Evaluating Documents


In an earlier lecture we began to consider the idea of genre (or information type). During this lecture I want to expand on those ideas and to consider how they integrate with topical persistence and other concepts I have already introduced. Defining a genre means that we have identified those elements or features that characterize a particular kind (or class) of information.

That assessment helps us, and our readers, understand the features and techniques that underlie specific information genre. We said, for example, that opening a text that proclaims itself as a "tutorial" elicits certain expectations based on previous knowledge of tutorials. Once those expectations are set in motion they inform how readers react to and use a text.

We have also considered a range of methods for editing a text. I took the position that authoring agents (I use that term rather than writers because many professional documents are written by groups rather than individuals) often have relied on relatively easy to evaluate aspects of editing; that is, mechanical and grammatical elements. I concluded that lecture by encouraging you to think about editing in other ways. This lecture continues that theme.

Traditionally, writing courses have focused on trying to teach you how to "wordsmith" text. My approach, as you should be aware by now, is far different. I have attempted to convince you that the relationship between, and among, form and content, audience and purpose, and textual and non-textual elements offers excellent challenges for helping writers produce more useful information products.

For me, an obvious corollary to this approach posits that examining documents at the "wordsmith" level, although still important, will not achieve these same goals. Thus, when I ask you to consider how to evaluate a document, I am suggesting that you begin this process, much like the assessment of genre, at a sufficiently "high" or "global" level in in the information domain. Let me be more precise.

I have said that readers develop expectations when they encounter an information product. Part of that reaction is subjective (and "somewhat" uncontrollable), part is based on previous experience. In my earlier example, I said that a document that self-consciously announces that it is a tutorial creates a certain set of expectations. But, notice in this example that I have simply said that the information has "announced" its function, most likely through its title. That textual elements is what I refer to as a "global" element; it literally controls the identity, and the readers' expectations, of that document. Based on that initial reaction, I maintain that we can learn a great deal about an information product by assessing it at "global" levels first. At this point you might want to review The Document Editing Categories website listed below.

As you can see, I suggest that the assessment of an information product should begin at the document level, and that this review should examine:

The kinds of questions you need to ask at this level include:

What tasks does the information product purport to support?

Can I imagine the intended audience from either overt (This tutorial is intended for someone familiar with previous versions of this product.) or covert (Startup the E-engine configuration routine and enter your access code.) textual clues?

Does the document provide evidence about its genre? (Tutorial, Reference Manual, Policy and Procedures, Financial Report, etc.)

Do there seem to obvious organizational techniques that support the document's genre? (Global: table of contents, list of figures, folio lines, etc.; local: local table of contents, headers, etc.)

Is the relationship between textual and non-textual material both supportive and obvious?

I take this position about document evaluation because I have found that difficulties at global levels tend to be found at subsequent levels. Thus, we are likely to discover the schizophrenic character of a document early in our assessment, rather than later. Let me provide a tangible example of these problems.

In an earlier lecture I asked you to consider several documents (project 2 example) in which I tried to describe the concept of "topical persistence." One of those documents had a section level problem in that it helped the reader disassemble a device but did NOT provide instructions on how to reassemble that same device. While you have only the section level evidence of this difficulty, the same kinds of problems occur at the document level.

For example, if a reader tries to find a description of the process for "signing" or "logging" off of a device, there is no reference in either the table of contents or the index. If a reader goes to signing on as a possible source, the only instruction there indicates that the reader should "reverse" the process. The reader must then guess how one "reveres": "To sign on type SIGNON followed by your userid." (Unfortunately, the program itself is flawed because typing in SIGNOFF, a logical guess, returns a cryptic error message.) So, my point is that finding the global difficulty should provide clues to assessing ALL levels of a document; those problems that occur globally are likely to recur at lower compositional levels.

Notice also that the evaluation process I propose is recursive. That is, you will find yourself evaluating similar characteristics at increasingly specific, and local, levels of textual composition. For example, the Section Level evaluation deletes two categories, task and audience, but adds an equally familiar topic, cohesion. Those categories appear again at the Paragraph Level.

In summary, my point is that "wordsmithing" can only take text evaluation so far, and it is probably a distance that you have traversed often in your previous writing courses. The methodology that I offer asks you to consider information products at significantly higher, more global, levels. My hypothesis is that problems found at those higher levels tend to permeate lower levels of a document. If a document is unsupportive of the reader's need to understand its overall organization, that characteristic is likely to reappear at more local--section, paragraph, sentence, etc.--levels. Often, such evaluations result in significant changes in even a relatively simple information product.


Document Evaluation Categories
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 Last Modified: 05/24/01