Perspectives on Communicating as an Engineer
Dave Alciatore, Mechanical Engineering
"Engineering writing should be very clear. When you enter the industry, you're expected to write efficiently and not be as creative as you may have been while in school. Your boss won’t want you taking a lot of time to write something and your readers don’t want to read more than is necessary. Good writing is structured, concise, well-illustrated, and therefore relatively short. I get fed up with long paragraphs because they take longer to read. "
Creativity in Engineering Writing
"Most engineering writing is rather dry. I usually count off for story telling, especially when students should be describing what they did and how they did it. If the material is straightforward and simple, it should be presented in a straightforward and simple way. Typically, it’s not professional nor appropriate to liven writing with stories. On the other hand, I’ve read some publications where analogies, anecdotes, and metaphors were used to depict a concept. One example was to show the limitations of technology. In the article, the writer compared a robot to an ant in a bath tub. Like the ant with its sensory limitations, the robot also has limitations. The conclusion was that a robot can’t operate in certain environments. It makes sense, though, that this type of writing is used with this subject matter. After all, in behavior based robotics, writers build comparisons between living creatures to show how we want robots to act. Usually a writer has to have a solid reputation in the field before readers will accept this type of writing."
"If you are designing and selling a product, you might have to write an Operating Manual. Your customers will need to know the product's features, maintenance information, and other general product descriptions. We've all read Operating Manuals at one time or another. Think about software manuals. Mechanical engineers write those, and may even write them for other engineers. For example, an engineer might write software that analyzes the stresses in a piping system and predicts the flow rate. Only an engineer can write the manual because it's very technical. It requires an understanding of how the software works. "
Types of Specifications
"As a mechanical engineer, you'll encounter many types of Specifications. One type is a maintenance spec. Engineers write these to illustrate how a system should be maintained. For example, technicians maintain turbine power generation facilities by lubricating parts, tightening bolts, applying paint, and replacing rubber fittings. Specifications tell them how to do this. Another type of Specification is a materials spec. Here, an engineer lists a material's properties and how they should be used. These might include temperature variations or corrosive environments. Other types of Specifications include operation specs and design specs. Engineers write Specifications for various stages in a product's design. Although Specifications can be boring to read, they must account for every detail affecting the product. "
The Legal Aspects of Specifications
"Specifications can become legal documents. For instance, another company might use your Specifications to build a product you've designed. They will follow your Specifications exactly. If you aren't satisfied with the final product, you can blame either yourself for not providing enough detail in the specs, or the company for not understanding the specs. Regardless, the final product is a direct result of what you presented in the Specifications. "
O & M
"Often, engineers combine operation specs and maintenance specs. These are called "O & M." That's something every engineer should know."
Patrick Fitzhorn, Mechanical Engineering
Terseness in Writing
"When I grade technical papers from students, the most common comment I write is "Why?" In order to be as terse as possible, many students make statements without providing back-up, support, or reasons to believe that’s the case. As much as terseness in writing is desired in engineering, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to justify what you write. You still have to explain how you arrived at decisions, etc."
Neil Grigg, Civil Engineering
Narrative Writing in Publications
"Narrative writing is acceptable in some publications, but most technical people don’t want to read anything like that. They demand cut and dry writing. I’ve noticed more creative writing in publications recently; however, it takes a lot of confidence to write that way. You don’t want to risk loosing your readers’ attention because of your creativity. "
"A comfortable situation is when you present information to a project team or other people, like city council, who understand engineering terminology. In a more formal situation, you might present your proposed plan to politicians and citizens. Or you might pitch a sales presentation to a panel selecting an engineering company for a contract. This is a formal situation, however, you should act informal, so they’ll like you. A hostile situation is at a large public meeting where citizens are usually against the proposed plan. An ultimate hostile situation is where you are threatened and need to take control. As a professional, you need to come across as neutral, unbiased. All of these situations are out there."
Explaining a Concept
"I worked with a group to write software for state government supply. At a meeting, we were setting up protocols, that is, who would own the software, who would modify it, control it, distribute it. I told everyone that we needed to stop discussing these issues and look at the future to see how the software would be managed. To do this, I used a narrative story."
"The year is 1999 and Judy is the software manager in Fort Collins. Jack works on the Western slope and needs to stay in contact with Judy. The two communicate via e-mail. They exchange files over e-mail, etc. This technology plays a major role in getting the job done. "
"From this story, everyone could visualize how this situation would work because the e-mail trend was apparent to everyone. A narrative story helped in that situation. "
Writing Specifications that Satisfy Codes and Citizens
"When engineers write Specifications, they must satisfy both Codes and citizens. Consider, for example, that an engineer must design a flood control channel in a stream. The control channel, according to the Code, must be big enough to pass a certain size flood. Since the control channel is visible to citizens, it must also be appealing. So perhaps the engineer will plan a bike path along the stream. The path will have flowers instead of concrete walls. It'll look just like a babbling brook and still have functional control channels. "
"The more complex a system is the more complex the Operating Procedures will be. Consider a wastewater treatment plant--it's like a human body. A plant has many systems: a flow system, an electrical system, and an environmental safety system, all of which have to be monitored and operated. Someone has to make sure these systems are in compliance with the standards, and that's what Operating Procedures accomplish. "
Derek Lile, Electrical Engineering
Being Hired as an Engineer
"When hiring, job recruiters look for someone with a reasonable reputation. They assume you already have technical abilities. What they look for are strong writing skills, good presentation skills, team skills, and leadership skills. "
"Technical writing has a logical order to it, an accepted flow. It can be varied, but you better have a good reason to do so. Within sections, you should also have a logical flow. I've seen writing where the information is in the wrong section. For example, writers placing results in the conclusion section. I've also seen information placed in the wrong order. Instead of A leading to B, some writers jump directly to B."
"Engineering writing has a specific style. Open any publication and you'll see that style: never use personal pronouns, use the passive voice, etc. It's very impersonal. This is the accepted style, and I honestly don't know the history of it. In a technical paper we can't write, "I bought a bunson burner, I did this with it, and I made these measurements." This type of writing would get thrown out by any journal."
Carmen Menoni, Electrical Engineering
"Our approach to writing is similar to the way we, as engineers, work. Because writing is a process by which you start with something and you improve it by shaping it into a particular form. This is exactly what we do with an experiment. We start with a problem, devise a way to solve the problem, and then consider the outcome. Engineers do this type of analytical thinking. "
"Engineering writing is very structured. We teach you to write this way because it's expected in industry. We all learn to write this way from reading published articles, our colleagues' work, and by writing ourselves."
Ken Reardon, BioChemical Engineering
Details in Engineering Writing
"Calculations, graphics and other engineering information are important details in writing, but you have to know how and when to use them. A good engineer must know how to integrate these details into the bigger picture to answer "why" questions with them. For instance, calculations can be used to make decisions or convince other people of your ideas. They support what you have to say. "
Developing Your Writing
"Some writers think that because they're writing as an engineer, they can use numbers and symbols instead of words. Not true. In these cases, the writing is almost always too terse. These writers need to learn the differences between what constitutes terse and what's enough explanation. I personally like writers to think outside the lines. Tell me what would happen in different cases and why. "
"However, it's important to come to the point and not write excess information. Most engineers discuss and hypothesize more than a scientist ever would. I don't want someone to say, "The answer is this." I look for the reasons why it is a certain way. As a writer, you should be efficient with your words; be terse, but don't leave out information. As an engineer, you look at problems and see multiple solutions. You then determine what solution is most effective. I want to know why. "
Tom Siller, Civil Engineering
"As a civil engineer, you’ll often be called into the public domain to make speeches. For example, when city councils propose ideas, they have a civil engineer talk about transportation or zoning or planning. In these types of situations, you can’t discuss certain information, so you have to portray yourself in a specific manner. "
"At technical presentations you have to present enough information in short amounts of time. People expect you to talk about something solid, but you have very little time to do this. You can’t introduce the topic or conclude as well as you would like, so you present the heart of the point very quickly. It’s challenging. You have to be concise. "
Writing in Industry
"Writing is more factual in industry and more team writing gets done. Because writers must convey a corporate image, individual ownership over the work is not as common. "
"For example, I worked on a group report with government contractors. The contractors just didn’t like what we wrote. We thought we presented factual information, and the contractors disliked it because it didn’t say what they wanted to hear. They didn’t read it for discovery; they read it for confirmation of their ideas. Here, the client determined the goals. After we were criticized, the company’s president defended us. We weren’t there because of the corporate ownership. "
"Codes are very precise prescriptions; they're not very narrative at all and are usually presented in very small paragraphs. They also get very microscopic. For instance, a building code might have several sub-codes within it, and so you'll see subheadings labeled as 1.1.2. "
"Typically, you'll find Code books in an organization's reference library. As a student, you may or may not use a Code books in your classes, but they are available in t he campus bookstore. "
The Language Used in Operating Procedures
"The language used in Operating Procedures can be technical, but it can't be an impediment to accomplishing the operating goal. You have to make a balance. That is, instructions should be specific enough to understand and specific enough to provide the right technical information. For instance, "Turn knob," is vague; "Turn knob B," is more specific. Or, don't write, "Reduce the flow," without telling your audience that a gauge needs to be changed first."
Policy Statements and Earthquakes
"In earthquake engineering, you might write policies about the types of buildings that should be built in a particular municipality. These "sets of requirements" determine which buildings will survive the quake and the amount of damage they can withstand. In other words, you can design a building to withstand any earthquake. However, decisions are made that some buildings may collapse while others won't. Policies state which classes of buildings are built so that they can fall down during an earthquake and which classes of buildings need to survive an earthquake. For example, a hospital should be built so that it can withstand any earthquake. This way, it won't have to be repaired afterwards. On the other hand, an office building should be built so that it will not collapse, but it may take more damage than the hospital. A decision may be made that after the quake, an office can be torn down and built again."