Editorial Engineering: Tips to Take the Pain out of Writing

Enter Key in Blue

There are shelves and shelves of published references designed to help the non-English major write effectively in the business world. The only trouble is, only English majors can stomach the job of reading them.

As efficiency experts, engineers should be able to give the wordsmiths a run for their money when it comes to good writing. Every fiber of our being is wired to convey information as effectively and economically as possible. Yet many engineers still freeze up when faced with a writing task.

If that applies to you, try to approach writing as simply another engineering challenge. These teacher-tested process-improvement tips will help you construct compelling prose that conveys maximum information with no waste and (in theory) a minimum of errors.

Process Engineering

Begin with this simple question in mind: who is reading this, and how can I help them? Assess what your audience already knows and what they want/need to know. Consider the reading level of your audience, and their degree of familiarity with engineering terminology.

Next, create a rough outline; a blueprint for the piece of writing you’re working on. A working list of major headings will provide a framework that you can flesh out as you write – you can erase them when your supporting paragraphs are honed.

Build supporting paragraphs under each of these headings. Start your paragraphs with a strong topic sentence summarizing your main point. Each sentence in the paragraph should relate back directly to that topic sentence.

If you are struggling with a deadline, give yourself manageable time limits while writing. Force yourself to write a paragraph in 10 minutes. Set a timer and go. Don’t stop until the timer rings. If you aren’t finished, don’t worry. Just move on to the next section and set the timer again. After you build the framework of your text, you can go back afterwards and add more to each section, rearrange things, or check for errors.

Structural Engineering

Word choice. Choose strong, simple words over academic or erudite language. Whenever possible, look for a shorter or more familiar word that conveys the same meaning in fewer syllables. For example:

use not utilize
ask not inquire
finish or complete not finalize
require or force not necessitate

Transitions. Use transitions or other connectors to make writing cohesive – it should be obvious to the reader how one sentence relates to another. If it’s not clear, make it clear by using a transition word or other connector.

Although transitions are useful and necessary, use phrases that actually make sense. Phrases such as "by and large," "be that as it may," "in as much as," and "in so far as" appear in business writing all the time, but contribute zero information content to your communication.

Active vs. Passive Voice. Editors generally consider active voice ("The engineer designed an HVAC system") to be clearer, cleaner, and more efficient than passive voice ("An HVAC system was designed by the engineer"). But beware of strict grammarians who say passive voice is always an automatic no-no. In some types of writing, especially in describing scientific or engineering methodologies, the active voice can seem awkward and obtrusive.

Quality Control

Read your draft out loud and listen for signs of bad flow or unnatural language. If you’re self-conscious about doing that, ask a trusted colleague to lend his or her fresh eyes to the document. Incorporate that input and your own edits into a final, polished draft and proofread it carefully.

Love it, hate it, fear it, or tolerate it, writing is a part of the engineer’s job and always will be. So treat it accordingly. Create systems for developing written communication that work for you – and for your reader.

Michael MacRae is an independent writer.

Love it, hate it, fear it, or tolerate it, writing is a part of the engineer’s job and always will be. So treat it accordingly.


March 2011

by Michael MacRae