Dr. John Welsh is one of the most experienced people in the field of technical communication. For 24 years (1977-2001) he taught at the leading technical university in the Middle East, the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. For two years he was director of the university’s English Language Center, preparing for the Saudiization of the center’s leadership. As director and later as departmental curriculum chairman, he led in the development of a multi-course technical communication program for engineering and business students at the university. Since 2001, he has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, where he developed a course for engineering students that earned his technical communication program ABET accreditation. He received his BA from Princeton and MA and Ph.D. in English from UC Berkeley. He spent a year at Oxford preparing his Ph.D.
Dr. Welsh has been actively engaged in the work of The Anstendig Institute for over thirty years. He has helped write and edit all of the institute’s technical papers.
Teaching Exact English
All Beginning Required English Should Be Taught on the Model of Technical Writing
By John H. Welsh
Unless one has the technique to be exact, one will never have the full technical ability to be imaginatively creative. Mark B. Anstendig
From earliest man’s first attempts to communicate, inaccurate communication has been one of the world’s greatest problems. Our everyday lives are plagued by miscommunication and misunderstandings that create friction and outright conflict, make lives miserable, waste time, and even cause wars. Miscommunication is rife in business and government, and it frequently disrupts the operation of the technology and organization the world needs to function. At the core of this communication problem is the lack of clear, precise language that not only is accurate in formulation but also takes into consideration all possibilities of misunderstanding and compensates for them.
Unclear language that leads to misunderstanding is rooted in the tendency to learn subjective uses of the language before being thoroughly trained to be precise and unambiguous in meaning.
To help solve the communication problem, students should initially, and at each new level of their language instruction, be taught the way technical writing is taught. They should learn to be wholly objective, to say precisely, succinctly and without emotion exactly what they need to say in the simplest, most clearly understandable form, with particular attention to the elimination or replacement of anything that could be misunderstood in any way. Any other kind of writing, however valuable in itself, should be taught only after clear, exact, unemotional communication has been mastered.
Let us use artistic writing as the ultimate example. Art is technique. Most art is form. But one must first master form in order to be able dependably to break it. Even if an artist wanted to create the formless, without a complete knowledge of form and without the technique to create form, the artist might create something that inadvertently repeats a pattern and therefore has form and is not formless.
In all types of creative writing, writers can only be sure they achieve what they want if they have a thorough foundation in the kind of precision of expression that today is most insisted on in technical writing. Otherwise, they can never be sure they have written exactly what they set out to write, and readers could end up understanding something completely different from the artistic meaning or range of possible meanings they wanted to express.
Currently, initial required English courses in college, and most required English courses leading up to college, attempt to provide tools for objective academic writing. But right from the beginning they also aim to develop individuality and self-expression. As a result, students all too easily adopt a style that is too subjective, too rhetorically inexact and often too imaginative for precise real world communication and especially for technology. In particular, instruction in any kind of creative writing plays against mastering the basics and against the clear communication of intended meaning that is needed to get along in this world. Creative writers, on the other hand, cannot master their craft until they have mastered unambiguous, clear use of their language. Creative or artistic writers first need to develop a thorough technique in non-subjective precision of expression in order to have full control over freer styles of writing.
The need for clear communication in the day to day operation of the world is urgent. We live in a technological world that will have to become even more reliant on technology if we are to succeed as a species. Yet the people who create technology are not communicating clearly enough among themselves, nor are they communicating clearly enough with the users of technology, who include more and more of us around the world. Anyone who has read some of today’s myriad poorly written instruction manuals for important products knows the problem. And the Internet, for all its usefulness in creating a single technological system for the world, encourages lax communication in documents and in email, due to lack of controls and supervision. Exact communication worldwide will be essential to the future as we redesign old technology and design and implement new technology for a sustainable life on the planet.
Business and government must also be purged of unclear communication. Unfortunately, lack of clarity is often intentional in these areas. Financial instruments that could not be clearly understood were the downfall of Wall Street. (“An awful lot of the bad stuff that has happened to our financial system has happened because it was never explained in plain, simple language.” New York Times, Jan. 4, 2009) The difficult to understand complexities if not outright obfuscations of legal contracts, insurance policies and mortgages are notorious. Politicians are rarely as honest and forthcoming as they will need to be in a political world increasingly exposed to the media, particularly the Internet. Holding business and government to high standards of clarity and accountability will demand ceaseless scrutiny. And communication between representatives of nations has to become as stringently precise as technical instruction manuals for precisely operating machines. Ambiguity in intercourse between nations has caused much of the world’s strife. That can only be improved by developing a universal sense of the need to be unambiguous in non-subjective communication.
Part of the radical change that the United States and the world must undergo to recover from the current worldwide recession and to progress toward a sustainable future will be in education. A return to disciplined instruction in English should be at the top of the list of reforms. The teaching of language needs to have a new emphasis on the clarity needed in our new technological environment and in our new, smaller, more incendiary world of international communication. We will need a language adequate to science and engineering as they take on a renewed prominence in the curriculum. At the basic, required levels of English instruction, students must first practice and master a language as free as possible from figurative expression. Except for those in advanced, specifically creative language courses, less rigorous uses of the language should be taught in elective courses. Students who learn English as a second language, mostly to get ahead in the world, must first forgo imaginative language even in reading assignments until writing basic, clear English, and the understanding of it, is mastered. Too often, faulty instructions in how to use a technology have been the result of non-native speakers who have not had training in disciplined, objective English.
School-aged people around the world are generally much closer than their parents to the means of technical communication and to technology itself. Their familiarity begins in grade school. Computers, the Internet, cell phones, etc. have constantly been a part of their lives. They will use these communication expanding and enhancing possibilities to create the technological solutions to the urgent global problems that confront them, as well as for worldwide commercial and social intercourse. They should be required and indeed want to develop clear, unambiguous language in their use of these tools.
Since the 1960’s, writing instruction at the grade school, high school and college level has encouraged self-expressive inexactness. True, qualities resembling those of technical writing are laid out in standard handbooks and courses in academic English. But right from the beginning a self-expressive essay style is what most students are encouraged to develop. Because teachers often have a background in literature or rhetoric, they can have difficulty inspiring students to write impersonally and thus ask them to write imaginatively or from what they know and feel. Thus, students learn to place value on levels of meaning (irony, ambiguity, metaphor, etc.) instead of on single-minded sharp precision of meaning. Those literary qualities are fine, of course, even ultimate goals. But sharp precision must come first, or those goals cannot dependably be achieved.
Students, at all levels of English instruction, grade school to college, should discipline themselves to be detached and to observe carefully. They should initially be taught to say exactly what they mean so that they are clearly understood. In their writing, they should be straightforward, objective, precise--and as concise as they can be while still remaining clear. It goes without saying that they should be taught to begin any writing project with clear ideas, a clear purpose, a clear sense of audience and a clear outline. They should become alert to all the foes of clarity: ambiguity, vagueness, unfamiliar vocabulary, garbled syntax, trying to say too much at once, etc. The kinds of activities that would ensure these abilities would, of course, vary according to level of instruction. However, students should be trained early on to write exact descriptions of the here and now concrete reality that is immediately available to their senses. Later, they should be taught to work out and convey clearly the complexities of a commonly used technology or the intricacies of a complex social/international problem. At some point, they should be taught to write clear instructions on the use of a technology, the more complex the better. These activities and the abilities they develop should be reinforced in college as students learn to conduct a logical, fact based argument for academic purposes. Most young people adapt easily to complex technologies and, through the media, are acutely aware of social/international problems. They should find no difficulty and even some pleasure in this approach. Always, the main focus should be on the careful choice and arrangement of words to communicate clearly so that misunderstanding is impossible.
It is extremely important that students be trained to search for and recognize how what they have written might be understood in ways they didn’t mean. And they should be taught to counter those possibilities of misreading, even if it takes a few more words or sentences to do so. This sometimes necessary exception to conciseness is one of the most important things for the teacher to teach the student. Being able to recognize possibilities of human error in the perception of one’s writings and ways to make the desired meanings indelibly clear is an essential part of basic language education.
Until the basics of the clear perception and communication of complex, concrete reality, including technological reality, are in place at each level of education, students should not be encouraged to develop a more relaxed essay style. Because they will not have the tools to do so!
Creative, expressive kinds of writing obviously have an important place in life. But they cannot be dependably accomplished without a basis of objective, unemotional, precise writing.
Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to take a fully-formed manner of writing imprecisely and subjectively and then sift through it and find and correct all its myriad flaws. We first have to strip the writing process bare of habits by starting right at the beginning, with the kind of sharply focused writing habits that we need for the practical work of the world.
The clarity that results from correct formal training in language will carry over to the normal communication of our everyday lives, purging it of the miscommunication and misunderstandings that continue to plague us. And our arts will also flourish with greater control and command of whatever kind of meaning or experience our artists want to express.