Documentation Is Not a Dirty Word
A Pocket Style Manual

Critical Thinking, Reading, and Writing: A Brief Guide to Argument

Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking

So, you spent a few months to create an arts and sciences project, taking notes and drawing sketches of period pieces you wanted to base it on, and ended up with a lovely piece of work. You want to enter it at an arts and sciences competition at an upcoming event, but there's one hitch – the description of the competition includes a sentence like “Entries must be accompanied by written documentation.”

“Documentation” sounds rather intimidating. It conjures up images of piles and piles of paperwork – and who has time for all of that, anyway? And besides, you may nor really be that much of an expert on this sort of project – do they really expect a literary work the size of a dictionary for your entry?

Fear not – they generally don’t. Most judges won't have time to read a really long essay on each project – they’d rather read something short, sweet, and to the point. So here are some tips on writing documentation that I hope you'll find helpful:

First things first – you should be starting to write your documentation before you’ve even begun on the project, not waiting until after you're done. “Reverse documentation” – creating an object and then afterwards researching it (to justify steps you’ve already taken anyway) won’t be as beneficial as writing the documentation as you do the project.

Second – neatness really counts, and more than that, you should take into account a certain level of "spiff factor." It's okay to use a typewriter and plain white paper – but a well laid-out publication on a good-quality paper, bound in a report cover, is going to knock their socks off. The content is the important thing, don't get me wrong – but excellent content and a great presentation is going to go a long way to really wow ’em.

The first thing the judges see when they open up your documentation should be your cover page, which should have the title of the piece, your contact information, and an approximate date of when you finished it. If you can, put a picture (preferably color) of the item you're documenting on the cover, so that if the documentation gets separated from your project, they'll be able to figure out where it goes.

Another thing that judges will appreciate is pictures – especially of the historical artifacts you’ve based your project on, but also to show the various steps during the construction of the project. A sketch in the margins of your document is okay; a photocopy of the pictures is better; even better would be to have a few pages on photo-album sheets in the back of your documentation; best yet would be to integrate graphics from full-color scans into the documentation paper itself.

The next page or two is the body of your documentation. Think about what kinds of questions the judges might have about your piece, and how you would answer the questions. You should be able to answer the questions “What is this, and what did you base it on?” and “When and where would this have been used in period?” within the first paragraph of the paper. Other questions that your documentation should answer:

  • What steps did you take to make this? What materials did you use? Would these have been the materials and steps that they would have used in period? If you've done something differently from the way it would have been done in period, why did you choose to do it your way?
  • Who would have used this, and what would they have used it for? Would this have been fabricated by a different person than the end user? If so, what kind of person would have made the item?
  • Is this the first time you have worked in this medium? What other sorts of projects have you done along the lines of this one? Did you have any problems or glitches with your project, and what did you do to resolve them? What plans do you have for future projects in this medium? What would you do differently the next time you do this sort of project?

What I generally look for when I’m reading documentation is a sign that the artisan has really sat down and analyzed the sources before coming up with the process. I’m looking for evidence of the analytical processes that took the artisan from looking at the original artifacts to creating the finished piece. To me, the analytical process is what documentation is about. The rest is gravy.

You can include longer appendices – copies of articles or webpages that you read which you found to be helpful with your project (you may want to use a highlighter pen on the especially helpful sections), additional papers you've written relating to your entry to which you'd referred in your main documentation, et cetera.

The last page or two is your bibliography. It really doesn't matter what style of bibliography you use – just keep the style consistent from entry to entry. A technique I tried in a bibliography for a documentation-based piece I did a few years ago divided my sources into Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary – the Primary section was composed of pictures of the original artifacts on which my project was based, the Secondary section was a bibliography of scholarly interpretations of the artifacts, and the Tertiary section was a bibliography sources based on the secondary and other sources. (To read about primary, secondary, and tertiary source materials, see Mistress Celynen’s article on Tips for Research.)

Another good resource to help you with research and documentation is the handbook for Atlantian Ministers of Arts and Sciences. You'll find tips on how to start the research process, as well as some good ideas for documentation, and links to additional pages that discuss these issues.

A couple of additional points that weren’t really stressed in the original version of this article, but that are of some use:

  • Both the bibliography and citation style should be consistent. I recommend using the Chicago (or Turabian) style, though I personally prefer the MLA style. Judges in A&S competitions don't seem to overtly push one or the other.
  • Footnotes, endnotes, or citations should be used, and there is an art to their use. Do not, for example, simply quote a chunk of text from some other author, and then cite it at the end; be gentle with the quote, even introducing the source to ease the transition (Harris writes that just the word documentation “conjures up images of piles and piles of paperwork”1); or even reword it to better fit in with your narrative (Harris, for example, suggests the Atlantian MoAS’ handbook as a resource.2)
  • Likewise, the use of captions with your images is of great importance. It is useful to include a citation to the original source – but it’s more useful to indicate what the item is, where it's from (museum accession number, etc.), and what features, if any, you mean to point out by its inclusion in your documentation.
  • Avoid using the first person (“I,” “me,”) as well as the second person (“you,” “your“). Taking the passive tone (“First, the harfnagel is affixed to the sinoflange,” rather than “First, I attached the harfnagel to the sinoflange”), while it will seem awkward at first, will contribute towards creating a professional and knowledgeable tone to the work. Maître Olivier notes that the passive tense shifts the emphasis of the statement onto the object (the A&S entry) rather than the subject (you).
    (Another way to do this is to use the command tense, especially in a procedure – “First, affix the harfnagel to the sinoflange” – but either manner should be used consistently.)

If you would like additional assistance or guidance with documentation-writing, please contact me (you can also post to my Facebook page); I’m happy to work as a documentation coach if you need feedback on your work.