Another important information structure often used in technical communications is the discussion of causes and effects. Discussions like these answer questions such as the following:
Note: See the complete example of a causal discussion.
- What are (or were) the causes of this? How and why does (or did) this happen? What brought about a situation, problem, or accident?
- What are (were or will be) the effects, results, or consequences of this? What will happen if a certain situation or problem continues?
- How does this work? What causes this to function as it does?
- Why won't this thing work? What's wrong with it?
- What changes will occur if a certain plan or action is taken?
- How can a certain problem or situation be avoided?
- What are the advantages, benefits, or disadvantages of an action or object?
- What are one or more potential solutions to a problem?
Some examples: What causes tornadoes? What sorts of damage do tornadoes cause? What will happen if the world continues to use petroleum resources at its current rate? What were the causes of the Great Depression? What are the effects of an economic recession? How does a photocopier work? What makes a microwave oven work? (Does this sound like your seven-year-old?)
As you can see from these examples, we can discuss the causes and effects of human or social processes, natural processes, mechanical or physical processes, historical or economic processes, meteorological or biological processes, and on and on.
If you think about it, there's not much difference between process discussion and causal discussion. Both occur over time; steps in a process often involve causes and effects. The distinction depends on your purpose and emphasis: process discussions are primarily concerned with how an event occurs; causal discussions, with why an event occurs. Process discussion focuses on the chronology of something; causal discussion focuses on the causes and effects. I can tell you step by step how to take a photo or what events occur inside the camera when you take a picture-that's process. But I can also explain to you what physical and chemical principles are at work when you take a photo, what principles actually enable you to take a photo-that's causal discussion. For some topics, however, such as explaining tornadoes, it's almost impossible to make a distinction. Here are some contrasting examples:
Subject Process discussion Causal discussion Lightning How to safeguard home What natural phenomena appliances from lightning cause lightning Instruction How to set up understand- What causes instructions to writing able instructions be unclear Acquisition of How to help children Why certain children learn language by learn language more learn language more children rapidly rapidly Growing tomatoes How to plant and care for Reasons why tomatoes tomatoes are less productive Air conditioning How cool air is produced Why your air conditioning by conventional systems is costing you more this summer
Here are some common reasons why we need to discuss causal and effects:
- We may need a record of the damage done by something. Photographs work, but words may also be needed.
- We may need an account of the scientific principles at work in a process so that we can understand what they are doing in an instructional procedure.
- We may need to understand the causes of something so we can have a better understanding of how to control or eliminate it.
- We may need to understand the effects of something so that we will take it more seriously, work to prevent it, or work to increased its likelihood.
How you organize the contents of a causal discussion depends on how many and what combination of causes and effects you discuss:
Figure 5. Organization of effects in a short causal discussion.First, the cause is stated; then the effects are discussed one after another.
- Single cause-single effect--A single cause can lead to a single effect; for example, a radiator leak can cause the car to overheat.
- Multiple causes-single effect--Many different causes can be seen as leading to one effect: for example, high unemployment, high interest rates, and high real estate costs (causes) might lead to decreased real estate sales (effect).
- Single cause-multiple effects--A single cause can be seen as producing numerous effects. For example, proponents of the greenhouse effect believe that increased CO2 in the atmosphere (cause) will lead to changes in weather patterns, higher temperatures, drought, increased storm activity, and higher sea levels (effects).
- Sequential causes and effects--One cause can bring about an effect, which in turn becomes the cause of another effect, and so on. For example, proponents of the greenhouse effect argue that increased burning of fossil fuels (cause) leads to increased CO2 in the atmosphere (effect) which in turn is the cause of less thermal energy being reradiated out of the system (effect) which in turn becomes the cause of increased global temperatures.
- Alternate causes and effects--Causes and effects can be alternating. For example, if the car won't start (effect), it may be because of a dead battery (alternate cause 1), no gas in the gas tank (alternate cause 2), or a faulty solenoid (alternate cause 3).
Consider a simple example: imagine you want to discuss how a single situation has led to a number of problems, in other words, one cause leading to several effects. In a single paragraph, the first couple of sentences might focus on the cause; each of the following sentences would focus on the effects. In an extended discussion, there might be a paragraph on the cause, and a paragraph on each of the effects. Take a look at the examples of organizational patterns like these in Figure G-5. The schematic diagram of a causal discussion in Figure G-9 shows you how the extended approach would look.
Actual discussion of causes and effects is not as immediately identifiable as descriptive or process writing are. Typically, causal discussions talk about events and describe things. What makes causal discussions distinctive is the use of transitional words to indicate the causes and effects.
In the sentence "Increased deficit spending by the government leads to increased inflation" the verb "leads to" establishes the connection between a cause and an effect-actually, it establishes the two noun phrases as cause and effect, respectively. In this excerpt, the connective "consequently" establishes a causal link between the increasing domestic anger over the Vietnam war and Johnson's decision not to seek reelection: "Meanwhile at home, anger, hostility, and outright revolt against the war grew. Johnson, sensing he could not get reelected in this atmosphere, consequently decided against running for another term."
Figure 6 shows how heavily description can get involved in discussing causes and effects; other examples in this section show how much process discussion gets involved.
Figure 6. Description in causal discussion: to discuss the effects of the eruption of Mount St. Helen, much description has to be used.
Figure 7. Various types of cause-effect relationships. The top example involves a single cause and single effect; the middle example involves a single cause and multiple effects; the bottom example involves a sequence of causes and effects (with each effect turning into a cause).
Figure 8. An extended causal discussion: focus on a single cause for one or more paragraphs.
Here are a few suggestions on format as they relate specifically to causal discussions:
Figure 9. Schematic view of cause-effect discussions. Remember that this is just a typical or common model for the contents and organization--many others are possible.
- Headings. If you write an extended causal discussion and have separate paragraphs for each of the causes or effects, then the headings should signal those causes. (See the examples in this section.) See the section on headings for details.
- Lists. If you discuss sequential causes and effects, you're likely to need in-sentence and vertical numbered lists. If you have multiple causes or effects but no necessary order amongst them, then bulleted lists are appropriate. See the section on lists for details.
- Graphics. Causal discussions often use conceptual diagrams to show the relationships between the causes and effects. In these you give a spatial representation of the causes and effects as they occur in time. See the section on graphics for details.
- Style. As with any other technical writing, you treat numbers, symbols, and abbreviations in process discussions the same. Exact measurement values should be numerals, regardless whether they are below 10. See the section on technical style for details.
|Interested in courses related to this page or a printed version? See the resources page.||Return to the main menu of this online textbook for technical writing.|