Three Common Writing Mistakes Technical Writers Make

There are three common writing mistakes engineers make: 

  1. The writing is unclear. 
  2. The writing is too long. 
  3. The attention to detail is either too much or too little.

Bad Technical Writing Is Unclear

Engineers typically write in a way that’s hard to follow. Unfortunately, the primary characteristic of technical writing is that it must be clear. It must be easy to understand. This is a test because technical writing usually presents complex ideas. 

The challenge is to present complex ideas with language that is as simple as possible. The level of simplicity necessary is dictated by the intended reader. We can use more complex language when we are writing for other engineers, but we must simplify for the public. 

So, this means clarity is governed by the nature of the reader. For example, words and phrases like evaluation, factor of safety, critical, and tolerance are better understood by engineers than the public.

Bad Technical Writing Is Too Long

Another common writing mistake engineers make: they use too many words. We are verbose. When text is not concise, it burdens our readers. We make them wade through more than they should. 

For example, an engineer may typically write:

“The process resulted throughout in an excessive deterioration in the actual material applied to the covering.”

When they could simply say:

“The covering material deteriorated because of the process.”

The reduction seems small: we replace a sentence of 15 words with eight. But when we make similar reductions throughout a document, we’re almost cutting it in half. 

Engineers write this way because we express our ideas but fail to edit. The idea is sound with no grammatical errors, but when we edit, we see that the words throughout, excessive, and actual are “passenger” words. They contribute nothing to driving the message.

We must draft and then edit to make our writing concise. Editing is a habit we need to build.

Bad Technical Writing Pays Inappropriate Attention to Detail

The third coming writing mistake engineers routinely make is inappropriate attention to detail. The depth of detail depends on the purpose of the writing and the readership. 

Engineers are detail-oriented but we can be sloppy. For example, the abbreviation etc. (etcetera) means “and so on.” Whenever we use it, we are effectively telling our readers “here’s a list but I can’t be bothered to finish it.”

The word multiple used to mean a number multiplying another number, also a multiple. Today, it commonly means “many.” When Engineers write multiple, their writing is not concrete. We quantify. So, when an engineer uses “multiple,” it usually means “there are many, but I can’t be bothered to look it up.”

These examples show poor attention to detail. Good technical writing is concrete and specific. When we genuinely can’t quantify, we should offer a range, always with units.