Advice on Writing about Skills

Steven Lubar
3 min readAug 27, 2018


A Lady Writing
(Schrijvend meisje)
c. 1662–1667
Oil on canvas, 45 x 39.9 cm. (17 3/4 x 15 3/4 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
acc. no. 1962.10.1

General writing advice

Don’t introduce too much. Get right to the topic. A paper is often better if you throw away the first line or the first paragraph. When you’ve finished: decide if your conclusion should really be the introduction.

Don’t try to get fancy with your writing. Write as you talk. Be direct.

Include your own story here. Use the first person. Allow your personality, and emotions, to come through.

Tell a story — walk your reader through the process, or through how you learned the process.

Occasionally step out of the details and make a comparison. What is similar? What is different?

Consider both theory and practice, and how they are connected. Do this throughout the paper, going back and forth between theory and practice, not as separate sections.

Detail from Pieter Brueghel the Younger, The Peasant Lawyer, ca. 1620. Grohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

Advice specific to writing about skills

Take notes while you’re doing the work. Audio notes can be useful — they don’t break your flow, and you can use them to both remember and think through the work you’re doing. Leave your cellphone open to an audio recorder while you work.

Use analogies: what about the materials, or the work, is like something else?

Note your visual and nonvisual stimuli. What do you see, hear, smell, feel?

Four kinds of skill: materials, tools, manual dexterity, and knowledge,


What do you need to know about the substance you’re working with? How strong is it? How tough? How fragile? How hard to work?

Is it like wood in having a “grain” — is it harder or softer, tougher or more pliable, in different directions?

How can it be worked: cut, bent, hammered? How does this change with heat?

Does it bend or break?

How much give does it have? Can you force-fit it?

How easy is it to be precise?

How do you learn about the material? Trial and error?

In what way is a material like some other material?


What tools did you use for the project? How did you choose them?

What knowledge of the tools did you have, or need to learn? How did you learn it? Text, video, asking, trial and error?

How did you get better at using the tool over the course of the project?

What room was there for error in using the tool?


How much strength is needed? Where? in hands, arms, torso, legs, the whole body?

What stance do you need to take to do this work?

Small, precise motions, or larger motions? Sharp blows or sustained forces?

Is eye-hand coordination essential? Can you describe how and why?

What senses did you use: looking, listening, touching, smelling? Describe what you saw, heard, felt, or smelled. How did that affect the work?

How much repetition is there in the work? What changes between very similar actions? How do you keep aware of the changes that are necessary?

Knowledge and learning

What did you need to know to do the work?

Did you plan your work? What kind of planning? high-level, thinking through the whole project, or step by step? Did you write down plans or steps?

Did you use drawings? Were they useful?

What did you learn that you wish you had known from the start?

What errors did you make that you had to do over, and what did you learn from them? How would you do this differently next time?

What analogies were useful?

Further reading

B. Ehn, “Doing-it-yourself: Auto-ethnography of manual work,” Ethnologia Europaea, 43:1 (2011), 53–63.



Steven Lubar

Professor of American Studies at Brown University. Author of Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present.