“Sex, romance, thrills, burlesque, satire, bass … most enjoyable”.
“Here is everything one expects from this author but thricefold and three times as entertaining as anything he has written before”.
“A wonderful tissue of outrageous coincidences and correspondences, teasing elevations of suspense and delayed climaxes”.
(reviews of Small World by David Lodge)
This has nothing to do with engineering writing. No engineering report will ever get such reviews. The most significant point about engineering writing is that it is totally different from the writing most people were taught – and if you do not recognize and understand this difference, then your engineering writing will always miss the mark. However, this article outlines a methodical approach to writing which will enable anyone to produce great works of engineering literature.
Writing is the major means of communication within an organisation; paper is thought to be the major product of professional engineers; some estimate that up to 30% of work-time is engaged in written communication. Thus it is absolutely vital for you as a Professional Engineer to actively develop the skill of writing; not only because of the time involved in writing, but also because your project’s success may depend upon it. Indeed, since so much of the communication between you and more senior management occurs in writing, your whole career may depend upon its quality.
In an industrial context, writing has two major roles:
- it clarifies – for both writer and reader
- it conveys information
It is this deliberate, dual aim which should form the focus for all your writing activity.
There are many uses for paper within an organization; some are inefficient – but the power of paper must not be ignored because of that. In relation to a project, documentation provides a means to clarify and explain on-going development, and to plan the next stages. Memoranda are a simple mechanism for suggestions, instructions, and general organisation. The minutes of a meeting form a permanent and definitive record.
Writing is a central part of any design activity. Quality is improved since writing an explanation of the design, forces the designer to consider and explore it fully. For instance, the simple procedure of insisting upon written test-plans forces the designer to address the issue. Designs which work just “because they do” will fail later; designs whose operation is explained in writing may also fail, but the repair will be far quicker since the (documented) design is understood.
If you are having trouble expressing an idea, write it down; you (and possibly others) will then understand it. It may take you a long time to explain something “off the cuff”, but if you have explained it first to yourself by writing it down – the reader can study your logic not just once but repeatedly, and the information is efficiently conveyed.
Forget the Past
Professional writing has very little to do with the composition and literature learnt at school: the objectives are different, the audience has different needs, and the rewards in engineering can be far greater. As engineers, we write for very distinct and restricted purposes, which are best achieved through simplicity.
English at school has two distinct foci: the analysis and appreciation of the great works of literature, and the display of knowledge. It is all a question of aim. A novel entertains. It forces the reader to want to know: what happens next. On the other hand, an engineering report is primarily designed to convey information. The engineer’s job is helped if the report is interesting; but time is short and the sooner the meat of the document is reached, the better. The novel would start: “The dog grew ill from howling so …”; the engineer’s report would start (and probably end): “The butler killed Sir John with a twelve inch carving knife”.
In school we are taught to display knowledge. The more information and argument, the more marks. In industry, it is totally different. Here the wise engineer must extract only the significant information and support it with only the minimum-necessary argument. The expertise is used to filter the information and so to remove inessential noise. The engineer as expert provides the answers to problems, not an exposition of past and present knowledge: we use our knowledge to focus upon the important points.
For the Future
When you approach any document, follow this simple procedure:
- Establish the AIM
- Consider the READER
- Devise the STRUCTURE
- DRAFT the text
- EDIT and REVISE
That is it. For the rest of this article, we will expand upon these points and explain some techniques to make the document effective and efficient – but these five stages (all of them) are what you need to remember.
You start with your aim. Every document must have a single aim – a specific, specified reason for being written. If you can not think of one, do something useful instead; if you can not decide what the document should achieve, it will not achieve it.
Once you have established your aim, you must then decide what information is necessary in achieving that aim. The reader wants to find the outcome of your thoughts: apply your expertise to the available information, pick out the very-few facts which are relevant, and state them precisely and concisely.
A document tells somebody something. As the writer, you have to decide what to tell and how best to tell it to the particular audience; you must consider the reader.
There are three considerations:
- What they already know affects what you can leave out.
- What they need to know determines what you include.
t they want to know suggests the order and emphasis of your writing. For instance, in a products proposal, marketing will want to see the products differentiation and niche in the market place; finance will be interested in projected development costs, profit margins and risk analysis; and R&D will want the technical details of the design. To be most effective, you may need to produce three different reports for the three different audiences.
The key point, however, is that writing is about conveying information – conveying; that means it has to get there. Your writing must be right for the reader, or it will lost on its journey; you must focus upon enabling the reader’s access to the information.
Writing is very powerful – and for this reason, it can be exploited in engineering. The power comes from its potential as an efficient and effective means of communication; the power is derived from order and clarity. Structure is used to present the information so that it is more accessible to the reader.
In all comes down to the problem of the short attention span. You have to provide the information in small manageable chunks, and to use the structure of the document to maintain the context. As engineers, this is easy since we are used to performing hierarchical decomposition of designs – and the same procedure can be applied to writing a document.
While still considering the aim and the reader, the document is broken down into distinct sections which can be written (and read) separately. These sections are then each further decomposed into subsections (and sub-subsections) until you arrive at simple, small units of information – which are expressed as a paragraph, or a diagram.
Every paragraph in your document should justify itself; it should serve a purpose, or be removed. A paragraph should convey a single idea. There should be a statement of that key idea and (possibly) some of the following:
- a development of the idea
- an explanation or analogy
- an illustration
- support with evidence
- contextual links to reinforce the structure
As engineers, though, you are allowed to avoid words entirely in places; diagrams are often much better than written text. Whole reports can be written with them almost exclusively and you should always consider using one in preference to a paragraph. Not only do diagrams convey some information more effectively, but often they assist in the analysis and interpretation of the data. For instance, a pie chart gives a quicker comparison than a list of numbers; a simple bar chart is far more intelligible than the numbers it represents. The only problem with diagrams is the writer often places less effort in their design than their information-content merits – and so some is lost or obscure. They must be given due care: add informative labels and titles, highlight any key entries, remove unnecessary information.
Draft, Revise and Edit
When you have decided what to say, to whom you are saying it, and how to structure it; say it – and then check it for clarity and effectiveness. The time spent doing this will be far less than the time wasted by other people struggling with the document otherwise.
The following are a few points to consider as you wield the red pen over your newly created opus.
The main difference between written and verbal communication is that the reader can choose and re-read the various sections, whereas the listener receives information in the sequence determined by the speaker. Layout should be used to make the structure plain, and so more effective: it acts as a guide to the reader.
Suppose you have three main points to make; do not hide them within simple text – make them obvious. Make it so that the reader’s eye jumps straight to them on the page. For instance, the key to effective layout is to use:
- informative titles
- white space
Another way to make a point obvious is to use a different font.
People in business do not have the time to marvel at your florid turn off phrase or incessant illiteration. They want to know what the document is about and (possibly) what it says; there is no real interest in style, except for ease of access.
In some articles a summary can be obtained by reading the first sentence of each paragraph. The remainder of each paragraph is simply an expansion upon, or explanation of, the initial sentence. In other writing, the topic is given first in a summary form, and then successively repeated with greater detail each time. This is the pyramid structure favoured by newspapers.
A really short and simple document is bound to be read. This has lead to the “memo culture” in which every communication is condensed to one side of A4. Longer documents need to justify themselves to their readers’ attention.
Let us imagine the reader. Let us call her Ms X.
Ms X has a lot to do today: she has a meeting tomorrow morning with the regional VP, a call to make to the German design office, several letters to dictate concerning safety regulations, and this months process-data has failed to reach her. She is busy and distracted. You have possibly 20 seconds for your document to justify itself to her. If by then it has not explained itself and convinced her that she needs to read it – Ms X will tackle something else. If Ms X is a good manager, she will insist on a rewrite; if not, the document may never be read. action).
Thus the beginning of your document is crucial. It must be obvious to the reader at once what the document is about, and why it should be read. You need to catch the readers attention but with greater subtlety than this article; few engineering reports can begin with the word sex.
Unlike a novel, the engineering document must not contain “teasing elevations of suspense”. Take your “aim”, and either state it or achieve it by the end of the first paragraph.
For instance, if you have been evaluating a new software package for possible purchase then your reports might begin: “Having evaluated the McBlair Design Suite, I recommend that …”.
Punctuation is used to clarify meaning and to highlight structure. It can also remove ambiguity: a cross section of customers can be rendered less frightening simply by adding a hyphen (a cross-section of customers).
Engineers tend not to punctuate – which deprives us of this simple tool. Despite what some remember from school, punctuation has simple rules which lead to elegance and easy interpretation. If you want a summary of punctuation, try The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1990); and if you want a full treatise, complete with worked examples (of varying degrees of skill), read You Have A Point There by Eric Partridge.
For now, let us look at two uses of two punctuation marks. If you do not habitually use these already, add them to your repertoire by deliberately looking for opportunities in your next piece of writing.
The two most common uses of the Colon are:
1) To introduce a list which explains, or provides the information promised in, the previous clause.
- A manager needs two planning tools: prescience and a prayer.
2) To separate main clauses where the second is a step forward from the first: statement to example, statement to explanation, cause to effect, introduction to main point.
- To err is human: we use computers.
The two most common uses of the Semicolon are: 1) to unite sentences that are closely associated, complementary or parallel:
- Writing is a skill; one must practise to improve a skill. Engineers engineer; accountants account for the cost.
2) to act as a stronger comma, either for emphasis or to establish a hierarchy
- The report was a masterpiece; of deception and false promises. The teams were Tom, Dick and Harry; and Mandy, Martha and Mary.
For some, spelling is a constant problem. In the last analysis, incorrect speling distracts the reader and detracts from the authority of the author. Computer spell-checking programmes provide great assistance, especially when supported by a good dictionary. Chronic spellers should always maintain a (preferably alphabetical) list of corrected errors, and try to learn new rules (and exceptions!). For instance (in British English) advice-advise, device-devise, licence-license, practice-practise each follow the same pattern: the -ice is a noun, the -ise is a verb.
For important documents, there is nothing better than a good, old-fashioned proof-read. As an example, the following comes from a national advertising campaign/quiz run by a famous maker of Champagne:
- Question 3: Which Country has one the Triple Crown the most times?
Won understands the error, but is not impressed by the quality of that company’s product.
Avoid long sentences. We tend to associate “unit of information” with “a sentence”. Consequently when reading, we process the information when we reach the full stop. If the sentence is too long, we lose the information either because of our limited attention span or because the information was poorly decomposed to start with and might, perhaps, have been broken up into smaller, or possibly better punctuated, sentences which would better have kept the attention of the reader and, by doing so, have reinforced the original message with greater clarity and simplicity.
It is inappropriate to utilize verbose and bombastic terminology when a suitable alternative would be to: keep it simple. Often the long, complex word will not be understood. Further, if the reader is distracted by the word itself, then less attention is paid to the meaning or to the information you wished to convey.
I believe that a digital human-computer-interface data-entry mechanism should be called a keyboard; I don’t know why, but I do.
When one is trying hard to write an impressive document, it is easy to slip into grandiose formulae: words and phrases which sound significant but which convey nothing but noise.
You must exterminate. So: “for the reason that” becomes “because”; “with regards to” becomes “about”; “in view of the fact that” becomes “since”; “within a comparatively short period of time” becomes “soon”.
Often you can make a sentence sound more like spoken English simply be changing the word order and adjusting the verb. So: “if the department experiences any difficulties in the near future regarding attendance of meetings” becomes “if staff cannnot attend the next few meetings”. As a final check, read your document aloud; if it sounds stilted, change it.
Writing is a complex tool, you need to train yourself in its use or a large proportion of your activity will be grossly inefficient. You must reflect upon your writing lest it reflects badly upon you.
If you want one message to take from this article, take this: the writing of a professional engineer should be clear, complete and concise. If your document satisfies these three criteria, then it deserves to be read.