ENC 4293.0002 Technical Communication Elements » Chapter 1: Research And Planning
Chapter 1 Student Writers: Jamie Smolar, Sina Ghiassi, Michelle Graham
Source Research is the research that is done before a document is started. It is perhaps the most important part to remember when writing a document. This is because its use can prepare a person to become a competent and organized writer. Source Research includes strategies on becoming a better “brainstormer,” recognizing different types of research, and validating differing sources.
Brainstorming is “a form of free association used to generate ideas about a topic” (Alred, Brusaw, and Oliu 53). You can often use the process when you feel stuck or when you contract “writer’s block.” Brainstorming provides a clear path for a document to follow and can help technical writers come up with creative ideas.
Sometimes you’ll need to come up with a set of ideas before you start researching. Even with guidelines, this can be difficult. One way of generating ideas for a topic can be to create a Cluster Chart, or Mind Map. A Cluster Chart is easily created. All you need is a blank sheet of paper. Draw a circle, or square, in the center of that paper and then draw some lines branching off from it. You should place the words best representing your topic in the center circle and any words that you can think of that closely relate to that topic into surrounding circles. Write all the subtopics available to your subject. An example of a Cluster Chart is shown on the next page.
Figure 1: Dog Stereotypes.
After you’ve come up with a starting point, the next task is to find information. Before you begin, here are three tips that can help you organize your ideas:
- Write down the most important facts. Make sure to take a few facts from each source so that you don’t run the risk of repeating biased or repetitive information.
- Figure out what about your topic is important, what’s expendable, and what angle you can present the topic in.
- Decide whether you can incorporate the most important facts. If not, find the ones that are most compatible to each other and toss the rest or put them aside to be included later.
Now that you have your points, you need to form them into one coherent topic. To do this, you must find a good angle with which to present your information. Angles are the way something is presented. For example, a document can be persuasive, informative, or motivating. The way you write a document depends on your audience. So, if you’re trying to sell something to someone, present your topic in a persuasive way. Sometimes prompts or employers will ask for certain angles, but most of the time you’ll have to come up with one on your own.
Using the Library Search Engine
Sometimes research will need to be obtained from a library. Every library’s website will be different. Asking your local librarian may be the best way to understand their system. However, in a university library, clicking on something titled articles or databases will usually bring up information that is stored online. Using the search engine will help you find the topics available there. The information is not always complete, however. Usually the site contains parts of articles and at other times it provides summaries or chapters of certain books, but it is a good choice if you do not have the time to check out a book. To check out a book, search for a topic via the main search engine. Once the results come up, write down the author, the title, the floor the book resides on, and the Call Number. A Call Number is a long string of numbers usually proceeded by a letter. It will look like this:
If you're still not sure how to research using a university's website, watch this video!
After you’ve written everything down, go to the library and search for your books.
Making References from the Library
If you have used online information then it is important to understand the current MLA, APA, or Chicago standards for citing internet sources. Usually a university will have pamphlets you can take that give easy instructions for this. However, checking out a handbook on your required style will give more thorough information.
If you are referencing a book that was checked out from the library, simply apply the correct standards for citing books.
Knowledge can also be obtained from the internet (otherwise known as the World Wide Web). To search online for a quick assignment, whether for a summary or something requiring a one paragraph answer, use a search engine and type in your topic. To be quick, go to the nearest reputable source and don’t bother with anything that looks questionable.
For something such as a school paper, or a document for a company, extensive research is required. Check your information against more reputable sources.
Finding Pertinent Information
It’s easy to become preoccupied by an article or story that only vaguely relates to your topic. Here are some easy steps you can take to avoid this:
- Keep your prompt or guidelines right next to you.
- Read your instructions before you begin.
- Make sure you thoroughly understand them before you attempt to research anything. This could help eliminate hours of wasted time.
- Find all your sources first, and then start writing. This will ensure that you have enough information to write a document on your topic.
- If there’s not enough info, start over with a new topic or search more thoroughly.
- Bookmark your sources immediately. If you think a source might be useful, make sure you can get back to it. There’s nothing more frustrating than finding a good website and then having no idea how to return to it once you need it!
Validation: To confirm the accuracy of information from differing sources.
The best method of finding reliable information is to examine sources. Make no mistake, validity is important! A bibliography with books as references won’t be called into question so much as one with websites. A book published by a UP, University Press, will seem much more trustworthy than an ordinary book. A website from a school or university system will also seem more valid than one that comes from a random web address. Citing valid sources saves your editor from thoroughly checking and re-checking every source you list.
Locating Reliable Information in Books
A UP, or University Press, published book is one of the best sources as UP books go through rigorous fact-checking processes.
Does the author cite references? If he/she does, check some of them to see if they pan out.
Does the author provide cross-references? These are often an indication of thorough research and an organized topic.
Locating Reliable Information on the Internet
Using websites via your school or university’s system is always a good idea. A University’s library usually has access to comprehensive information that is catalogued well (so you can reference it easily) and well written. It will also verify if certain information is theory or known-fact.
Does the web address list .edu in its URL, or Uniform Resource Locator? If so, this is a university or school website and thus has more standards for validity than other sites do. A .gov, a government’s, or .org, an organization’s, site can also be useful and very accurate. However, a person must determine who the author is and what their goal is in publishing the site first. Governments, corporations, and organizations sometimes have aims that may cause them to either falsify or fudge information for their own benefit.
Don’t use Wikipedia as a single source. It can be edited by those that are unqualified to publish. The site doesn’t have the greatest reputation for credibility.
Don’t cite untrustworthy sources such as blogs or unsponsored websites.
Make sure the site doesn’t seem biased or opinionated, and that it identifies “person(s) and/or organizations responsible for the content” (“Tennessee State University”). Make sure it lists the date it was created, last revised, or updated. The more documentary information a site contains, the more reliable it probably is.
Always check your information against other sources when researching online.
Primary and Secondary Sources
Depending on the type of document being written, you will either use a primary or a secondary source. Primary sources are original sources that were created or recorded during the time being researched. These can include “letters, diaries, audio-recordings of speeches, [and/or] newspaper articles,” (“Duke University”). Typically, this type of source is better when working with an experimental, and changing, subject like science or art.
A secondary source is one that interprets, analyzes, or uses a primary source as its basis. These can include “scientific or scholarly journals,” “books, articles, editorials, reviews, [and/or] scientific studies” (“Duke University”).
Once you’re sure of your topic and sources, you’re ready to start Time Management and Planning.
Time Management & Planning
Time management and planning is an important step to have in mind before engaging a task. As we all know Time management refers to a range of skills and techniques used to manage time when performing a specific task, project, and goals. This set encompasses a wide scope of activities including planning, allocating, setting goals, delegation, analysis of time spent, monitoring, organizing, scheduling, and prioritizing. There are many methods of managing and keeping track of your time, like using a planner, a calendar, a timeline, or a Gantt chart. This section will discuss how to use some of these methods in terms of long-term goals and deadlines.
Time Management Strategies
A time management system is a designed combination of processes, tools, techniques, and methods. The key points are Planning Meetings and Meeting Management and Project Planning. Let's take a look at planning, allocating, setting goals, delegation, analysis of time spent, monitoring, organizing, scheduling, and prioritizing.
Keep a time log to know when events are due. By using a planner it is easier to have everything organized and scheduled. Calendar also works the same as far as keeping track of dates and knowing when things are due. A Gantt chart is a little more detailed than calendar and will show your daily activity. It is a very useful tool as far with analysis of time spent and monitoring. Timeline is the vast view of keeping things in track and to follow your events as scheduled. It makes monitoring, organizing, and scheduling even better. You can also input your planner, calendar, and chart within your timeline. It is the best strategy to keep track of your time in a longer period of time. It is also very helpful for scheduling priorities. A good tool to make appointing schedules is a calendar.
Plan Ahead and Prioritize
The first step to good time management is to prioritize your tasks. In other words, deciding which task is most important and should be completed first. For example, in a choice between reading for an essay due in four weeks or preparing a seminar presentation in two weeks, choose to prepare the presentation.
To priorities successfully you must develop weekly and long term time management plans. Many students find long, medium, and short term planning useful for organizing their study. Planning ahead saves time, stress, and energy.
Using a Yearly Planner
A yearly planner you can place on your wall or by your desk allows you to plan your workload over an entire session and helps to remind you about deadlines and upcoming commitments. Place the planner in a position where you have easy access to it. Write in the dates when things are due and scheduled. Work out how long you will need to complete each task. Allow yourself plenty of time. Remember to allow for extra workload. If you have several things due at the same time, then you’ll need to begin each task earlier. Set start dates for each task and write them on your planner. Draw lines back from the due dates to ‘start’ dates. Use different color pens for different subjects. Doing this will give you a good indication of how much time you have to complete tasks and cue you to start them.
Creating a Timeline
A typical method in following Time Schedule Planning and Management is by using Timelines. Decide on how to organize your timeline depending on its topic. This includes how to break the time for specific tasks and listing different priorities within your timeline. It also involves which events to include or exclude. Make a list of events that you want to include in your timeline. Research and note the specific dates when the events that you wish to include occurred. It is a good idea to note your source(s), this way you can return to them later and verify things. Most important of all be sure to list your events in chronological order from the earliest to the latest.
(Think about group projects, wikis, articles, proposals, and other technical documents, and how timelines would help people keep track of their deadlines.)
What to Include in your Timeline
It is important to ask yourself what are the earliest and latest dates that you wish to include. Choose the period of time that your timeline will be covering. This way you can go back to the times when you made adjustments easier than ever for review. Decide what units of time you will use (days, months, months, and years) to divide your timeline into segments. These decisions may be a matter of trial and error, based on the size of your paper. It’s important to include when you want to write your paper and also when you expect to be finished with your research. Leaving yourself a good amount of time to perform all tasks in the best way possible is very effective on your final results.
Using a Gantt Chart
Another good method of keeping track of time and planning is by using Gantt Charts. A Gantt chart is a time scale, expressed either in absolute time or in relative time referenced to the beginning of the project. The time resolution depends on the project - the time unit typically is in weeks or months. Rows of bars in the chart show the beginning and ending dates of the individual tasks in the project.
How to Make Deadlines and Checkpoints Throughout a Long-term Project
By creating deadlines you’re giving yourself a specific amount of time to perform a task. You are expecting to be done by the specific set date. It is important to keep in track of your work, this way you will always know you’re going to be on time to make the deadline. You should use body clock (when your most and least productive) to set your task to make your deadline. Make a checklist of things you want to accomplish each day. Glance over your goals each day and then prioritize your list. Let go of perfectionism, not everything has to be done perfectly and some things are out of your control.
How to be Organized
Initially, time management referred to just business or work activities, but eventually the term broadened to include personal activities as well.
Figure out where events would fall under your timeline as far as date or urgency. The urgent matters should be on the top of the list to be done first before anything else. If something is counted as urgent it means that it is either extremely important or the due date is very close. Knowing how to mark and label each event is relevant. For instance, you could write on the timeline, attach color labels, or make a code that refers back to your chronology. If there is not room on your timeline to include all of your chronology, cull some of the dates or make a timeline with larger segments that leaves more room. If your dates can be divided into two or three smaller categories or themes, try making parallel timelines with identical segment sizes. Then you can see how the theme developed, but you can also compare two or more themes at a time.
How You Can Break Down Tasks Into a Schedule
A complex project is made manageable by first breaking it down into individual components in a hierarchical structure, known as the work breakdown structure (WBS). Such a structure defines tasks that can be completed independently of other tasks, facilitating resource allocation, assignment of responsibilities, and measurement and control of the project. It also helps to create realistic goals.
Work Breakdown Structure Diagram
Figure 2: Project Task
How to Label Different Tasks
It is good to label by topic, category, and months or weeks (depending on the length). Each task is given a specific space in the timeline for itself. It's not good to cluster too many relevant topics together. It will become too confusing. The labels will make it easy to find or search something out. One way that's very well known is by alphabet. Another is by date or time. Also labeling events within their own individual categories is helpful too.
How to Manage Time for Revising
At the end of your work there should always be time left for revising. This is when you can have someone double check your work for errors or simply go over it yourself in detail. This is most likely your most crucial step to follow, for everyone will make mistakes in their work time to time and it’s always good to take time to review.
Real Life Experience with Time Management
Good time management is essential to success at a university. Planning your time allows you to spread your work over a session, avoid a traffic jam of work, and cope with study stress. Studying at the union often involves meeting conflicting deadlines, and unless you plan ahead, you’ll find it impossible to manage. To meet the demands of study you need to spread your workload over a session. Work out what needs to be done and when. Work out how to use your available time as efficiently as possible.
Tips to Make Time Management Easier
Don’t put off small tasks. Completing them straight away encourages you to begin tackling larger tasks. This allows you to approach a large task as a series of manageable parts. Don’t try to write an entire assignment in one sitting. Complete it section by section. If you have writer’s block, try writing something—anything—down. Even if you change it later, at least you’ve started. The time you spend on a specific section is completely up to you. If you find yourself losing direction, remind yourself of why you are completing your degree; remembering your goals can put things into perspective.
Some weeks will be busier than others, and unforeseen things can happen. Remember that a timetable is only a plan or a guide. You don’t have to follow it religiously every week, but try to stick to your plan as best you can. If you plan an event time slot and miss it, don’t panic—look at the schedule and rearrange your time.
A great deal of time management is really about taking responsibility for your learning. The best plan is to be aware of how much time you have and to manage it effectively. Be realistic about your time and what you can do with it.
Hint: Take a piece of paper and fold in half. Write the hours you are awake on the paper. Now, write what you do during those hours. You are able to see where your time is going and what you are spending it on. This really helps you keep track of where your time is going. Do this whenever you feel like you can't keep up with everything. This will be your daily simple timeline, and you can also edit each to a bigger timeline to track things in a larger perspective.
Figure 3: Studying
When working assignments, do you like working with others? Whether yes or no, in many different atmospheres you will have to work in a group environment. Working in group can be a challenging task, but having the skills can help your group and yourself achieve your goals.
Choosing Group Members
When working in assignments choosing your group members may not be an option. However, if the option is available to choose your group members here are some decisions to think about.
Having the Time
When considering group members you will at least want to make sure to have a two-hour time span so that everyone can meet each week. You might not meet every week, but at least everyone will be able to give time to the project. If you plan to get together write a plan so you end up having a larger chunk of time near the end of the project.
Next to enough time to meet, this criterion is most important. Try to choose group members who have an equal investment in the project or study group as you do. It's unfair to invite someone because you think they'll do most of the work; it's equally unfair for you to invite someone you like but who will probably miss meetings or procrastinate.
Discuss what Each Member Brings to the Group
While you might know your other group members as friends, you probably don't know as much about them as students as you might think. A very productive topic for the first meeting, after all the logistics have been worked out, is to discuss what individual members' strengths and weaknesses are. In short, have everyone conduct a "personal inventory." Share it with the other members on their experiences relevant to the collaborative assignment. Doing this also helps alleviate the feeling that some group members are "smarter" or "know more" than others. Everyone has strengths they bring to the group; we're simply not always aware of them. Consider the following:
- What's your previous experience with the topic?
- What do you understand best from class? What are you struggling with?
- Do you have any outside experience (job, internships, previous classes) relevant to the topic and/or class?
- What's your experience with the kind of research we're doing? (Field, library, etc.)
- What kinds of papers do you write best? What have teachers and others complimented you on?
- What problems do you have in writing?
Working in groups may become frustrating, but if you work together you can achieve many possible tasks. After making a choice on the topic and who will be in your group, your group can start putting your ideas together on how to go about researching. This will start the task of appointing each member jobs to do on the research project.
How to Make a Schedule
When you work with a group schedule make sure you keep it organized within the project. At your first meeting set a person to become a leader of the group. This person will appoint the decisions. Now write down all the goals your group needs to accomplish and the due dates of the assignment. Focus on what tasks need one or more people in order to complete the section.
Divide the Writing Tasks
When you divide the writing tasks, each member does research and writes a portion of the document. The group then reconvenes to suggest revisions, smooth over transitions, and even edit style inconsistencies. This model is the most efficient and quickest for most groups that have not worked together in the past.
This method helps groups easily setup what needs to be done for the project to get it done quickly. When multiple people can work on a sub-section, it will get done faster.
What to Keep in Mind while Making a Task Schedule
When making a task schedule keep in mind a person’s skills when coming into the project. Ask everyone what they feel they are skilled strongly or weakly in when coming to the project. Make sure as the leader of that group that members are staying on task and also meeting the dates your group set to complete each task.
Know what time frames each individual group member has to dedicate time to the project. If the student feels they have the time and can do it they may work on the more difficult parts of the project. If you have an individual that may not have a lot of time or is weak in some areas you might want to partner that person up with someone that can help them out.
Asking these questions will also help group members monitor each other so that someone isn't stuck with all the work at the end. Consider the following:
- When will a final decision on the topic/focus be made?
- What kinds of research do we need to do? Who will do what? By when?
- When will people report back on research? What notes should they write up for others? By when?
- When must a final decision on the major point (thesis) of the paper be made?
- When will the comments/suggestions for revision be completed?
- When will the final proofreading occur?
Delegate Various Responsibilities
Members who might have excellent research skills might do most of the research, while those who are excellent at writing correctly might do most of the editing and proofreading. This model requires a high degree of group coordination. For some groups (but definitely not all) this model is most efficient. For others, (in which no even split of skill levels exists) it will be the least efficient. Consider the following:
- Be sure everyone, not just the final editor, has approved what will be passed in. Everyone needs to read and critique each draft.
- Be sure tasks are broken down equally. Proofing the final copy is not equivalent to writing the first draft.
- For this method to work, those doing the research must keep detailed, accurate notes that others who might not have seen the original source can understand and use.
- "Planning" meetings are essential; the people drafting must have a clear idea of the point, organization, and what sources are relevant to what parts of the paper or else much time can be wasted.
Pros & Cons Collaborating
You have taken on too much work and need an extra brain and pair of hands. You want to explore a new subject, so you partner with an expert writer. You would like to work on a number of projects at the same time, and get your name is as many places as possible.
Many people like to work alone when doing a project. Sometimes you might feel like you lose your identity when working on collaborative writing. Also when working with other people can be distracting to your writing process. There can be an uneven work load on group projects. Sometimes you have people that do not hold up their end of the work load. So, you might have pick up the slack, depending on how the assignment is set up. Sometimes two hardworking people have personalities that just don't match, or the writing styles are so different that the process is made unnecessarily difficult. Working with a personality that doesn't balance yours, no matter how well-intentioned, may make working together on a project difficult.
When starting a project, and working with other people, you may be worried about completing the project. You may also worry that it will not end up being satisfactory to you or your group. You may feel you will not have a say in anything. Also you might think another person’s writing skills are not as strong as yours. You might feel hesitant to correct other’s mistakes.
Well, these are many examples of problems that may come up in your group research. So here are some troubleshooting tips that can help your group start out on the right path.
References: Source Research
Alred, Gerald J., Charles Brusaw, and Walter Oliu. Handbook of Technical Writing. Ninth Ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009.
“Evaluating Information Sources: Basic Principles.” Library.duke.edu 30 March 2007. 16 October 2010 <http://library.duke.edu/services/instruction/libraryguide/evaluating.html>.
Tennessee State University: Libraries and Media Centers. Tennessee State University. 2010. 16 October 2010 <http://www.tnstate.edu/library/InfoLit/VInh.pdf>.
References: Time Management and Planning
Dig, Joe. Study Guides and Strategies from study. Posted on October 04, 2010. Viewed on October 2010. <http://www.studygs.net/timman.htm>
Stelzner, Michael. Time is not on your side: Time management tips for writers. Posted on October 12, 2010. Viewed on October 2010. <http://www.copyblogger.com/time-management-writing/>
John Goldmann. How I manage my time! Posted on March 03, 2007. Viewed on October 2010. <http://my-personal-time-management.blogspot.com/2007/03/time-management-tip-how-to-write-paper.html>
Lisa Heitzman. Ethical Implication of Intercultural Audiences. Orange a Student journal of technical communication. Viewed on November 2010. < http://orange.eserver.org/issues/6-4/heitzman.html>
McBride Alicia. Towards a sense of ethics for technical communication. Orange a student journal of technical communication. Viewed on November 2010. <http://orange.eserver.org/issues/3-2/mcbride.html>
McHenry J. Effective Time management made easy. Tips for boomers. Viewed on November 2010. <http://www.tips-for-boomers.com/timemanagement.html>
References: Group Research
Feenstra , Kristin. "Study Skills: Team Work Skills for Group Projects." iamnext.com. N.p., 17/10/2000. Web. 9 Nov 2010. <http://powertochange.com/students/academics/groupproject/>.
Sasson, Dorit. "How to Work in Groups." Suite 101. N.p., 10/05/2007. Web. 9 Nov 2010. <http://www.suite101.com/content/how-to-work-in-groups-a18951>.
Gross, Barbara. "Collaborative Learning: Group Work and Study Teams." N.p., 21/10/1999. Web. 9 Nov 2010. <http://teaching.berkeley.edu/bgd/collaborative.html>.