How Engineers Can
Improve Technical
Writing


September 2012

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Even though engineers are technical people, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are good technical writers.

“Technical writing involves two key competencies,” indicates Atul Mathur, a professional engineer and technical copywriter in Singapore. “The first is the ability to understand technical language; the second is being able to express that knowledge in a clear, concise, and coherent manner.”

Dan Jones, a professor of English at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, who offers technical writing workshops to engineering groups, doesn’t believe technical writing “or any kind of writing for that matter, comes naturally to anyone,” he says. “Some people are better writers than others, but their skills are typically acquired over a long period of time with much practice and hard work.”

Even so, engineers do have some advantages when it comes to technical communication. They are detail-oriented, bright, demanding, and not intimidated by levels of technicality. “They want to know how and why something works, but like students in other college majors, they face similar challenges in communicating this technical knowledge clearly and effectively,” says Jones.

Modular Writing

Since the Great Recession, every business is trying to do more with less. For engineers, this means training budgets have been slashed and they have to produce an increasing number of written documents themselves.

“These include trip reports, proposals, status reports, meeting minutes, reports documenting site visits, and lab experiments,” states Gary Blake, director of the Communication Workshop in Great Neck, NY, and author of The Elements of Technical Writing. “In my 25 years of teaching seminars in technical writing, I have met very few engineers who are comfortable with using simple language, organizing documents for the readers’ benefit, keeping sentences and paragraphs short, and getting to the point.”

One method of dealing with the increased volume of reporting is “modular writing.” Many companies are moving away from individually authored technical documents to team-authored modules of information.

“These modules—each reduced typically to single topics—are then reused in a wide variety of company documents,” says Jones. “One technique is Darwin Information Typing Architecture, or DITA. This modular writing, once successfully implemented, can save a company thousands of dollars in documentation costs.”

Sometimes engineers try to circumvent technical writing by misusing PowerPoint and other presentation software, overloading technical presentations with data instead of explaining what it means in clear and concise language.

“I just worked with a group of 30 engineers to help them make more effective technical presentations,” says Jones. “PowerPoint as a medium is designed for simplicity with, ideally, the individual slides serving as prompts for the speaker, not as handouts for the audience. But many technical professionals crowd far too much information on almost every slide. And, in many cases, various company protocols or practices require them to provide all of this information in this manner.”

Simplicity in Complexity

Engineers often find it difficult to communicate their technical knowledge to audiences that have less technical backgrounds. For example, engineers must write reports and convey the essential technical details for managers—often a tough challenge because many managers don’t understand the technology.

“The greatest issue is the inability to see simplicity in complexity,” says Mathur. “How can they strip away the complexity of a process or system and present it in a way that others can understand, with minimum effort? After all, technical writing is not just about language skills—it’s also about how we think.”

There is no substitute for training—one-on-one, webinar, seminar, or having instant access to a subject expert or mentor. A webinar has the advantage of being inexpensive and convenient. “A team or department of engineers take a 90-minute online class that reviews writing samples, gives writing exercises, answers questions, and offers future access to an instructor,” says Blake.

Technical communication is essential for career advancement for all technical professionals.

“Mastering the content of a discipline is, of course, important, but this subject expertise becomes much more valuable and marketable if you know how to communicate your subject expertise to a variety of audiences in numerous kinds of technical documents and technical presentations,” says Jones.

Mark Crawford is an independent writer.

The greatest issue for engineers is the inability to see simplicity in complexity—how can they strip away the complexity of a process or system and present it in a way that others can understand.

Atul Mathur, a professional
engineer and technical
copywriter

 
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by Mark Crawford, ASME.org