Getting Technical about Writing in Engineering

Engineers are synonymous with having unbridled amounts of knowledge. Some might say they have a wealth of knowledge. They have to publish their thoughts and work into books, journals, magazines and the like, in a bid to inform and instruct others. However, a stereotype that is furthered by non-engineers is the apparent fact that engineers are not effective communicators. It is, of course, a generalization to say that engineers struggle with communication, however, it wouldn’t be a stereotype if there was not a stigma attached to the engineering community. There must be some truth to the claims. What is apparent, then, is that engineers should become more acquainted with skills that are not taught in their engineering courses. So, what are those additional skills and knowledge engineers can access to thrust themselves into prominence? 

Dr. Phillip A. Laplante, an Associate Professor of Software Engineering at the Pennsylvania State University, penned a book named Technical Writing: A Practical Guide for Engineers and Scientists, wherein he discusses the revelations engineers have after graduation. He says that the engineer soon discovers that the range of subjects covered in the engineering curriculum omits any details pertaining to the problems that could arise in the engineering profession. He says, problems concerning new technology, business, law and more, are not taught or specified when in engineering courses. Laplante makes a case for all scientists and engineers to band together and become proficient in technical writing to make their complex-natured way of thinking and producing work, more straightforward.

Before writing even occurs, an engineer can learn the basics too. The Dean of Engineering of the Engineering Institute of Technology Steve Mackay says there is a host of non-engineering skills for engineering professionals, especially, who can assist with communication. He said: “About 42 years ago, I did one of the courses which cost fifteen to a hundred dollars, for two weeks, which was probably one of the most fiendishly, ferociously valuable courses I’ve ever done.” The course was how to touch type (how to use all fingers to type and not look at the screen at the same time). 

It is crucial for engineers to communicate in a way that informs both other engineers and non-engineers in a way that is unambiguous. There are differences between technical and non-technical writing, Laplante suggests. He writes: “Precision is crucial in technical writing. When you express an idea in technical writing, it may be realized in some device or process. If the idea is wrong, the device or process will also be wrong.” The removal of any evocations of emotion in engineers’ technical writing is important. Thus, technical writing is a kind of writing reserved for professionals who do not wish to persuade their audience, but rather, to state the facts as plainly as possible. 

How does the world prevent the whimsical persuasion of an engineer trying to publish a new study that he/she claims will change the world in a world renowned journal? A process known as ‘refereeing’ occurs. Journals will revise any technical writing that is submitted to them and decide whether or not it is ready to publish. It would ensure that engineers do not overstate or over exaggerate the claims they make in their findings. Other technical writing includes progress reports, feasibility studies, specifications, proposals, facilities descriptions, manuals, procedures, planning documents, environmental impact statements, safety analysis reports and bug reports. All of these documents need to be written in a technical manner. 

Laplante outlines “5 C’s” that every technical writer can adhere to. Technical writing should be, 'Correct, Clear, Complete, Consistent and Changeable'. He also implores engineers to circumvent clichés and to avoid writing about physical objects in an anthropomorphic nature. The Engineering Institute of Technology is hosting a three-month interactive online course that will teach a prospective engineer how to write both technical documents and technical specifications. Upon completing the course, a learner would gain a Professional Certificate of Competency in Specification and Technical Writing. 

Specification writing is also important to the engineering profession. Specifications usually detail contracts, tender agreements and in some cases the money behind certain operations. Furthermore, it discusses how an engineering design will be implemented - it is particularly assistful for new members joining an already existing engineering team, it can help bring them up to speed. Engineering institutions will develop specifications standards targeted at a particular industry. For example, the Preparation of Construction Specifications for Civil Projects document was a standard published by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) for any projects falling under their operations. These specifications, according to the ASCE, would prevent misunderstandings and disputes, and should satisfy all parties in an engineering operation.

Moreover, the ASCE says “Arbitrary and ambiguous language will create uncertainty that can lead to increased project costs.” Therefore, becoming proficient in technical and technical specifications writing is paramount for an engineer who desires to become an efficient, financially sound project manager. EIT say their course will teach an engineer how to “systematically design and write accurate and comprehensive technical specifications” so that they can run cost-effective engineering operations. They will also show the stark difference between writing to express and writing to impress. 

Mackay concludes by delving into a host of other skills engineers can acquire that would set them above the rest when it comes to being the best engineers they can be. He says engineers can learn time management, basic finance, and bookkeeping, how to negotiate effectively, how to present oral presentations, photographic skills and, finally, networking with other engineering professionals. Equipped with excellent writing skills as well, an engineering professional can further catapult their dreams and aspirations if they just continue to build on their skill sets. 

Here at EIT we offer a Professional Certificate of Competency in Specification and Technical Writing three-month interactive live online course. The next intake begins the week of September 18, 2017. 

Please contact us for more information. 

Works Cited

EngInstTech. "ENN16 Non-engineering Skills Useful to Engineers." YouTube. YouTube, 21 Apr. 2016. Web. 29 Aug. 2016.

Fitchett, Paul, Jeremy M. Haslam, and Jeremy M. Haslam. Writing Engineering Specifications. London: Spon, Taylor & Francis Group, 2002. Print.

Laplante, Phillip A. Technical Writing: A Practical Guide for Engineers and Scientists. Boca Raton, FL: CRC, 2012. Print.