Introduction to Institutional Writing: 5 Key Learnings

Rounding off this series of blog posts is a course called WRIT 3710: Introduction to Institutional Writing. Duncan Koerber taught it over the course of the 2012–2013 academic year. True to its name, the course introduces and provides an overview of institutional writing. The two required course texts are Business Communication: Contexts and Controversies and Readings for Technical Communication, and these form the basis of discussion in this seminar-style class.

Rather than talking at the class, Professor Koerber raises a number of key issues drawn from the week’s assigned readings and opens the floor for comments from students. Participation accounts for a relatively large part of the final grade, so students are encouraged to, as much as possible, voice their opinions of and responses to the two texts.

Some valuable learnings from the course texts are as follows:

1. Now more than ever professionals must develop new routes of communication so that increasingly varied audiences can understand complex information

2. Use the AIDA acronym to grab the audience’s Attention, increase their Interest, produce Desire, and encourage Action

3. The process of writing instructions falls under the stages of planning, structuring, and testing, all of which should adhere to set principles of clear writing

4. A two-step process can be used to analyse an audience and arrive at an agreeable resolution: first, ascertain who the readership is made up of; and second, communicate technical information in a way that syncs with the reader’s prior understanding of the subject

5. When writing for a particular audience, keep in mind the concept of “known/new” information; that is, begin by writing about what the audience already knows and follow with new information

Future students of this class should also know that, apart from the written component, they’ll be expected to make a presentation at course’s end and take part in a mock job interview at course’s beginning. These additional assignments may pose a challenge for some, but ultimately prove beneficial as basic training for the real world.


Digesting Technical Information: 4 Key Learnings

Bernard Aschwanden taught PWR 381: Digesting Technical Information, in the fall of 2013. It was a very hands-on course that relied solely on the transmission of the instructor’s knowledge and experience base (as a technical writer) to us students, and thus had no course text to supplement it. With no readings from week to week, our time was freed up to work on and complete weekly assignments.

While the relevance of the course has been disputed, it bears noting that students have come away with a number of beneficial learnings, namely:

1. The principles of plain language and the importance of writing in a clear, simple, minimalist, and coherent style and format
2. The importance and intricacies of jargons, lexicons, and industry-specific vocabularies
3. Audience analysis and the significance of knowing who you’re writing for before, during, and after the shaping of a given text
4. How to digest – that is, deconstruct, analyze, and simplify – technical information and make it understandable for the layperson

As with most (if not all) courses in York University’s Professional Writing program, students should be ready to write, and write a lot. Some class time is allotted to work on assignments, but students are also expected to put in a significant time investment outside of class. Overall, the course was a good experience and good training for fourth-year courses in the following academic year.

Visual Information and Document Design: 5 Key Learnings

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PWR 480: Advanced Workshop 1: Visual Information and Document Design was a course taught at Seneca@York last semester by Sharon Winstanley. It relied on the textbook Visual Composing: Document Design for Print and Digital Media as well as original course material developed by Winstanley herself. It is thanks to this course that we students came away with a solid grounding in the essential elements of typography and visual composition. In particular, we learned the following tactics for creating the most aesthetically pleasing and functionally strong documents:

1. Keep the principles of legibility and readability utmost in mind when selecting a font or fonts
2. When choosing between fonts, think about the effect you wish to convey, whether professional, casual, or a mix of the two
3. Alternate serif and sans serif fonts between headings and body text; that is, use sans serif for headings and serif for body text, or vice versa, but stay consistent
4. Never, but never, underline text, as the result is usually visually repugnant
5. Instead of symmetry, look to the principle of balance for laying out visual elements on a page; abhor the mirror image

These are just some of the composition issues that came up in class last semester. Many more were covered, but these are beyond the scope of this post. Overall, the course was a great primer in the theories behind layout, design, and typography, as well as how to fruitfully apply those learnings in real-world scenarios.

Practical Studies in Damage Control: 4 Key Learnings

Another required course for the Institutional Communications stream of the Professional Writing program at York is WRIT 4711, Practical Studies in Damage Control. This course picks up where WRIT 4710 (Ethics of Publicity) left off, examining as it does the theory and application of crisis management strategies, informing the public relations field. This year, the course is entirely online, and the readings are all taken from academic journals in the social sciences.

This course is taught by Duncan Koerber. And while the course is still in session, a number of key learnings to date are as follows:

  1. Damage control is just one aspect of the crisis management spectrum
  2. A crisis is defined as an unexpected, negative event that has the potential to damage an entity’s image and/or reputation
  3. The case study method yields important insights into how real companies and individuals deal with crises, either successfully or unsuccessfully
  4. There is a hierarchy of tactics and strategies that can be used by the PR professional if they are to appropriately handle a crisis and avoid its escalation

Crisis management and damage control are two interrelated fields of inquiry, and they comprise a great many concepts, strategies, and pathways. In this course, we look at the core understandings and lay the foundation for a possible career in PR.

Multimedia Authoring and Practices: 5 Key Learnings

PWR 481, also listed as PRWR 4801, is known as Advanced Workshop 2: Multimedia Authoring and Practices. It is a required course in the Institutional Communications Stream of the Professional Writing program at York University, and offers an unmatched experience in working with and writing for the Web. In the 2014 winter term, it is taught by Christopher Lewis.

Students who are planning to take this course should know that it requires a strong grasp of computer technology, and even though part of class time is devoted to creating websites from scratch, no prior background in coding is required (though it certainly doesn’t hurt).

Web-related languages, concepts, and programs covered in the course (to varying extents) include the following:

  1. HTML5
  2. CSS
  3. SEO
  4. Dreamweaver
  5. WordPress

At course’s end, students should feel confident in adding these skills to their resumes, or at least continuing their training in the same vein.