Author Archives: Patrick Lufkin

Excursion to the Bay Model June 3, 2017 [Event]

EBSTC and the Berkeley chapter are planning a trip to the Bay Model on Saturday, June 3. Contact us if you are interested in joining us on this excursion. Patrick Lufkin, who is arranging the excursion, explains what is the Bay Model and its significance to technical communicators.

The Bay Model is a huge–several acres–working model of San Francisco Bay and the Delta, operated by the Corps of Engineers. Once a working scientific research tool, it is now primarily an educational site. It offers a unique experience that very few people in the Bay Area know anything about. We all live in the Bay Area and deal with the state’s water issues, and it behooves us to know more about them. Continue reading

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century [Book Review]

Steven Pinker. 2014. New York, NY: Viking Adult. [ISBN 978-0-670-02585-5. 360 pages, including index. US$27.95 (hardcover).

Note: This book review by Patrick Lufkin was originally published in the STC Journal Technical Communication, Volume 62, Number 1, February 2015.

With dozens of books offering writing advice out there, do we really need another?

After examining the strengths and weaknesses of existing guides, Pinker argues that the considerable progress made in cognitive science in recent years cries out for a fresh approach.=

We now have “an understanding of grammatical phenomena which goes well beyond the traditional taxonomies based on crude analogies with Latin,” “a body of research on the mental dynamics of reading,” and “a body of history and criticism which can distinguish the rules that enhance clarity, grace, and emotional resonance from those that are based on myths and misunderstandings” (p. 6).

Pinker translates these new understandings into practical advice for the working writer in this delightful, informative guide. He is a cognitive scientist, linguist, Harvard psychology professor, and Chair of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Pinker is also a best-selling author of more than a dozen books on language and other topics.

To make his points, Pinker disassembles passages of exemplary prose to show how they work, and discusses various writing styles in terms of their effect on the reader. For most purposes, he recommends a classic style-a style modeled on a conversation among equals. Classic style offers a window on the world and uses clear explanations and concrete examples. Classic style “makes the reader feel like a genius. Bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce” (p. 36).

Besides poor style choice, much incomprehensible writing stems from what Pinker calls “the curse of knowledge” (p. 57), the writer’s failure to comprehend or appreciate that the reader doesn’t know what the writer knows. This can lead to poorly chosen focus, excessive abstraction, using incomprehensible jargon, omitting concrete details the reader needs, and a host of other faults.

Drawing on new understandings of grammar and syntax, Pinker provides fresh explanations that are clear, lucid, and likely to be remembered and applied. Along the way, he shows that the rules are not a series of traps, but valuable tools that make sharing ideas possible by helping you avoid convoluted and misleading prose. Pinker also shows how to gracefully link sentences into larger units of what he calls “arcs of coherence” that help readers “grasp the topic, get the point, keep track of the players, and see how one idea follows from another” (p. 139).

Pinker finishes by addressing dozens of thorny issues of correctness and usage. With clarity and wit, he separates truths from half-truths, myths, peeves, and ham-fisted advice, and gives careful writers the information they need to push back against usage scolds and overzealous copyeditors.

Whether you’re a working writer who wants to improve your craft or someone who just wants to better understand how language works at its best, get The Sense of Style. Both wise and practical, this superb guide is as good as they come.

Patrick Lufkin
STC Associate Fellow

Patrick Lufkin has experience in computer documentation, newsletter production, and public relations. He reads widely in science, history, and current affairs, as well as on writing and editing. He chairs the Gordon Scholarship for Technical Communication and co-chairs the Northern California Technical Communication competition.

Touchstone 2016-2017 Call for Entries

Be Recognized for Your Technical Documentation!

The 2016-17 Touchstone Technical Communication Competition is now accepting entries in the following categories:

  • Technical Print Publications and Documentation
  • Online Technical Communication
  • Technical Art

The deadline for entries is Saturday, October 8, 2016.

What is Touchstone?

Touchstone advances the field of technical communication by recognizing outstanding work. Touchstone awards can bring recognition from professional peers and increased visibility with employers and clients.

The competition will culminate in an awards ceremony in January 2017. Workplace awards presentations may be arranged for those who request them. Workplace presentations are often attended by entrants’ peers, managers, and company executives.


  • Touchstone’s experienced judges provide feedback to help entrants improve their work. Many entrants prize this feedback as a valuable benefit of having entered.
  • p award winners in the Touchstone competition are sent on to compete in the STC international technical communication competition.
  • Beyond the direct benefits you receive from entering the Touchstone competition, its existence and continued success help to educate clients and employers about the value of what technical communicators do.
  • Competition proceeds support the STC Kenneth Gordon Scholarship. The Gordon Scholarship benefits the profession by providing scholarships to students in technical communication programs in Northern California.

Touchstone 2016 Awards Dinner Honors Technical Communication Excellence

The Touchstone technical communication competition honored excellent work in technical communication with an awards dinner on Saturday, January 16, 2016. The event was held in conjunction with the STC Berkeley Chapter’s annual party.

Twenty-three entries won awards. The two Distinguished entries and nine Excellence entries are eligible to enter the STC International Summit Awards. The results of that competition will be announced at the STC Summit in Anaheim in May.

The Distinguished winners are a book from Microsoft Press and a style guide from Salesforce. The book, Adaptive Code via C#, describes best practices and software design principles for producing code that can adapt without breaking, and also provides an excellent introduction to working in an agile environment. The Salesforce style guide sets out voice and tone guidelines for the use of presenters in the wildly successful Salesforce Trailhead modules.

While primarily focused on work done in northern California, this year’s competition also included entries from the Pacific Northwest after that region’s competition encountered difficulties that made it unviable.

Touchstone’s platinum sponsor, Adobe Systems, provided a generous cash contribution to support the event and a one-year subscription to its Technical Communication Suite to use as a door prize. Other vendors contributed door prizes as well.

The Touchstone judges volunteer many hours of work to evaluate entries and give feedback to the entrants. Each year, in a random drawing, one of those judges wins up to $250 toward that year’s STC dues. This year Christopher Muntzer won that prize.

The STC Northern California Technical Communication Competition, rebranded as Touchstone in 1996, has been recognizing the work of Northern California technical communicators since at least the early 1980s. Nobody remembers exactly when it started, but in 1990, under the directorship of Corinne Stefanick of the East Bay Chapter, it generated a large surplus, which the sponsoring chapters agreed to use to fund a new scholarship, named for Dr. Kenneth Gordon, who had recently died after many years as a local champion of STC. Proceeds from the competition still go in part to fund the Gordon scholarship. Each year the scholarship awards several thousand dollars to outstanding students in Northern California technical communication programs.

Originally, management of the competition moved from chapter to chapter among the five Northern California STC Chapters. These chapters still sponsor the competition and share in its proceeds, but management since 2005 has remained with the Gordon Scholarship Committee, chaired by Patrick Lufkin.

For more information, visit STC Touchstone.

Richard Mateosian and Patrick Lufkin