Single-Source Documentation and Emerging Practices

Posted: October 20, 2008 in Methods, Pedagogy, Readings, Review, School

In this, the second post for reading this week, I will pick up exactly where I left off, with the forthcoming article by Lee-Ann Kastman Breuch titled A Work in Process: A study of the Development of Single-Source Documentation and Document Review Processes of Cardiac Devices. This article is a report on an ethnographic study (technically a case study, actually) of a writing team at a biomedical company as they transitioned over to what is called single sourcing. Basically, the way I understand it, single sourcing is where writers create a series of ‘topics’ that are then selectively chosen based on relevance for individual manuals for products, so that manuals can make more sense and be more usable, so that 230 topics could contribute to 100 manuals, rather than a single unwieldy 500 page manual (8).

Writing these topics is a collaborative exercise where feedback is given from outside readers (4), so “technical writers must negotiate social tensions and conflict as they work with others to create single source documents” (3). This means that writers had to work with people who were non-writers but experts in the field and try to develop a single document that everyone approved of. I can imagine the tension.

Lee-Ann’s article struck me particularly as a fantastic example of how to do a research proposal, which is good, because I have to write one for her soon. But she starts with a literature review, then elucidates her research questions. Then she discusses her methods, including the problems and limitations with those methods and how she did her best to move beyond those problems. There is mention both of gaining IRB approval and of discussing issues of informed consent (12). She mentions themes developed (18) from the research and then examines each theme individually. Finally, it concludes with pointing an arrow at what she has learned and also at suggesting where further research might go to plug the holes left behind.

It’s kind of elegant, really. I did run across a few typographical errors, but I don’t think that’s really all that relevant; it just reminds me of my time as a copy editor.

The final piece, a real ethnographic study, was Writing in an Emerging Organization: an Ethnographic Study by Stephen Doheny-Farina. His purpose, or at least his contention, was that “By learning more about nonacademic contexts for writing, we are learning more about the kinds of rhetorical demands faced by many of our college graduates” (326). This particular ethnography seems to me to be a very solid idea. Rather than going in with something specific to study, he goes just to see what kinds of challenges will be met by students, so that he can better prepare them for the world after college (I resist all attempts to refer to that as the “real” world).

The organization studied was called Microware (not sure if that is/was a real company or not). There were some interesting revelations along the way, like that “the writing process not only influenced the substance of what was written, but also influenced the organization” (331). But what particularly interested me were the implications for teaching. He suggests that “teachers should try to put students into situations in which they need to incorporate differing points of view within their group projects” and that “we must teach students to develop interpersonal skills so that, by interacting with other other collaborators, they can learn the views of those collaborators” (338).

The reason this all interested me so much was that it reminds me of what I am teaching. When I was asked to teach technical and professional writing, I was very nervous, because I know very little about technical writing. So instead I designed a course around business writing, which I do know a bit about. I had my students break into groups, in which they created simulated companies and have had to deal with problems that come up, producing documentation of their solutions and eventually will produce a business plan for their company.

And I’m noticing that Doheny-Farina’s theories bare fruit. My students seem more prepared for dealing with groups now than they were at the start of the semester, and they are much more amenable to differing views of their collaborators. I wonder if maybe I should write an article about my experience with this class.

  1. Lee-Ann says:

    Hi Joe,

    Thanks for those comments. Good insights.

    I like your idea of writing something about your experience teaching 3562 this semester.

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