Nov. 19, 2004
To: R. Smith
From: G. Koch
Subject: Technical Communication Textbook Recommendation
The purpose of this report is to recommend the textbook that should be purchased for the Technical Communication course. After comparing six textbooks, I narrowed my choice down to three: “Technical Communication” by Paul Anderson, “Technical Writing” by John Lannon and “Technical Writing” by Deborah Andrews and Margaret Blickle. Because of the nature of the course, I evaluated each book by its chapter on oral presentations. To determine which book I should suggest, I evaluated them using three criteria in ranked order:
I recommend Paul Anderson’s “Technical Communication” book on the basis that it will be the clearest, best-organized and most usable of the texts. It provides a clear outline of what will be covered, divides content into appropriate headings and subheadings and does not ramble. Compared to Lannon’s text, Anderson’s book goes much more in-depth. Andrews and Blickle’s book is very text-heavy and seems to get lost in its own content.
Rationale for Criteria Selected
Concept. First and foremost, a textbook has to be well-written. It should be obvious to the reader whether the author has a firm grasp of the material. A competent author displays both clarity and succinctness in his writing, as well as an understanding of his audience; rambling is a telltale sign of a writer who does not understand his subject matter. If the text is vague or unclear, the reader will not understand; if the material is wordy, the reader will get confused and stop reading; and if the writer’s style is not appropriate for the intended audience, the reader will become disinterested.
Presentation. Even a well-written book can be ruined by poor layout or sloppy organization. The layout refers to visual content. White space should be evenly distributed; font choice should be deliberate and easy to read; lists, paragraphs and graphics should all be formatted for readability and directness. Similarly, if the textual content is intelligent but not organized, it loses its meaning. Both layout and organization should be purposeful and presented in a logical fashion; otherwise, the reader will simply become frustrated and not gain any understanding.
Examples and practice problems. A good writer should use verbal illustrations and examples to help clarify or demonstrate a particular topic. Likewise, effective textbooks ought to provide practice problems so that readers can test their own understanding of the material.
“Technical Writing” by Paul Anderson
Concept. I found this book’s chapter on oral presentations to be an exemplary model of clarity and conciseness. The chapter’s introductory page lists 10 guidelines that will be covered, including “define your presentation’s objectives” and “focus on a few main points.” The chapter begins with a brief introduction and proceeds to the first guideline.
Anderson generally uses a few short paragraphs to explain his material; while some guidelines are given more space than others, none of them overwhelm the reader with information. In some instances, Anderson uses a bulleted or numbered list rather than actual paragraphs. This is especially useful when he has multiple subpoints to discuss. For example, the first guideline uses a numerical list to “spell out” the three key factors to consider when formatting a speech.
Anderson also knows how to make his readers feel comfortable by speaking in the second person. He uses clear terms without talking down to anyone.
Presentation. The visual layout is simple and appealing. An appropriate amount of white space prevents the reader from feeling overwhelmed. Shaded text boxes are used for some of the longer charts, such as “Signaling the Structure of Presentations.” Diagrams and illustrations are appropriately labeled, and the positioning does not interrupt the text. At least one chart, however, could have incorporated more line breaks to make it look less wordy.
The chapter’s organization is excellent, especially in consistency. There’s a clear introduction. The guidelines are presented in the order shown at the beginning of the chapter. There is a clear, logical structure to the guidelines themselves: they are ordered chronologically, beginning with planning the speech and ending with the time it’s actually presented.
In addition to the conclusion, I also like the handy reference sheet at the end of the chapter. It gives a mini-outline of the chapter’s main points and is implemented cleverly.
Examples and practice problems. The author uses visuals and lists to break down information into smaller pieces. Doing so allows the reader to take a main idea and analyze it piece by piece. Good, specific examples are presented as individual parts of the “bigger picture.” The visual aids, while infrequently used, give the reader a feel for how his own visuals should be incorporated.
The practice problems at the end of the chapter seem somewhat time-consuming and are probably intended as in-class projects. Problems are open-ended, allowing the instructor freedom to format them in a way that will best suit the course’s structure.
“Technical Writing” by John Lannon
Concept. This book’s style is rather straightforward, and Lannon seems to know his material. The chapter begins with the chapter number, title and list of topics covered. Discussion begins with a concise definition of the oral report, but no “official” introduction. There isn’t much uniformity in each section’s length, however; some parts are just glossed over. Additionally, some sections are awkward in content. “Choosing the Best Type of Report,” for example, briefly describes four styles of delivery and then immediately jumps into discussion of the fourth. The previous three are never heard from or referred to again, effectively making them moot.
Lannon’s erratic use of the second person can be confusing. His tone changes from lecture to narrative, all the while putting “you” in the middle of the action. Some paragraphs never use the second-person perspective at all. The reader is never quite sure just how much Lannon himself knows about effective communication.
Presentation. The nice, open layout gives most of the text a relaxed feel. This actually causes some problems, however; the pages that do have significant white space seem to lack information, while the pages that don’t have enough white space look cluttered and busy.
The font choice is decent and perfectly readable, but dreadfully boring. The boldfaced headers do stand out, but the subheadings seem too similar.
This chapter only contains one visual aid. That is not a problem in itself, but the only caption is “Figure 20-1, Flow of Sewage Leachates.” This caption does not give sufficient explanation of the complicated graphic. The diagram would be more effective if it was shown and referenced on the same page; instead, the reader has to turn the page and then pick up where he left off.
The organization of the content makes sense, even if some of the content itself is a little unusual. The author does use one outline and a few numbered lists, both of which could use some indentation adjustment. There’s not nearly enough white space on these pages, either.
Examples and practice problems. To his credit, Lannon does give a good example of an oral report outline. Also, despite some questionable formatting, the content in his numbered lists is relevant and well-written. These constitute the majority of examples given. I do like the four exercises Lannon suggests; they are clever and would be interesting, useful assignments.
“Technical Writing” by Deborah Andrews and Margaret Blickle
Concept. Unfortunately, there is such a thing as being too smart. People who are very intelligent often have the problem of not being able to communicate with others on a simpler level. This seems to be the problem with Andrews and Blickle’s book; the content is so thorough that most people get left behind. I do appreciate the authors’ attempt to be thorough, however, and they are clearly not lacking in information.
It is regrettable that the writers were not more succinct, because I also liked their tone. The transitions from first person to second person are logical and effective. The content’s wordiness may make some ill at ease, but if you have the patience to wade through all the text, you’d find that these are actually relatively personable authors. In other words, their problem isn’t that they’re distant—it’s that they’re overwhelming the reader with information.
Presentation. The font itself is a bit old-fashioned and formal, but it is fine nonetheless. There seems to be some ambiguity regarding how the different sections are laid out. When beginning a new major section, such as “Oral Reports,” an all-caps font is used; for subsections, that font is lowercased; for the “sub-subsections” the font is lowercased and boldfaced. This strategy would work better if the boldface was not used for the lowest subdivisions. Furthermore, although the font is different from what is used in the body of the text, it’s not different enough. It’s too similar, so the “headlines” don’t stand out.
Layout is good near the beginning and the end, where a sufficient amount of white space exists. Other than the occasional line break, however, each page is extremely dense with information. Paragraphs are immense, so no matter how interesting it may be, it’s still tiring to read—and if you lose your place, you’ll be hunting for it for ages.
On a positive note, I do like the use of shaded text boxes to set apart quotes and examples, and the one diagram used does work rather well.
Organizationally, there are no real problems; the structure makes sense. There’s not much to say about it, although the occasional bulleted or numbered list seems effective. Such lists, had they been used more often, might have improved the book’s readability.
Examples and practice problems. Actually, the examples are quite good; the writers give a lot of good excerpts, all of which fit the topic at hand. Various sources, from companies to comedians, are quoted throughout, making the document a bit more interesting. Again, the one illustration is also effective.
No practice problems or exercises are provided. The omission is forgivable, but the inclusion of activities or projects would have provided a good gauge of how well the reader understood such a complicated text.