6 Technical Writing Skills Every Engineer Needs
How will technical writing help engineers succeed in their job?
There are many courses on technical writing for engineers. Most are delivered by writers that are not engineers. Today, professional engineers are all college educated. Many of us took “technical writing for engineers courses” at college, but from whom? A professional technical writer is unlikely to have been a professional engineer. Our instructors were English or humanities majors who specialize in technical writing. These folks don’t think like engineers, which means they don’t write like engineers. As a result, most courses fail to address the weaknesses associated with the way we write as engineers.
Writing reflects thought. When we think as engineers, we write as engineers. This means we think of the process and then outcomes. For example, “The foundation was subject to a bearing load test that revealed that the foundation was inadequate.” That sounds good, right? There are no grammatical errors. But how about, “The bearing load test showed the foundation to be inadequate.” We’ve reduced this statement from 16 to 10 words. Project this reduction over a 10-page report and the revised version will be about seven pages. Seven pages are always better than 10.
Why do engineers write so bureaucratically?
As engineers, we have to focus on technical ideas. We don’t write as much as our arts and humanities friends. We write when we have to and many of us avoid it if we can. This lack of practice makes us emulate the engineer writing we read and so much of that writing is formal. I believe this clinging to formality comes from a defensive fear of writing. When we write formally, we never need pronouns, the passive case obliterates the identity of the writer, and we reach for long words or phrases (“your assistance is appreciated” instead of “thanks for your help”). This makes our text verbose and pompous. It makes it hard to read and it lacks persuasion.
6 Technical Writing Skills For Engineers
Technical writing doesn’t have to be difficult. Developing the following skills will help you write fluently, directly, and persuasively.
Engineers don’t usually have editors. So, engineers must edit their own work. This skill requires engineers to be able to return to their writing and review it as though it were written by someone else. The skill of self-editing, when practiced repeatedly, inevitably leads to improved writing. Technical writing for engineering should always be edited.
When you’ve written your piece and edited, it needs a final check. Proofreading is the skill of checking for errors, commonly known as “typos,” such as incorrect spelling, punctuation, or grammar. We all make these errors and many of us consider them forgivable, but errors can distract the reader and ultimately result in a loss of respect for the writer. Like all skills, proofreading improves with practice. Good technical writers proofread with little effort.
Technical content is complex. That is why technical writing for engineers needs to be as simple as possible. A skilled engineer will simplify the text that addresses complex ideas. Instead of writing, “The concrete was delivered and placed in a highly-rapid manner to prevent premature curing,” the writer with the skill for simplicity may write, “The concrete was poured quickly so that it cured properly.” Here, 15 words are replaced by 10.
Parts of Speech
The parts of speech are the types of words we write, such as nouns and verbs. Technical writing for engineers always obeys technical rules. However, there are specific rules associated with each word type (e.g. adjectives qualify nouns while adverbs qualify verbs). Think of the mistaken “…the engineer writes good.” When we have the skill of knowing and understanding these word rules, we can eliminate many basic grammatical mistakes. The best technical writers are skilled at selecting the correct parts of speech.
Skillful use of the sentence will make your technical writing easier to read. Engineers tend to write unnecessarily complex sentences that should be paragraphs instead. Engineers seem to love inverted sentences.
“At 9 a.m. the meeting was opened. Comments were invited by the Chair. Responses were documented by the recorder.”
Simple and direct:
“The Chair opened the meeting at 9 a.m. He invited comments that were documented by the recorder.”
Technical writing for engineers is frequently written in a formal style. We’ve come to believe that this is only one style of technical writing. Engineers who write everything in a formal style actually believe they are writing well. So, should we write to a member of the public in exactly the same style as we would write to a politician, a contractor, or a colleague? Should we be super formal when we are promoting an idea? Should our writing be stiff and impersonal when we are writing to a boss or superior?
When we cling to this early 20th Century stiff form, we appear bureaucratic, detached, and indifferent. Skill in style helps us not only reach people, but also be perceived as people.
To learn more about technical writing for engineers, see our online resources. Designed and delivered by a professional engineer for professional engineers, our online technical writing course will teach you all the skills you need to communicate effectively in your technical writing.