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Review in the STC’s Journal: Technical Communication

Avon J. Murphy, Editor

The opinions expressed by reviewers are their own and do not represent the views of the editors or of the Society for Technical Communication.


The Writing System: A Step-by-step Guide for Business and Technical Writers

Daniel O. Graham and Judith H. Graham 2002. Fairfax, VA: Preview Press.

[ISBN 0-9644495-7-9. 308 pages, including index and appendixes. $50.00 USD.]


Sometimes you can just pick a book up, leaf through the pages, and get a good idea of its overall theme. The Writing System is such a book. The pages shout, "Structure!" and I found that to be the theme of the book.


The Writing System is designed to give subject matter experts a method for writing business and technical documents. The process of writing is broken down into pre-writing, writing, and post-writing steps. Each numbered step is further broken down into techniques, and each technique contains an additional level of tips.


The book is written as an example of the modular layout that the authors advocate. The technique level or the tip level is explained as a topic. For example, in the pre-writing phase, Step 5 is "Write sentence outline," Technique 5.2 is "Evaluate points to eliminate irrelevancies and redundancies" (p. 42), and Tip 2 under that technique is "Eliminate redundancies and unnecessary repetition" (p. 44). Tip 2 is the topic that is then developed in the two-page layout.


Each topic is broken down into the following sections:

  • Tip—The actual tip or tips to be reviewed
  • Warning—A warning about what not to do (most warnings begin "Do not ... ")
  • Example—Samples of the techniques
  • See also—References to other parts of the book (without page numbers or outline reference numbers, however)
  • Discussion—Text in a gray box providing further thoughts on the topic (really the most helpful)
  • Exercises—A number of exercises, always on the right page of the layout, with answers in Appendix A


The authors stress the advantages of this modular layout over conventional layout in Appendix D, which describes the process used to write long documents. They write, "In a modular layout, each topic occupies two pages (one page each in some cases), and all the topic shifts occur at the top-left corner of the page" (p. D2). This structured approach may not appeal to all writers, but it does provide a foundation for breaking large documents into same-sized components that can be tackled more readily. It also provides a model for creating documents for audiences that do appreciate the tight structure of the modular layout.


The layout is an integral part of the book and will appeal to some readers but not to others. It reminds me of reading PowerPoint slides for a presentation that I've missed. Once I became accustomed to the structured format, I found a great deal of useful writing information presented in a clear, concise manner.


There is a great deal of information on editing. Of the 13 steps listed in The Writing System, seven are post-writing steps, four of which involve editing. The writer is encouraged to write during the writing phase—free of any editing distractions such as spell checkers—and to edit during the post-writing phase. The editing steps include editing for coherence, clarity, economy, and readability. In their discussion of editing for economy, for example, the authors stress cutting out the deadwood. The discussion sections for the editing steps are the most informative sections of all the topics. All but the most expert of writers could profit from simply paging through the book, reading the discussion boxes (all located at the bottom of left-hand pages) to learn or refresh their writing techniques.


Educators who teach business or technical writing could use the book as a text or as an accompaniment to other texts because it is filled with examples and exercises. Appendix A provides answers to the exercises and thorough explanations of the answers provided.


I think, however, that the target audience of subject matter experts without writing expertise will benefit the most from this book—if they have the patience to follow through the system as laid out by the authors. The book without appendixes is only 180 pages long. Almost half of those pages (the ones on the right-hand side) consist of exercises, so the system is concise, even though the book itself is quite large. Exercises for every topic allow the reader to practice the topic material with the confidence of knowing that the answers are readily available in the appendix. This format is often unavailable outside of the classroom. If an even more concise format is desired, Appendix E provides a quick reference guide summarizing the system in six pages.


Although concise, The Writing System contains a great deal of specific detail that its target audience will probably appreciate. For example, they read that when they are writing a long document using the two-page layout for each topic, their limit is 960 words per topic. They also learn that an executive summary includes four parts; an informative abstract, five.


A short appendix discusses writing letters, memos, and e-mail. The guidelines for e-mail provide another excellent tool. It is worth reading, especially because e-mails are often the most widely read documents that we are likely to write! Another feature of the book is an appendix on English as a Second Language (ESL), which emphasizes how ESL professionals can use The Writing System.


I would recommend this book to subject matter experts who lack writing expertise. The exercises and examples are especially beneficial to lone writers who often do not have an expert writer nearby to review their writing. I myself fall into that category and find that I could easily understand The Writing System.


Irene Jones


Irene Jones is a technical writer for a software company specializing in insurance rating software near Cleveland, OH. She has an MBA in finance and joined STC while completing her first major technical writing assignment. She has written user guides, online help, and instructional procedures for her company's products.




Amazon Customer Reviews


A great book that teaches how to write technical reports and papers  October 20, 2005

Reviewer:  Von Whitley "Physicist and egg sandwich expert" (Washington, DC)


This is a phenomenal book that teaches a person how to write scientific-style documents such as peer-reviewed articles and technical reports. If you have problems with writing or struggle to quickly write a paper, this book will help.


Writing is a large part of high-tech careers, but the techniques of writing in a scientific/engineering style are not taught in school. Most of us learn from on-the-job training--resulting in a time-consuming and inefficient process. This book teaches a systematic process that will get you from no paper to a polished paper in a surprisingly short period of time. The left hand side of each book page covers a specific point. The right hand side has numerous exercises to help illustrate that point, and solutions to the exercises are included.


For me, the chapters on how to edit your document are worth the price of the book. I was never taught how to edit, and never realized that my editing technique was poor. I could recognize sentences in my document that I didn't like, but couldn't determine what was wrong with them. After working through chapters 9 and 10, I can fix these problems quickly.



Engineers, Scientists, Physicians - Writing Delight!  January 14, 2005

Reviewer: Jerry Jasper "Old Virginian" (Virginia, USA)


Engineers! Scientists! Physicians! Lend me your pinnae! Listen up you professional ladies and lads! This is THE writing course/guide/reference for folks who know everything about their area of expertise, and have NO idea how to write about it clearly, expertly, professionally... Even if you have some skill in academic writing, you can vastly increase the quality and readability of your prose using this book. And if you, like many of us, "don't have a clue" about how to turn out clear, concise and readable prose for your chosen audience - this book will teach you how to do it in a systematic, repeatable, easy to master way!


This book and course is especially useful to intelligent, organized, experienced professionals who never quite "got" it when it comes to good writing. This book WILL make you an accomplished and confident writer if you take the time to work through it! No more "writing anxiety"...ever. As close to an educational "sure thing" as you are ever likely to find! I used this book in Graham's writing class, and for the first time in my life, at age 59, I "get" it... Guess what - it's a science, not an art! What a revelation...



This should be on every engineer's bookshelf  December 4, 2003

Reviewer: Andrew J. DeSpirito (Rockville, MD USA)


So many engineers are excellent scientists and mathematicians, but are sorely lacking when it comes to grammar and writing techniques. This book acts as a textbook, a refresher, and a desk reference, all in one concise, easy-to-follow volume. The techniques presented in this book introduce a whole new system of writing and revision that will lead to more efficient document creation.


A must-have for any reference library, especially for any engineer who frequently writes reports, papers, and journal articles.