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Dynamics in Document Design

by Karen A. Schriver

Document Design cover

Every now and then someone posts to Eric Ray's TECHWR-L list asking for a recommendation for a book on grammar, a style guide, or a book on how to write manuals. Recently a list member noted they were going to have the opportunity to add Karen Schriver's Dynamics in Document Design to their library and wanted to know what other list members thought.

Dr. Brad Mehlenbacher in the Technical Communication department at North Carolina State in Raleigh responded with his experience with Karen Schriver's book in his classroom.

O.K., O.K., both Brad and I were students of Dr. Karen Schriver, but that was more years ago than either of us would care to admit.

I thought I'd send my reply to your query about Karen Schriver's "Dynamics in Document Design" to the entire list, because I feel so strongly about recommending the book to any and all technical communicators interested in the delicate balance between practice and theory in the field. Schriver introduces the book as her attempt to describe developments in professional and technical communication for an audience "who are beyond an elementary understanding of document design -- experienced practitioners, advanced students, teachers, and researchers" (xxiv).

For this reason I used the book in a graduate course in "Advanced Technical Communication" last year and got very strong and positive reactions to the book. Some students felt that she tended to cite research more than required, which was particularly ironic to me given that I'd been looking for years for a text that drew on considerable research in technical communication, composition theory, the rhetoric of technology, human-computer interaction, and reader response theory and that brought it back to the challenge of producing documents that are usable, attractive, interesting, comprehensive, and persuasive (the book includes an excellent 20-page bibliography at the end)!

But the criticism of some of my students is worth keeping in mind if you're looking for a cookbook of design guidelines: principles for design can be found throughout the book, but they're tightly coupled with her research (and the research of many others) about how real audiences interpret, interact with, and make use of various genres across numerous situations of use (e.g., brochures, web documents, forms, instructions, advertisements, etc.).

One of my students said that she had placed her Schriver text on her "To Keep" shelf, along with Brockmann, Barrett, Doheny-Farina, and Shneiderman, which is about as close to an advertisement as I want to get. It provides a very thorough history of a field that, for most of us, seems at times to draw on everything from ergonomics to human resources management and shows how the documents that we create play central roles in our ultimate understanding of the tools and technologies we build.

Dr. Brad Mehlenbacher
Technical Communication
NC State, Raleigh, NC 27695-8105
Voice: 919.515.4105 E-mail: brad_m@unity.ncsu.edu
Fax: 919.515.6071 URL: http://www4.ncsu.edu/~brad_m/

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