Teaching Technical Writing with Help from Stephen Hawking

A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (1988) by Stephen Hawking has been sitting on my nightstand for quite some time.  Now that it is summer and I’m not taking any classes, I have been reading more books for pleasure (rather than by assignment), so this one finally got cracked open.  I have to admit that I struggled to understand much of it, for it is a technical description of quantum physics and black holes.  I’m no physicist.  I’m an English major!

stephen hawking a brief history of time cover

Yet the technicality of it made this book the perfect reading because it proved to be the best way to explain certain concepts to my students.  I am teaching a technical writing class (English 3080) for non-majors (engineers, landscape architects, graphic designers, and biologists, among others).  One of the assignments is to write a technical description/specification and accompanying glossary of terms.

Serendipitously, I began reading Hawking’s book as I began to teach this assignment.  On the day we talked about using similes, analogies, and metaphors to convey technical information to a lay audience, I found numerous examples in Hawking’s book.  My students are writing two-page technical descriptions; Hawking wrote a 182-page description.  Both my students and Hawking are writing for an audience who isn’t an expert in their fields.  What better way to help my students understand how to do this than to show them Hawking’s book and to point out his skillful way of using simple examples, similes, and metaphors to convey technical information.

Here are some of the great phrases Hawking used to help his readers understand difficult concepts.

In explaining particles and antiparticles and their annihilating properties, Hawking says: “There could be whole antiworlds and antipeople made out of antiparticles.  However, if you meet your antiself, don’t shake hands!  You would both vanish in a great flash of light” (p. 68).

Beware Agent Olivia Dunham from Fringe!

When telling us about astronauts and gravitational forces, Hawking gives us this pleasant image: “This difference in the forces would stretch our astronaut out like spaghetti or tear him apart before the star had contracted to the critical radius at which the event horizon formed!” (p. 88).

I must say, I enjoyed Hawking’s use of exclamation marks, frequently and without apology!  I loved the tone it gave the book.

In exploring time and the possibility of traveling through it, there’s this gem: “While this would be fine for writers of science fiction, it would mean that no one’s life would ever be safe: someone might go into the past and kill your father or mother before you were conceived!” (p. 89).

There’s that adorable exclamation mark again!

This simile explains the boundary of black holes and rays of light: “It is a bit like running away from the police and just managing to keep one step ahead but not being able to get clear away!” (p. 99).

Exclamation!

Hawking is also skilled at using the “you” tone of voice to appeal to his readers.  I tell my English 1010 students to NEVER EVER use “you” because the tone comes across as accusatory, especially when they try to use it in academic writing, but for technical writing and in explaining difficult concepts to beginners, this tone is acceptable.

Hawking wrote: “If you look at the shadow cast by a source at a great distance, such as the sun, you will see that the rays of light in the edge are not approaching each other” (p. 100).

I can imagine myself there.  It is effective.

Here’s a metaphor:  “The molecules can be thought of as little billiard balls continually colliding with each other and bouncing off the walls of the box” (p. 102).

A good simile: “[T]he only way that one could get it to orbit the earth would be to attract it there by towing a large mass in front of it, rather like a carrot in front of a donkey” (p. 109).

Another simile: “Any irregularities in the universe would simply have been smoothed out by the expansion, as the wrinkles in a balloon are smoothed away when you blow it up” (p. 128).

So although I didn’t get much out of Hawking’s book in learning about physics or understanding black holes, space, and time, I did see it as a useful resource for teaching my students how to bring their own writing into a more accessible form.  My students are also required to create a glossary of terms specific to their field, product, or process to go along with their technical description.  To my great surprise and delight, the end of Hawking’s book also includes a glossary.  It really is a large technical description meant to appeal to the masses.

And it did.  It was a New York Times bestseller for 100 weeks (according to the front cover of my copy), and I have memories of how popular it was.   In sixth grade, my awesome teacher Mrs. Frazier taught us all about black holes and Hawking.  We were fascinated by it (and him) and by the possibility of being sucked into one of these holes, a possible time warp, that would surely end in a terrible (spaghetti-like) death!

Hawking, although appealing to us sixth-graders, is a scholar.  He has given many memorable lectures and his work is based in scholarship and theory.  He has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and received many other accolades and honors for his research.  In addition to being a technical document, I saw the book as a lengthy literature review of all that has been done in his field and all that needed to be done.  He identified the gaps in his field at the time.  He contributed his own ideas to those gaps.  He made it accessible to those of us without advanced degrees in physics.  He did all of this despite suffering from ALS.  He’s pretty darn cool and so is this book.

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