In Selzer’s (1983) article, in his study of engineer Kenneth E. Nelson’s composition practices, he writes in the “Arrangement” section: “Nelson follows a particular procedure for arranging ideas; as he told me in one interview, he does not ‘see how anyone could write anything of any length or any importance without an outline,” and then again concludes, “For to Nelson writing presupposes an outline; it is not much of an exaggeration to say that he cannot write without one” (p. 320–321). This got me thinking about my own writing process and the use of outlines. I’ve rarely ever been required to draft outlines as part of an assignment that would actually have to be submitted for a grade in a course. In fact, the only time I can think of everhaving to create an outline was in my Nonfiction Book Proposal course in my last PWE master’s program in which we had to submit all the parts of a proposal, including a chapter outline of the proposed book. Otherwise, I am not an outline person. And I wonder whether outlines are, like Nelson suggests, essential to good writing, or if outlines are a tool that are extremely effective in some cases or for some writers, but are not necessary for all writers, in order to be successful. I have written numerous texts in the course of my undergraduate and graduate studies, and I have largely been successful (or at least, successful enough) to do well. And I have never adopted outlines as something that help. Instead, I do my research, I read, I think, I ask questions, I jot down notes, I do random Internet searches to see what other people are saying on the topic, and I literally let all of this information and thought stew in my head, rolling around, coagulating into what finally, when I sit down and write, comes out in one fell swoop as a nearly-finalized draft of my document, with cohesive thoughts, proper transitions, and all the necessary elements of a well-composed text. Outlines feel too structured. Too restrictive. I can’t do my writing piecemeal and I feel that’s what outlines require. You sketch your original thoughts. You think, you take notes, you read. You revise and add to the outline, do more research. Finalize your outline, and then write your final document within those pre-set guidelines. I’m not arguingagainstoutlines. I’m just wondering about the necessity of outlines in a writer’s toolbox. Would I be aneven better writer if I did use outlines? Maybe Selzer’s (1983) conclusion is a viable explanation: “Perhaps detailed plans for writing complex documents come naturally to professionals who must plan and coordinate complicated engineering tasks” (p. 321). There’s almost a hint of implication here that other professionals don’t deal with complex planning of complicated tasks or documents, but maybe outlining and planning comes more naturally to an engineer like Nelson because of the very nature of his work. But then, the shocker for me was reading that “revision takes up less than 5% of Nelson’s time and consists of little more than superficial editing” (Selzer, 1983, p. 322). This has all just got to be a generational thing revolving around who’s teaching what and what those teachers’ preferences are! I vaguely recall in high school having to be try the whole Nelsonian approach to writing with invention, outlines, and drafts. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I was throttled into the universe of revision and from that moment on, revision was God. My professors preached revision, and thus, little of my time was devoted to outlining. But obviously, some learn the writing process differently—for Nelson, outlining, not revising, is God. Selzer’s (1983) final observation that “[t]he most striking thing about Nelson’s composing habits is how closely they approximate the habits of the professional writers and skilled academic writers whose composing processes have been studied by other researchers” (p. 322). This statement leads me to believe, if other professional writers’ writing processes so closely reflect Nelson’s, that I am an exception to the rule of professional writing.
I didn’t intend to focus on only one of our readings this week, but Selzer got me thinking. But since this week’s theme is workplace studies, I guess my biggest question would be, when it really comes down to it, how much time does a professional writer or engineer ultimately have to devote to their writing process? Like Nelson, or even in my own personal experience, I guess you find the writing process that feels most natural to you, that gets the job done well, and you hone that process into such a finely tuned skill that you are capable of meeting deadlines, no matter how tight, using the process that works for you.
To at least acknowledge some of our other readings, here are a couple thoughts:
In Winsor’s (1990) discussion of engineering and writing, she observes how “[w]riting is viewed as a part of an engineer’s job but not as part of engineering,” and then details how lab results are translated into reports that pull from already-existing lab results and reports that are then compiled with “documents written by other people” in the workplace to complete the final production of the product at hand (p. 342). I guess my question is: how can people—engineers in this case—deny that writing is not separate from any given task? How can they miss how much writing they take part in to reach their final goal? Nothing we do, as professionals, is free of writing, which means everything we do is infiltrated with the process of writing. Writing creates knowledge and knowledge is delivered or transmitted through writing.
Allen, Atkinson, Morgan, Moore, and Snow’s (1987) article on collaboration had me thinking about my own experiences with collaboration, particularly in the more obvious or forced, if you will, group work collaboration projects assigned or required in a class like ours. While I would never have really considered my everyday work at the magazine “collaborative,” Allen et. al’s definition of collaborative includes “a peer’s critiquing of a coworker’s draft (Anderson),” which I participate in daily with no questions or qualms (p. 353). But my group experiences in this class, (though I’ve been extremely fortunate in the people I’ve worked with and often feel like the weakest link!) have felt far less intuitive. Group work or document collaboration feels forced. How does one person not become The Leader? What do you do if some people don’t add their notes to the shared document? Won’t a person who’s naturally more outgoing or naturally a better writer or editor naturally become the one who the rest of the group turns to—and how do you avoid these sorts of hierarchies? Or do you even have to avoid these hierarchies in collaborative work?
Allen, N., Atkinson, D., Morgan, M., Moore, T., & Snow, C. (1987). “What experienced collaborators say about collaborative writing.” In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A. Selber (Eds.), Central works in technical communication (pp. 351–364). New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Selzer, J. (1983). “The composing process of an engineer.” In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A. Selber (Eds.), Central works in technical communication (pp. 317–324). New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Winsor, D. A. (1990). “Engineering writing/writing engineering.” In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A. Selber (Eds.), Central works in technical communication (pp. 341–350). New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004.