The engineering field has many established writing conventions. These conventions affect how you organize your thoughts and how you phrase your research and ideas.
Most of the conventions you'll read about here represent what's generally expected when you communicate as an engineer. However, you may need to use different conventions in different situations. For example, your instructor may require you to use first person pronouns in a Technical Report, while the same report submitted to a publication may require the passive voice. Always check to know what's acceptable and what's not.
Headings & Subheadings
Headings and subheadings are good organizational techniques, and they also help readers locate information. For example, students writing a design report about a performing arts center used "Main Hall Acoustics" as a main heading and placed "Background, " "Materials," and "Design Considerations" as subheadings. This way, a reader interested in the necessary materials could quickly find this information without reading the whole report.
Additionally, headings and subheadings break up your text. They provide readers with visual stopping points. These stopping points help keep your reader's attention focused on your content rather than on where they are in the text.
Engineers often compose documents as a group. This occurs in both industry and academia when engineers have to present large projects. Writing as a group means that you have to work well together in order to assign tasks and complete the work.
Lists are effective ways to present information. Not only do they break down large amounts of text, but they're also visually pleasing. Lists are especially useful when you have to convey steps, phases, years, procedures, or decisions. When creating a list, consider writing phrases, fragments or even questions and answers. By avoiding full sentences in a list, your information is concise and more likely to engage your readers. For example, to receive a degree in engineering, you must complete the following:
- Core Courses
- Elective Courses
- Senior Design
Lists can be bulleted, as in the previous example, or numbered. Typically, you should use a numbered list when you need to stress the order of the listed items. Priorities and steps are best presented as numbered lists.
Graphics provide illustrated information to readers. In general, graphics are designed to make it easier for readers to understand your data. Deciding when to insert a graphic depends on the information you need to convey. For example, as you're writing a technical report, you find yourself struggling to describe a complex concept. Fitting your description within a few paragraphs is impossible, so you decide to create a graphic. Often, graphics are useful when concepts, designs, or processes are too complex or cumbersome to describe in written or oral form.
Active & Passive Voice
In the past, many engineers stressed that the passive voice should be used in writing. However, this trend is changing. Some instructors, publications and industries now accept the active voice in written documents. To differentiate between the two, consider the following:
- I used the electric identifier to solve the problem.
- The electric identifier was used to solve the problem.
Many engineers stress that writing should be terse. Lengthy sentences and long paragraphs are signs that your writing is not terse. The reason why terseness is necessary to good engineering writing is because it helps your readers understand information quicker. For example, you can write five paragraphs about the procedures you followed during a lab, or you can summarize the key points in a paragraph or two.
What's important to remember about terseness is that you shouldn't give up any detail. In other words, don't delete large portions of text because you think you've been too wordy. Remember that good writing is descriptive, but it also gets to the point as quickly as possible. The information you present should always be relevant to your topic, as well as to your audience.
Like active voice, pronouns were once unacceptable in engineering writing. According to some engineers, using pronouns made writing more "personable" and less "scientific." However, this trend is changing. Some instructors, publications and industries now accept pronouns in written documents. For example, "We tested each sample," as opposed to 'The sample was tested." Before you begin writing, always determine whether or not it's acceptable to use pronouns.