slider" because
sketchiness is hard to calibrate but different users found different
degrees of sketchy display most helpful to aid their argument analysis.

What is Sketchiness?

The VIANA team never explicitly states just what their sketchy output
consists of--they know that good linguists would recognize it in
action.  Verbal sketchiness is not at all the same as sloppiness
or carelessness.  It is an intentional, designed technique (or
corresponding software feature) that captures the key aspects of
a soup of locutions before a final version emerges.  The grain size
is course (a sketch omits many details, perhaps because even the
writer does not know them yet).  The scope is incomplete.  Yet a
good sketch still embodies the gist, the essential features of a
draft text in a recognizable, helpful way.

Sketches--verbal as well as visual--are useful precisely because of
their calculated incompleteness.  They include just enough relevant
information to enable:

* mental sorting (of tentative claims, views, or facets),
* annotating (what the linguists were doing to the arguments they read),
* organizing (recognizing just-emerging or subtle but important
  features and hence clusters), and
* further elaboration--of a text's gist based on reader needs and
  subsequently refined details.

An Historical Case

Mark Twain famously employed verbal sketches as a text design tool.
He carried a vest-pocket-sized notebook in which he drafted verbal
sketches of interesting scenes that he witnessed or conversations
that he overheard.  Later, he reviewed these notes and developed
some into passages for his published works.  

These sketched notes were useful precisely because, while coarse-
grained and incomplete, they captured evocative vignettes that
helped Twain later visualize some character, place, or event so
that he could subsequently refine and elaborate it.  (Twain's
sketch notes became famous because his notebook pages were small,
so when he ran out of space he simply rotated each page 90 degrees
and continued writing, penning new lines over the old ones but at
right angles.  These sketched-sideways notes survive today in the
Mark Twain collection at the UC Berkeley Library.)

Novice Benefits

So "sketchy notes" in science capture the key features of a STEM
process performed or phenomenon observed--unburdened by elaborative
detail that may not even exist when the sketch is drafted.  Just
as with the VIANA argument-annotation tool (or Twain's notebooks),
the sketchy version of a draft technical text is not a dumb
substitute for a more elaborate later version but, on the contrary,
a means toward achieving that better version.  Drafting concise,
insightful text sketches enables later reflection and review,
leading to the iterative refinement that they deserve--as arguments
for a conclusion, descriptions of an interesting phenomenon, or
instructions for a complex procedure.  Making useful text sketches
requires verbal subtlety, but it generously repays any student who
practices and masters those moves--with your coaching and modeling.

[Want more background on technical writing in science class? See
For a closer look at planning text that helps its users, see ]


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