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Description-Writing Exercises


T. R. Girill
STC Fellow


Linked from the table below are high-school-level, classroom-tested, skill-building exercises that teach how to write good descriptions (and, in a separate, parallel set, good instructions) through a coordinated sequence of worked and scaffolded examples and student activities. Also included are the overt instruction- and description-writing guidelines on which these exercises depend. This chart shows the general lesson geography:

Technical Writing Activities for High School
Instructions Descriptions
Overt guidelines Overt guidelines
Detect weaknesses facing users Draft and revise (scaffolded) Rebuild a description from its parts
In text (kitchen recipes) In graphics (artist tips) On a larger scale (home repair) Draft instructions from trial run Draft illustrated instructions Role recognition (household objects) Rebuilding (large parts, shorter text) Rebuilding (small parts, longer text) Revising wisely (heads, figures)

Shared Features

These exercises respond to the unmet need that I found for a realistic, work-relevant way to learn technical writing by students who are not facile writers already. The examples introduce specific, practical techniques for constructing good instructions and descriptions. They tap familiar, gender-neutral topics that nevertheless are rich in applied science and involve solving genuine, real-world writing problems. They are ordered, paced, and scaffolded to gradually build basic writing skills while promoting general cognitive maturity at the same time.

The summary table below links to two versions of each exercise:

  • A plain version suitable for classroom use as is (sometimes accompanied by a separate plain student outline), and
  • An annotated (teacher) version that:
    • spells out the goal of each exercise and the writing issues that it addresses,
    • compares the exercise with others in this set,
    • provides explanatory science background and topical references,
    • suggests effective, relevant teaching strategies, as well as extended student activities, and
    • notes the specific California English-Language Arts content standards(s) that the exercise most strongly supports.

Topical Indexes

Besides finding these exercises sequentially or by name in the table below, you can also use any of three indexes to look up specific exercises by the thematic task(s) or by the California content standard(s) to which they are most relevant.


In June, 2005, the Board of Directors of the Society for Technical Communication (STC) recognized the value of this material with an International Pacesetter Award "for delivering excellent education." In 2007 sharing these resources was further recognized as one of STC's top 1% of community service projects with a Distinguished Service Award.

Resource Development

I began developing these exercises and activities during 2000-2002 while presenting technical writing workshops to grade 10 and 11 students at the Media Academy, then an academic program and now its own small school, located within Oakland's Fremont High School (California). The teacher annotations on each set of writing guidelines and on each specific exercise give more design and presentation details on the the approach that I pursued. Over subsequent years, I have included many refinements. I have usually used these exercises weekly in the order in which they appear in the chart below. But you will find it easy

  • to subdivide or combine lessons to suit the time constraints of your current bell schedule, and
  • to speed or slow the presentation rate (daily, weekly, opportunistically) to suit the needs of students with different backgrounds and abilities.

Permission Policy

The East Bay STC chapter's Technical Literacy Project shares these cases because intellectually sound, grade-appropriate materials for teaching technical writing in high school are scarce. Finding or developing your own exercises may take more time than you have, so we invite you to borrow or adapt some or all of the material here for your classes. Refining and extending them is always ongoing, of course. Your comments and suggestions are welcome (to

Permission to download and reproduce these exercises for nonprofit educational use is granted without fee. All other copying or reproduction, especially for commercial use or resale in any manner, form, or medium, requires explicit, prior, written permission from:

T. R. Girill
Chair, Technical Literacy Project
East Bay Chapter, Society for Technical Communication

Comparison of Shared Exercises

For an overview of the features, quality, history, and reuse policy for these exercises, see the introduction to this section above. For elaboration on the specific traits of any exercise listed in any row below, follow the link from the "annotated" entry in the first column. To print this table as a separate file, click here.

Exercise Role (Topic) Science Applied Here Instructional Design Features Connections to Real Life
Ex. G
Guidelines for good descriptions
(rules of thumb for all description cases)
Patricia Wright:
Between-subjects studies show significantly more text revisions and more consistent revisions with overt guidelines.
These guidelines make text usability explicit for students.
  • basic audience analysis,
  • writing for a purpose,
  • self-editing of description drafts.
CDC's "sudden unexplained infant death" reporting form nicely illustrates applying all of these guidelines (both positively and negatively).
Ex. 0
[no plain]
Why write descriptions
(fist on the card)
Audience analysis gains an overt, widely applicable technique by introducing contrast classes as an empirical way to discover what details are relevant for each useful description. Surveys the make/install/discover/understand spectrum of description reasons.
Practices contrast class analysis in a simple, concrete way.
Connects good technical description with two practical situations:
  • crime scene investigation,
  • decoding complex utility bills (especially for ESL readers).

Ex. 1
Scaffolded Cases
Role recognition of description parts
(paper clip)
Applies contrast class analysis to the features of a technically interesting but familiar object (paper clip). Role recognition and signal hunting
  • reveal descriptive features at work,
  • promote writer responsibility for installing those features,
  • build the general skill of learning well from examples.
Exposes the underlying science (and hence the descriptive challenges) of common devices.
Ex. 2
Role recognition of description parts
(nail clippers)
David Macaulay:
Uses this technical artist's specific design moves to introduce the usability benefits of drawn illustrations for descriptions.
Same as Ex. 1. Compares drawings with photographs as supplements to scientific and engineering (including home-improvement) descriptions.

Ex. 3
Reconstruction Exercises
Rebuilding a description from large parts
(compact disk)
M. Hoey and E. O. Winter (linguists):
Reconstructing technical text from jumbled parts practices the same planning, design, and evaluation skills needed when drafting descriptions from scratch.
Builds and publicly reinforces (helps you easily coach) description-relevant skills even when students could not write the text chunks from which they reconstruct this case.
Comparing alternative (rewritten) versions of one paragraph introduces students to making text usability tradeoffs.
Building a useful, coherent (long) description from information fragments is a common real-life editorial project.
Ex. 4
Rebuilding a description from small parts
(Post-it note)
Same as Ex. 3. Same as Ex. 3. Like Ex. 1, this case exposes the underlying science (here about adhesives) of a common device.
Ex. 5
Rebuilding a (long) description from small parts
(fluorescent lamp)
Same as Ex. 3. Same as Ex. 3 (only much longer, suitable as a student-group activity). Scales up the skills from Ex. 1-4 to handle the "everyday physics" of fluorescent lamps and the engineering of their safe installation.

Ex. 9
Iterative Refinement
Revising wisely a (long) draft description
(bone fracture)
Kalpana Shankar:
Ethnographic studies reveal the value of text revision even in lab notes.
Edward Tufte:
Effective technical illustrations apply good human-factors engineering.
Searching for text usability features (lists, proleptics, comparisons) reinforces the student writer's responsibility to provide such features.
Adding and comparing good/bad headings and figures connects description guidelines to usability tradeoffs.
The diversity of (organizing and self-editing) skills practiced here mirrors the skills needed on many science-related jobs.

You can also display or print all of these description-writing exercises together in one large file:

Extensions and Applications

The "extended cases" previously listed here are now explained and compared in their own introductory handbook section.

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Last updated: Sunday, February 23, 2014 7:08 AM