In the words of one student, "When you don't know what to do, you just throw up on the paper." This is an apt description of the organization of some students' papers! Findings from an analysis of geotechnical technical memoranda illustrate this point.
Experienced engineering practitioners are familiar with certain kinds of texts that are often used in their profession, including technical memoranda. They know what readers will expect in the type of content that is covered, its sequencing, and the formatting of the document. Even different firms or agencies use similar functional chunks of information and similar linear organization (Figure 1), with reiteration of moves only when projects had multiple components requiring different analysis and design (Type 2 in Figure 1). Student papers are less predictable and less linear (Figure 2).
The functional chunks (or "rhetorical moves") in practitioner geotech tech memos were typically as follows:
1. Re-establish contact/contract with the client
2. Provide context of project
3. Recount methods/procedures for data collection
4. Describe data and results of investigation
5. Describe engineering analysis (connect data to design)
6. Make recommendations for design (for construction or for design work by other engineers)
7. State limits of liability
8. Close memo
In interviews, practitioners emphasized the need to make the sequence of information logical and predictable for their clients. Readers need to be able to skim and find information in places where they expect it. Most practitioners were not surprised that organization was similar across firms because the documents are used throughout the industry. Predictability was described as making everyone's reading and writing more efficient, and providing less potential for information to be missed or misinterpreted. In contrast, though the student memos contained rhetorical moves whose functions were similar to those in the practitioner texts, the number of moves and sequencing varied greatly. The student memos fell into three general types of organization as in Figure 2, but there were many variations on these. The most striking characteristic of all three types was their non-linear nature. Overall, reading the student tech memos is much like seeing the lines on Figure 2: a reader is likely to feel jerked back and forth from point to point. In addition, most of the memos showed little evidence of acknowledging a consultant-client relationship, and some neglected even to fulfill the ultimate request of the client, which was to make recommendations.