This is my face-to-face Technical Writing class last Monday folding airplanes to learn how to write instructions.

Some teachers just can’t keep their classrooms under control!

Actually, this is my face-to-face Technical Writing class last Monday folding airplanes then seeing if they fly. That takes about two minutes, tops.

Everyone Knows How to Fold a Paper Airplane!
Everyone Knows How to Fold a Paper Airplane!
  • Tricky step one:Now they write out the instructions for folding their planes. The more complicated their plane, the longer this takes.
    Some People Know How to Fold Really Complicated Airplanes
    Some People Know How to Fold Really Complicated Airplanes
  • Tricky step two:Exchange instructions with a partner and use their instructions to fold their plane–without looking at the prototype!
    Sometimes good instructions don't need any words at all.
    Sometimes good instructions don't need any words at all.
  • Tricky step three:Compare the airplane folded by following instructions to the prototype.
    Boeing doesn't want to hear "Close enough!" when that brand new 747 comes rolling off the production line!
    Boeing doesn't want to hear "Close enough!" when that brand new 747 comes rolling off the production line!

We all brainstorm on the white board, “What do we learn from flying airplanes in the classroom?”

Voice from the back of the room shouts, "Sandy can't control her class!" (Sadly, too true!)
Voice from the back of the room shouts, "Sandy can't control her class!" (Sadly, too true!)

Voice from the front of the room observes, “It took me one minute to fold my plane and fifteen minutes to write the instructions.”

“What do we learn from that?”

“Writing takes time!”

“Oh yeah. What else?”

“Graphics!”

Fold this!
Fold this!

“What about them?”

“They are better than words, and they have to be clear. I had a good drawing, but I didn’t say which way the paper should be oriented, so my user tester got stuck.”

Graphics are cool but they have to be perfectly clear. Fold this!
Graphics are cool but they have to be perfectly clear. Fold this!

“I just asked the person who wrote the instructions to clarify something in the instructions.”

“In technical writing your readers rarely have the opportunity to ask you to clarify, so it needs to be clear and correct before it reaches your readers.”

“How many of you used words like fold an isosceles or right triangle?”

[Discussion of word choice and assumptions about audience ensued.]

Two different interpretations of the term "paper airplane."
Two different interpretations of the term "paper airplane."

“How many of you began by telling your audience what they were building, or how many of you just started with a step instructing the reader to start folding?”

[Talk about organization and goals]

Paper Seaplane from http://www.amazingpaperairplanes.com/Favorites.html
Paper Seaplane from http://www.amazingpaperairplanes.com/Favorites.html

“How many of you designed the instructions so that the instructions themselves folded into the plane, using lines and labels to show readers where and how to fold?”

[Talk about material delivery of information]

So is this guy really thinking outside the box, or is he just another smart alecky kid being romanticized by the film maker? HINT: The Death Star was a sphere…

Sandy Brown Jensen

I am a retired writing instructor and faculty tech specialist from Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon. I still teach and am also a photographer, poet, blogger and digital storyteller (short videos).

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  • So many things I hadn’t thought about while writing my instructions…back to the drawing (er..writing)board! Hopefully my rough draft will end up not being so rough now.

  • I know if I had been there I would have lived though it. Looks very hard but it reminds me of trying to explain a painting technique in words – such as a how to do it book on watercolor.If and when I get around to writing such, I will tap your paper airplane expertise.

  • Wow! I wish we had something like a paper airplane to make the directions for instead of coming up with the idea ourselves. O well. Still fun.

  • The paper airplanes were just a warm-up, in class introduction to instructions. Everyone still had to write their own instructions with the difference being that they had to be able to test the instructions in the classroom–which was an interesting limitation!

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Sandy Brown Jensen

I am a retired writing instructor and faculty tech specialist from Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon. I still teach and am also a photographer, poet, blogger and digital storyteller (short videos).

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