Power Tools: Finding, Narrowing, Outlining Topics

The following section was originally part of Power Tools for Technical Writing, published by Harcourt, but taken out because of length considerations. This section was part of a chapter made up of the following:
  1. Finding topics—provides strategies for finding topics for writing projects.
  2. Narrowing—provides strategies for narrowing topics for writing projects.
  3. Outlining—provides strategies for creating and revising outlines.

As a writer in technical writing courses, you may need some strategies for finding topics for writing projects, which are provided in this section.

What to Write About?

By definition, technical-writing courses are opportunities to focus on practical uses of your writing skills. In the ideal technical-writing course, you would have a work-related writing project every two to three weeks: for example, instructions for that pesky fax machine down the hall or recommendations on home alarm systems. These courses are also great opportunities for exploring science and technology: latest advances in microprocessors, latest theories about the origin of the universe, latest methods for hydroponic gardening. If your instructor encourages you to find your own topics, take a look at the following suggestions.

Topic Ideas for Technical-Writing Courses
Peruse these topics—see if any possibilities for projects come to mind.
Global warming Deforestation Acid rain Ozone depletion
Rain forests Continental drift Greenhouse effect Endangered species
Industrial waste disposal Mount St. Helens eruption Solar energy devices Nuclear power
Plate tectonics Solar automobiles Petroleum-based energy Thermal power
Wind energy Freon Mass transportation Nuclear fusion
Microwave technologies Bomb detection methods High-tech weaponry Advances in automotives
Xeriscaping Soil analysis Hybridization techniques Hydroponics
Recycling Drip irrigation Alternative agriculture Desalination methods
Genetic engineering World Wide Web Computer video Multimedia
Computer memory Computer animation Fiber optics Computer audio
Virtual reality Artificial intelligence Telecomputing Telecommuting
Advanced compact disks Cellular telephones Personal digital assistants Videoconferencing
Digital interactive TV UFOs Satellite TV Object-oriented programming
Digital imaging Cable TV Computer-aided education Neural networks
Teleconferencing Advances in telephony CD-ROM technology Computer graphics
Distance education Computer crime DVD technology Robotics
Tech Prep Virtual classroom Expert systems Devices for diabetics
Advanced prostheses Artificial heart Diabetes Artificial limbs
Kidney transplants Alzheimer's disease Hypoglycemia AIDS
Ebola Encephalitis Knee/hip replacements Carcinogens
Hyperkinetic behavior Caffeine Saccharine Psychosomatic disorders
Nicotine Genetic engineering Vitamin therapies Magnetic resonance imaging
Recombinant DNA Gulf War Syndrome Ultrasound Sickle cell anemia
Agent Orange Inflation Recession Capital-punishment methods
Dream research Balanced budget Abortion methods Handwriting analysis
Dyslexia Biorhythms Pheromones Wellness programs
Acupuncture Big Bang Theory Life on Mars Saturn expedition
Extraterrestrial intelligence Gout Supernova Mars expedition
Halley's Comet Universe Space shuttles Uranus expedition
Black holes The Moon Volcanoes Worm holes
Venus Tornadoes Hurricanes Earthquakes
Monsoons Droughts Whales Boa constrictors
Rattlesnakes Sharks Geckoes Panda bears
Black widows Iguanas Wolves Eagles
Dolphins Scorpions Coyotes Dinosaurs
Influenza Panic attacks Heart attacks Breast cancer
Lung cancer Bioengineered foods Migraines Nanotechnology
Wormholes Superstrings DVD technology High-definition TV

Ideas for Audiences
See if the following list of audiences brings to mind technical-writing projects.
City council members Parent-teacher association Downtown renovation commission
Neighborhood association City transportation board Rural utilities cooperative
Recycling special interest group Student parking action group Student housing board
City mass transportation agency Business secretary association Pet owners society
Save-our-trees action group Citizens antipornography league City beautification commission
Alternative energy-resource investors Friends of sidewalk artists Housing for the homeless society
Computer animators society Alternative-transportation action group College solar-automobile club
High-school science teachers association City busriders support group Drug-rehab center board
Citizens-against-crime league Computer-game design society Your local government representative
City mayor County commissioners Home-brewers and microbrewers club
Organic foods cooperative Student housing cooperative Local wine makers society
Student services director

Academic and Workplace-Oriented Majors
Consider interesting courses or projects related to your major or any of the following.
Accounting Air conditioning technology Aerospace technology Refrigeration technology
Astronomy Automotive technology Biology Biotechnology
Engineering Chemistry Child development Computer science
Culinary arts Diagnostic medical imaging Electronics Building construction technology
Emergency medical service technology Engineering design graphics Information records management Physical fitness technology
Geomatics (land surveying technology) Fire protection technology Medical lab technology Meteorology
Molecular genetics Urban studies Engineering Marine biology
Molecular biology Biochemistry Petroleum engineering Geosystems engineering
Neurobiology Mechanical engineering Electrical engineering Biomedical engineering
Military science Civil engineering Chemical engineering Nursing
Occupational therapy Office systems technology Pharmacy technology Photography
Geology Physics Printing technology Quality assurance
Surgical technology Technical communication Welding technology X-ray operations

Interesting Magazines and Journals
Go to your local library or newsstand and flip through some of the following.
Flying Mother Earth News Magazine Popular Photography
Issues in Medical Ethics Wood Magazine 4 Wheel & Off Road magazine
Air & Space Magazine Audio Magazine Smithsonian
Home Improver Magazine Family Business Magazine PC Magazine
Byte Magazine Family Handyman Magazine
Anthropological Linguistics Nature Astronomy Magazine
Scientific American National Geographic Cogeneration
Energy Research News Lab Animal Molecular Vision
Neuron Petroleum Equipment & Technology BBC News: Science and Technology
Electronic Journal of Biotechnology American Naturalist Nuclear Plant Journal
Garden and Forest Water, Air, and Soil Pollution Forest Ecology and Management
Weed Research Wetlands Ecology and Management Conscious Choice: The Journal of Ecology & Natural Living
Issues in Science and Technology Technology & Culture Electric Vehicle World
Discover Magazine Distant Star GEO Magazine
Gene Therapy Weekly Home Power Magazine Physics World
Robot Science & Technology UFO Digest Sea Technology
UFO Magazine NanoTechnology Magazine Popular Mechanics
Popular Science Technology Review Cyberspace Today
Wired Space Business International Amateur Astronomy Magazine
Sky & Telescope CNN: Sci-Tech Brain & Mind
Journal of Prisoners on Prisons Electronic House Online Home Energy
Popular Home Automation Hazardous Materials Management Magazine Professional Boatbuilder Magazine
Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses Progressive Farmer Today Potato Grower
Pest Control Technology (PCT) Goat Farmer Magazine Disaster Recovery Journal
Upholster Magazine CleanRooms Worm Digest
Recycling Today Magazine American Waste Digest American Small Farm Magazine
Pacific Fishing Urban Transportation Monitor Advanced Rescue Technology
Pit and Quarry Magazine Corrections Technology & Management Magazine Wireless Access Technologies
Journal of Emergency Medical Services

Interesting Websites
Browse some these websites for ideas.
Artificial Intelligence and Robotics. Provided by the Georgia Tech Mobile Robot Lab: www.cc.gatech.edu/ai/robot-lab/mrl-jump-points.html Humanoid Project. From Waseda University (Japan), its project to develop a humanoid robot: www.shirai.info.waseda.ac.jp/humanoid
Robotics. From the Seattle Robotics Society: www.seattlerobotics.org/websites.html Virtual Reality Society. News, software, links, introductory information about virtual reality: www.vrs.org.uk
Solar Car Page. Lots of information about and links to solar-powered cars: www-lips.ece.utexas.edu/~delayman/solar.html National UFO Reporting Center. For the collection and distribution of objective UFO data: nwlink.com/~ufocntr/index.html
Introduction to Artificial Intelligence. Developed by Tim Dunn, Adam Dyess, and Bil Snitzer: tqd.advanced.org/2705 Fractalzone. Provided by Philippe Wautelet, a good introduction to fractals and links to related sites: fractalzone.home.ml.org
Virtual Worlds Project. MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory's advanced distributed interactive simulation (DIS) systems for science, engineering, medicine, commerce, and industry: www.ai.mit.edu/projects/vworlds/ vworlds.html Human Powered Transportation Committee. From the American Society of Civil Engineers, a group dedicated to incorporating human-powered transportation (walking and bicycling) into transportation systems: ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/ kbarrett/asce-hpt.htm
Solar Buildings Program. From the Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Network: www.eren.doe.gov/solarbuildings U.S. Department of Energy's Wind Energy Program. Applications, innovations, links to related sites: www.eren.doe.gov/wind
Photovoltaic Power Resource Site. Information on photovoltaic (converting solar to electrical energy) history, resources, applications, projects, and employment: www.pvpower.com American Association for Wind Engineering. An organization for promoting the research and professional practice of as well as for distributing information on wind engineering: liberty.uc.wlu.edu/~aawe
Nova Structure. Project at the Academy for the Advancement of Science and Technology to design an energy-efficient house: www.bergen.gov/ATC/nova_structure2.html U.S. Department of Energy's Biomass Power Program. About biomass power, current biopower projects, technical reports, general explanations for average citizens: www.eren.doe.gov/biopower
U.S. Fusion Energy Sciences Program. A knowledge base for an economically and environmentally attractive fusion energy source: wwwofe.er.doe.gov Cold Fusion Times. Journal on the scientific aspects of loading isotopic fuels into materials as well as related topics: world.std.com/~mica/cft.html
Biofuels Information Center. Provided by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory: www.biofuels.doe.gov Scientists for Global Responsibility. Web site promoting socially responsible and ethical uses of science and technology: www.gn.apc.org/sgr
Food for Our Future. Provides understandable explanations of the benefits that biotechnology could bring to our food supply and addresses people's concerns about the new technology: www.foodfuture.org.uk/index2.htm Ethanol Vehicle Challenge. From the College of Engineering, Center for Environmental Research and Technology at University of California, Riverside: helium.ucr.edu/~teamcert/ethanol
Greener Cars. Toyota's website presenting its efforts to make automobiles "greener": www.toyota.co.jp/e/green Veggie Van. A small motorhome powered by a clean-burning fuel made from used and new vegetable oil. www.veggievan.org/Veggie Van
DOE Transportation Technologies. From the DOE Office of Transportation Technologies, in the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Office of the Department of Energy: www.ott.doe.gov What Is Cybernetics? From the Department of Industrial Technology, Bradford University, UK: www.brad.ac.uk/acad/cybernet/whatisit/ cyberwhat.html
Hybrid Electric Vehicle Program. NREL program (Department of Energy) information about hybrid electric vehicles: www.hev.doe.gov Ralph C. Merkle's Cryonics Webpage. Discussion and links concerning cryonics: merkle.com/merkleDir/cryo.html
Biomedical Visualization. University of Illinois at Chicago website: www.bvis.uic.edu/Biomedical Visualization Artificial Heart Program. From the University of Pittsburgh, its research and clinical program for the treatment of end-stage heart failure: info.pitt.edu/~gwb1/UPMC
American Cryonics Society. Preserving the whole body, head, or brain, of persons recently declared legally dead, in the hope of revival at some time in the future: www.jps.net/cryonics The Visible Human Project. MRI cross-sections of the human body with explanations: ww.nlm.nih.gov/research/visible/ visible_human.html
Manufacturing at the molecular level! Information and links to articles and websites about nanotechnology provided by Ralph C. Merkle: nano.xerox.com/nano/Nanotechnology SETI Institute. Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute, an organization devoted to scientific and educational projects relating to life in the universe: www.seti-inst.edu
International Space Station. NASA's website for this project: station.nasa.gov/core.html Project Skylab. NASA's Skylab Project: www.ksc.nasa.gov/history/skylab/ skylab.html
Superluminal Motion: Fact or Fiction? Possibility of faster-than-the-speed-of-light travel: al.cs.byu.edu/ketav/issue_3.2/Lumin/lumin.html Physics and Star Trek. Jason W. Hinson's explanations for the "science" in science fiction (especially Star Trek) based on current physics: london.physics.purdue.edu/~hinson/ physandtrek/index.html
"Companion Object" Near Hale-Bopp Comet? Links concerning the comet, possible UFOs, cover-ups, and other X-File-ish things: Time Travel. Possibilities of time travel: freespace.virgin.net/steve.preston/Time.html
Human Genome Organisation. Human Genome Organisation (HUGO), the international organization with the global initiative to map and sequence the human genome: hugo.gdb.org DOE Human Genome Program Home Page. Department of Energy's website on the human genome project: ww.er.doe.gov/production/ober/ hug_top.html
Human Cloning and Genetic Engineering. Provided by Arthur Kerschen of the University of Arizona, discussion and links related to genetic engineering—human cloning, in particular: www.u.arizona.edu/~ahk/cloning/index.html How to Clone a Human. Also provided by Arthur Kerschen of the University of Arizona: ww.u.arizona.edu/~ahk/cloning/human.html

Work Place: Ideas for Technical-Writing Projects
What's going on at work? Are the projects there, just waiting for you? Browse some of these ideas:
Does the office need a new photocopy machine?
Are you considering a fax machine? a CD writer? a digital camera?
Is the staff expected to use a new software application for which there is no user guide?
Are you and other employees interested in telecommuting (using electronic and computer methods to work at home)?
Is management considering putting all operating procedures and other administrative materials online?
Has your agency been challenged to go "paperless"—to get all files stored and searchable electronically?
Have you been tasked with recommending a personal digital assistant, cell phone, or notebook computer for all employees in your company?

Problems, Problems, Problems . . .
A good source for volunteer projects is Idealist at www.idealist.org, a site run by Action Without Borders, a non-profit foundation. It lists 10,000 Web sites for non-profit organizations, information on volunteering, jobs, and projects.
Inadequate public transportation Lack of parking Overflowing land fills
Smog and otherwise dirty air Crowded streets and highways Crime, vandalism
Homeless people Lack of daycare facilities Unemployment
Lack of low-cost housing Dwindling water supplies Expensive electricity
Natural areas threatened by urban development Lack of parks and recreational facilities Lack of facilities for the elderly
Rodent infestations Mosquitoes Lack of vegetation (trees, shrubbery, etc.)
Projects for nonprofits Lack of facilities for young people Expensive water

Workshop—Topic Finding, Narrowing, and Outlining

For practice and workshop material on topics and outlining, see www.prismnet.com/~hcexres/power_tools or the Instructor Manual that accompanies this book.

Information and programs provided by hcexres@prismnet.com.